Why does S'pore have a Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) with China? And why is Lawrence Wong there?

Not every country has a JCBC with China.

Martino Tan | Sulaiman Daud | December 09, 2023, 10:45 AM



Where is Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong?

It's December, but no, he's not on leave.

Wong was in China to co-chair the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), along with other meetings with Chinese leaders.

It was Wong's first time co-chairing the JCBC.

What is the JCBC?

In almost every official government statement, the JCBC is described as the "apex bilateral platform that reviews and sets the strategic direction for cooperation between Singapore and China."

It's ok if you don't quite understand what that means right away, few people do. We'll break down the civil servant-speak.

"Apex" means highest.

Like how WWE pro wrestler Randy Orton is described as the "apex predator", meaning he is the most dangerous man in the company.

"Bilateral" means involving two parties. So this JCBC just involves Singapore, China, and no one else.

So in a nutshell, the JCBC is the main institution that sets the course of relations between Singapore and China.

As Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said in 2019, "it is an opportunity to review the existing areas of cooperation and launch new areas of collaboration."

So if you want to start a collaborative programme with China, the JCBC is the likely place to be. The JCBC oversees:

  • Three government-to-government projects (Suzhou Industrial Park, Tianjin Eco-City, Chongqing Connectivity Initiative)
  • State-level cooperation project, Guangzhou Knowledge City
  • Eight provincial business councils

When did it start

The JCBC was established by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and then-Premier Wen Jiabao in Nov. 2003, "to provide an overarching framework to oversee the growing areas of bilateral cooperation," according to MFA.

The first JCBC meeting was co-chaired by then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and then-Vice Premier Wu Yi, in China in May 2004.

If you're keeping track, that's almost two decades of meetings.

Singapore and China take turns to host the JCBC every year. And since 2004, with one exception, it has continued ever since. Even during the Covid pandemic years, the JCBC was conducted virtually.

But we'll come back to the exception later.

Why is the JCBC important?

In his 2019 missive, Heng also said, "Both countries attach great importance to the JCBC, reflected by the high-level representation and the substantive achievements over the years."

On Singapore's side, our co-chair has always been at the DPM level, or higher. Previous JCBC representatives include Lee Hsien Loong, Wong Kan Seng (DPM), Teo Chee Hean (DPM and Senior Minister), Heng Swee Keat (DPM) and now, Lawrence Wong.

Also take note that among the JCBC co-chairs, three have been slated to take over as Singapore's prime minister (Lee, Heng and Wong). So it demonstrates the importance of the JCBC in the eyes of the Singapore government.

On China's side, the co-chair of the JCBC has been the senior Vice Premier of the State Council. It's a little complicated, but he can be thought of as the most senior or powerful person in the Chinese government (after the President and the Premier).

Significantly, the present and the past two co-chairs of the JCBC is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) of the Chinese Communist Party, the top leadership body in China. Historically it has been composed of five to eleven members, and currently has seven members.

But keep in mind — not every country in the world has such an institution with China.

Even a superpower like the U.S. used to have something called the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, established in 2009 but suspended in 2017 by, you guessed it, President Donald Trump. It took until Sep. 2023 for two working groups on economic and financial matters to be set up.

The JCBC is an opportunity for both Singapore and China to announce major agreements, like Wong announcing the implementation of mutual visa-free travel arrangements for 30 days for both sides.

Wait, you said there was an exception?

I did. The JCBC did not take place in 2016.

So what happened in 2016?

There was a war of words between the editor in chief of Global Times and Stanley Loh, Singapore’s then Ambassador to China, over Singapore's position on the South China Sea.

It was also the year when nine Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) Terrex armoured personnel carriers were impounded in Hong Kong.

The vehicles were their way back from Taiwan on 23 November 2016, where Singapore had been using them in training exercises.

Ah. But it underscores another point — China usually participates in the JCBC, and even did so during the pandemic.

What's next?

Progress made during the JCBC

This is the first JCBC since the upgrading of Singapore's ties with the China ("All Round High Quality Future Oriented Partnership”) signed earlier this year.

There is much progress made, with Wong noting the "good outcomes" achieved during the JCBC.

Singapore and China signed 24 memorandums of understanding (MOUs) and agreements, following the JCBC, reflecting the breadth and depth of the partnership.

Wong also noted that the two countries had set goals to explore new areas of collaboration, like low carbon energy, food security, and the digital economy.

Next co-chair?

Remember I said that PM Lee co-chaired the first JCBC in 2004, when he was still a deputy prime minister? He became prime minister later that same year. And when he was PM in 2005, then-DPM Wong Kan Seng took over.

So this is Lawrence Wong's first time as co-chair. But he may not do it for much longer.

Assuming the PAP's succession goes as plan, and also assuming that the PAP wins the next general election (which must be held by Nov. 2025), Wong will be our next prime minister.

So who will take over his co-chairing duties?

Perhaps the answer lies in the list of political office holders accompanying Wong to China this time round. Check it out:

  • Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong
  • Minister for Education Chan Chun Sing
  • Minister for Health Ong Ye Kung
  • Minister for Communications and Information and Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo
  • Minister for National Development Desmond Lee
  • Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Second Minister for Education and Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Mohamad Maliki Osman
  • Acting Minister for Transport and Senior Minister of State (Finance) Chee Hong Tat
  • Senior Minister of State (Sustainability and the Environment)(Transport) Dr Amy Khor
  • Senior Minister of State (Foreign Affairs)(National Development) Sim Ann
  • Minister of State (Culture, Community and Youth)(Trade and Industry) Low Yen Ling
  • Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Law)(Health) Rahayu Mahzam

Put yourself in Wong's shoes. If you were planning to hand over your co-chairing duties to someone, wouldn't you take the opportunity to bring them along on a trip like this?

Whoever the replacement is, they would be able to observe the inner workings of the JCBC, without the pressure of actually being the co-chair this time round.

In fact, Wong was asked by the media at the end of his four-day trip on whether this would be his first and last time co-chairing the JCBC.

Straits Times reported that Wong laughed and urged against speculation, "whether this will be my last, I would say let's not speculate. There are many other things on the agenda".

He added that "if all goes well, hopefully, we'll find the time...for transition, and then all the rest of the consequences will follow after that."

Next year will mark the forum’s 20th anniversary, and it is slated to be held in Singapore.

No matter what, we are sure Wong will be deeply involved in leading the future of Singapore-China relations, whether as a co-chair or as the PM.

Top image from Lawrence Wong's Facebook page.