Tianjin Eco-City may have been slow getting off the ground, but National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan is confident that growth will soon speed up.
Speaking to reporters about the key Singapore-China project on Tuesday after the meeting of the sixth Tianjin Eco-City Joint Steering Council, Mr Khaw said it was no surprise that few people have moved into the area, given its location away from population centres.
But he emphasised that leaders on both sides were still invested in the project.
"Don't forget Tianjin Eco-City is only five years old," said the minister.
"Now, the population is about 6,000, (which) seems like a very small number. But the growth rate from now on will be quite rapid. Those of you who went there five years ago, I think you'll be amazed at the transformations," he added.
Singapore and China broke ground for the joint project - their second after the Suzhou Industrial Park - in 2008, aiming to make it a model of sustainable development.
But its lack of appeal has caused concern. So far, it has attracted only 6,000 residents, in a start-up area of 3 sq km. That is well below the target of 10,000 hoped for by the end of last year.
The Eco-City, part of the coastal city of Tianjin, 150km from Beijing, is expected to house 350,000 people on 30 sq km when it is completed around 2020.
Achieving that will take time, said Mr Khaw, considering the "green field project" was deliberately located "in an area quite disconnected from the rest of the population centres".
"Connectivity is always a major issue, because without that transport infrastructure, it's very difficult to persuade people, to say 'why don't you move and live in the place'," said Mr Khaw.
"We had similar experiences in Singapore. When you create a new town, you have to put in the infrastructure."
Construction of a proposed light rail linking the Eco-City to downtown Tianjin 40km away has yet to begin.
But Mr Khaw said he was assured by Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, who co-chaired the meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean on Tuesday, that "a major regional connectivity plan" is under consideration. It may include highways and high-speed rail.
Leaders from both countries also discussed the next five-year plan, said Mr Jiang Weixin, China's Minister of Housing and Urban-Rural Construction.
Said Tianjin mayor Huang Xingguo: "We're full of confidence in the next five years."
The Eco-City has attracted more than 1,000 companies with a total registered capital of 78 billion yuan (S$15.9billion) in the last five years, the Tianjin Daily reported last week.
More investment will draw more residents, noted Mr Khaw.
"Without the factories, without the companies, without offices, without jobs, why should people move there? You know, this is not a resort town," he said.
"Therefore, there were some discussions about tax incentives, particularly of the kind that will attract green technology."
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