Senior Officials Meetings with Singapore and Thailand
15 February 2017
Professor Sooklal, Deputy Director-General Asia and the Middle East at the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation , travelled to Singapore and Thailand as co-chair of the 4th Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) with Singapore on 23 January 2017, and the 5th Senior Officials Meetings (SOM) with Thailand on 25 January 2017.
Both countries are members of ASEAN and are among the key growth drivers regionally and globally. The significance of this meeting comes at a time when the world economy and political systems are under massive strain to adapt to a radically changing world environment.
4th Foreign Office Consultations with Singapore
Professor Sooklal paid a courtesy call on Mr Albert Chua, Second Permanent Secretary, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The meeting was a served as a general exchange of views on the status of our bilateral relations and developments in the world.
Thereafter, Prof Sooklal was received by his counterpart Mr Ng Teck Hean, Deputy Secretary (Asia-Pacific) and Dean of the Diplomatic Academy. Both sides took note of the high level bilateral exchanges between South Africa and Singapore and reaffirmed the sound platform upon which SA- Singapore relations stand. The last Presidential visit was when former President Mbeki paid a State Visit to Singapore in 2005, and President Nathan paid a return State Visit to South Africa in 2007. Deputy President Ramaphosa undertook an Official Visit to the Republic of Singapore from 5 to 7 October 2016. During the visit Deputy President had meetings with various Singaporean stakeholders, and set the stage for increased economic interactions with Singapore.
Singapore’s GDP growth forecast of December 2016 indicated that in 2017, Singapore would achieve growth of between 1% and 3%. A poll of businesspersons conducted by the Monetary Authority of Singapore indicated that their expectation is that growth would be around 1.5%.
Professor Sooklal noted the large trade volume between our two countries, Singapore was South Africa’s 2nd largest trading partner in South East Asia, after Thailand in 2015, with a total trade volume of R23.5 billion. According to official South African statistics, the bilateral trade volume for the year ending December 2015 was recorded at just over R 23 billion (compared to R 28. 9 billion during 2014).
Preliminary trade figures for January to November 2016 indicate that South African exports to Singapore amounted to R 6 billion, whereas South African Imports from Singapore amounted to R 5.1 billion. These figures are likely to be substantially more after the December Statistics are included. (Based on previous years statistics)
Singapore is a centre of excellence in the cultivation of skills. Professor Sooklal noted that the country has been particularly helpful in assisting South Africa with skills development under the Singapore Cooperation Programme (SCP) sponsored by the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many South African public servants have attended training courses in Singapore over the years, thereby improving the skills level in South Africa. On the afternoon of 25 January 2017, Prof Sooklal visited the Civil Service College, and met with 25 South African Government Senior Managers who were receiving management training on leadership in Economic Diplomacy.
During the meeting Prof Sooklal noted that tourism was an important component of South Africa’s GDP, and that an agreement supporting increased exchanges, and possibly training programmes should be considered. South Africa saw tourism as a priority sector, and would share a draft agreement as soon as possible. Priority aspects for South Africa would include capacity-building, development of the sector, cooperation within the sector, and mentorship programmes on various issues. Singapore International Airlines (SIA), with South African Airlines (SAA) as a codeshare partner,already provides direct and convenient connectivity, which supports the growth and promotion of tourism.
Both sides exchanged views on various matters of mutual interest ranging from the developments in ASEAN and SADC. Both sides also agreed to pursue cooperation between Southern Africa and ASEAN.
5th Thailand Senior Officials Meeting
Professor Sooklal was received on 25 January 2017, by his counterpart Mr Panyarak Poolthub, Deputy Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand. Professor Sooklal opened his remarks with a message of condolences to the Government and people of Thailand on the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej on 13 October 2016.
It is significant that SA and Thailand were about to reach a significant milestone, as both countries prepare to celebrate this achievement during 2018.
Both sides noted the strategic nature of SA-Thai bilateral trade and investment, Thailand is South Africa’s largest trading partner in South East Asia. (The 2nd largest in this region is Singapore). South Africa is Thailand’s largest trading partner on the African Continent. Total trade between the two countries in 2015 amounted to R 31 billion. Imports amounted to R 26 billion, whereas exports amounted to R5 billion.
From January to November 2016, total bilateral trade rose to R36 billion, with imports amounting to R29 billion and exports amounting to R6 billion. South Africa had a trade deficit of R23 billion during this period. South Africa’s Ambassador to Thailand, Amb GQM Doidge reaffirmed his commitment to continue the upward trade trend, but also to inject greater vigour in the bilateral relations. He noted the keen interest from both the Thai and South African business communities.
The meeting noted that South Africa had a clear about Thailand’s strategic position in the ASEAN, which is now a single market through the AEAN Economic Community (AEC). This has transformed Thailand into a crucial regional hub for trade and industry, comprising approximately 630 million inhabitants and considered the fastest growing economies in the world. Prof Sooklal reminded the meeting that President Mbeki was the first African Head of State to address the 8th ASEAN Summit in Cambodia during 2002.
The ongoing infrastructure projects in Thailand provided a base for SA exports of machinery, iron and steel as well as mineral products. However, both sides noted that more work is required to open the trade barriers that exist as these hinder South African exports from realising their full potential in bilateral trade. Significantly, the much welcomed decision of Thailand to reopen market access for South African table grapes and the renewal of market access for citrus, was cause for celebration as progress is clearly being marked. In this light, it was emphasised that South Africa and Thailand are both developing countries and that Thailand should have an understanding of the socio-economic effect of the ban on the exportation of agricultural produce.
During the visit, Ambassador Doidge arranged for a dinner meeting with the Thai-SA Chamber of Commerce which is currently chaired by Mr Ragil Ratnam, the Chamber seemed very enthusiastic and motivated to build partnerships across all strategic sectors between South Africa and Thailand. It was agreed that the Chamber and the Mission would collaborate on building these partnerships.
Prof Sooklal was also introduced to the leadership of Thai Airlines Mr Krittaphon Chantalitanon, Vice President for Alliances and Commercial Strategy, expressed that the Thai Airline had embarked on a reorganisation exercise which resulted in the direct flight between Thailand and South Africa being discontinued, however during the discussions they agreed that they will work closely with Amb Doidge to develop a case for resuming the connection.
During the visits and the consultations Prof Sooklal indicated that it was increasingly apparent that there is a keen will to further deepen and expand our relations within the region. The ASEAN nations are increasingly central to global economic policy formulation and must be factored into our strategy with the broader Asian region.