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China has historical opportunity to win friends at a time of need: Chan Chun Sing

CHINA now has an historical opportunity to win friends and friendships by reaching out to the world at a time of need as the world suffers from a pandemic, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said on Thursday.

"How China reaches out to the rest of the world, sets the standards in its behaviour will inspire the rest of the world to come towards China," he said during a dialogue on the final day of the virtual FutureChina Global Forum.

Quoting a Chinese proverb that means "we win people over by our benevolence", Mr Chan noted that this is especially so for big countries historically.

"The most prosperous era of China in the course of history has been the times when China has been most connected with the rest of the world, trading with the rest of the world and exchanging with the rest of the world," he said. "I think this will be also similar to this current generation."

Mr Chan was answering a question from moderator Robin Hu, a senior managing director and head of the sustainability and stewardship group at Temasek International, on how China can position itself as a force of good and demonstrate leadership in bringing trust and prosperity in the region as a new world order emerges.

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He said Chinese leaders do realise the importance of maintaining their links with the world, given that the prosperity that has lifted millions from poverty over the last few decades has been founded on trade.

"But of course, once in a while, because of domestic considerations, they would have to make adjustments to their domestic policy posture," Mr Chan said.

In answer to a question from Mr Hu on whether US-China relations are likely to become more "even-tempered" following the upcoming United States presidential elections, Mr Chan said there is a need to "look beyond personalities".

"Of course personalities and leadership matters, but I think it's even more important to look at the fundamentals behind those personalities; and also the fundamentals that are the driving forces of their respective countries," he said.

The relationship between US and China is not only one of competition, but there are many areas of cooperation and shared interests - such as in upholding and updating the global trading system, as well as the financial stability of the global markets, he said.

While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had previously said Asian countries do not want to be forced into choosing between US and China, Mr Chan said Singapore has never believed this to be a binary choice.

"Instead of asking whether we'll choose A or B, it is more important to ask ourselves, how are we relevant to both A and B? That's a question for Singapore and Asean as well," he said, in response to a question from delegates.

He added that Singapore has strong relationships with both the US and China, which together make up a third of the global economy, and it is always looking for new areas of cooperation with both. However, the Republic also sees tremendous opportunities to serve the remaining two-thirds of the world and to welcome them to use Singapore as a platform to serve the regional market.

He added that beyond just trading with or through Singapore, the city-state also welcomes other countries to trade on the Singapore platform. "That means they can use the Singapore services even if they are not physically present in Singapore, and that is our aspiration to serve the global market," he said.

Mr Chan was asked if Singapore needs a "radical rethink" of its business model now that borders are closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic and while the threat of protectionism looms.

"The answer is yes and no. The short answer is that we are constantly reviewing our model. We never made the assumption that what works yesterday will continue to work tomorrow," he replied.

What will not change in a post-pandemic world is Singapore's need to connect to the world - whether by air, land or sea, or non-physical dimensions such as finance, data, legal regulations, talent flows or technology flows - as well as its commitment to provide a pro-business environment with predictable and transparent rules, he said.

What will change, however, is the need to constantly re-evaluate Singapore's models. He listed three types of companies that the government is helping to make sure they survive and thrive during this time and beyond.

Companies in the infocomm technology, professional services and medical sectors, continue to do well even during the pandemic, and Mr Chan said the government will help this first category of firms to grow into new markets.

In the second category are companies that have been temporarily hit hard by Covid-19 but whose capabilities would still be required in the long term, such as the aviation and the maintenance, repair and overhaul sectors. Mr Chan said the government is helping to preserve their capabilities while they consolidate their capacities.

"The most important part of our work is to make sure that for those industries that are no longer doing well, or where their models are no longer valid, we'll have to help them to pivot into new businesses and new markets," he said.

This is how Singapore continues to try to re-invent itself every year and every generation, Mr Chan said, adding that it is the only way for the country to continue to survive and thrive in an ever-changing world.

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