The Latest on Southeast Asia: November 10, 2022

Bilateral visits between Southeast Asia and China have increased in the past month as Beijing gradually loosens pandemic-related restrictions. Vice Premier Han Zheng visited Singapore from November 1 to 2 to co-chair the 18th Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, the highest-level annual forum between China and Singapore. The trip was Han’s first overseas visit since the start of the pandemic, making him the most senior Chinese official to visit Singapore since the outbreak of Covid-19, and the first in-person meeting between representatives from both countries since 2020. The meeting culminated in the signing of 19 memoranda of understanding and agreements—an increase from last year’s 14.

Singaporean deputy prime minister Heng Swee Keat, who co-chaired the forum, identified digital transformation, climate issues, and strengthening connectivity as the three broad themes of the meeting and its deliverables. The green-related agreements include a green finance taskforce, which will be set up by the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the People’s Bank of China to enhance climate-friendly investment opportunities in China and the region. While in Singapore, Han also met with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, President Halimah Yacob, and Deputy Prime Minister (and likely prime minister-designate) Lawrence Wong. A press statement from Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the meetings a “milestone in the gradual resumption of more in-person people-to people exchanges between both countries.”

The General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Nguyen Phu Trong, also paid an official visit to China from October 30 to November 2. Trong met with President Xi Jinping for the first time since Vietnam hosted the APEC Summit in 2017. It was also Trong’s first trip abroad since he reportedly suffered a stroke in 2019. Notably, Trong is the first foreign leader to visit Beijing following the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Party Congress. Although analysts have called the visit “more form than substance,” with fewer concrete deliverables signed, the visit nonetheless points to the “special relationship” between the two largest communist parties in the world, notwithstanding Beijing and Hanoi’s history of mistrust and territorial disputes. Vietnam is China’s largest trading partner in ASEAN and bilateral trade reached $165.8 billion in 2021, an increase of 14.6 percent from the previous year.

Despite increasingly close defense and diplomatic partnerships with the United States, Singapore and Vietnam have been careful to not alienate China, which remains a vital economic partner to both. These recent visits suggest a return to more regular high-level interactions between China and Southeast Asia. And they will be followed in the coming weeks by Chinese premier Li Keqiang attending the ASEAN Summit and East Asia Summit in Cambodia, and President Xi joining the G20 and APEC summits in Indonesia and Thailand.

For more political, economic, and security analysis on the region, check out our blog series, The Latest on Southeast Asia. To hear the latest news on the region and hear from Southeast Asia experts, listen and subscribe to the Southeast Asia Radio podcast on any streaming platform.