SINGAPORE (AP) — Singapore welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday with a state banquet featuring local favorites, as the two countries pledged to strengthen economic links and cooperation in regional and international affairs.
It is Xi's first state visit to Singapore since taking the presidency in 2013, and marks 25 years of strong bilateral ties.
Despite Singapore's small size — it has a population of 5.5 million, a fraction of China's 1.4 billion — it is a strong investor in China, and its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, often played the role of interlocutor between China and the West. Lee died in March.
The country has also maintained warm relations by remaining neutral in disputes involving China and its Southeast Asian neighbors.
"When we established diplomatic relations with China in 1990, nobody could have predicted that our friendship and cooperation would have grown so rapidly and in such a broad and deep manner," Singapore President Tony Tan said at a dinner banquet.
"This can be attributed to the historical and cultural linkages between our two peoples," he said. More than 70 percent of Singapore's population is Chinese.
During his visit, which ends Saturday, Xi is to approve a government-to-government project in western China, deliver a lecture, and launch negotiations on upgrading a free trade agreement with Singapore that came into force in 2009.
On Saturday he also is to take part in a meeting in Singapore with Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the first between the two sides' presidents.
Responding to Tan's speech, Xi emphasized economic links between China and Singapore that have "reached a new level of development."
"With the establishment of an all-round partnership that keeps pace with times, China will work with Singapore to seize the momentum, enhance political trust and deepen practical cooperation on the basis of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit," Xi said.
Singapore has become China's largest investor, excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan, with a cumulative total of $72 billion. China is Singapore's biggest trading partner, with two-way trade last year hitting $79.74 billion.
Separately, the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority announced Friday that frequent visitors to Singapore who are Chinese passport holders will be able to register for automated clearance from Nov. 16.
It said the move will "provide greater travel convenience for People's Republic of China visitors and facilitate trade, business and tourism links."