On making friends and influencing governments
by Lee Chin Wee
Singapore and the United States
MP VIKRAM Nair asked what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) position was on US-China relations, while MP Low Thia Khiang asked what Singapore could do if the US and China didn’t get along.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan agreed that US-China relations are the “key bilateral relationship” that will affect “peace, prosperity, and security in our region”. He noted that competition between the US and China is “inevitable”, but also noted that “never before have two (large) powers been so interdependent, intertwined economically”.
Responding to Mr Low, Mr Balakrishnan said that Singapore wants to be part of a “common circle of friends”, and develop “win-win relationships” with both countries. However, he also admitted that Singapore “has no say” over the US-China relationship, and should “avoid choosing sides for as long as possible”. He said Singapore should remain an “honest broker” who says “the same thing” to both the US and China.
MP Cedric Foo wanted to know how “the new Trump Administration and its America First foreign policy” would affect Singapore, which “relies heavily on open and free trade”. He also asked if Singapore would be working even closer with the United States for “mutual benefit”.
Mr Balakrishnan was “confident” that Singapore will be able to develop a “win-win partnership with the United States”. He pointed to how Singapore-US relations were “strong and enduring over the past 51 years”, and have persisted through “five Republican and four Democratic administrations”.
Mr Balakrishnan argued that the “strategic imperatives that underpin America’s involvement in the region remain unchanged”. He also said that “new areas of convergence” were emerging to supplement existing mutual interests, pointing to a 2016 memorandum of understanding regarding cyber security that Singapore signed with the US.
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Singapore and China
MP Cedric Foo noted that despite “the strong political, economic, and social ties” between Singapore and China, there would invariably be “occasional differences” between the two countries. He asked how Singapore plans to manage these differences moving forward.
Mr Balakrishnan argued that Singapore-China relations are “fundamentally strong”, and cautioned against “overreaction”. Noting that differences are “not unusual even amongst close friends”, he said that “our shared interests far outweigh these differences. Singapore will not allow differences to derail longstanding co-operation.”
MP Sun Xueling cited a quote by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, where he described the Singapore-China relationship as an “all-round cooperative partnership progressing with the times.” She asked how the G interpreted these remarks and wanted an update on Singapore-China relations.
Replying, Mr Balakrishnan said: “Singapore has long been a steadfast friend of China. I would describe our bilateral relationship with China as ‘in good working order’.”
Mr Balakrishnan used the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative and the China-Singapore Forum on Leadership as examples of joint projects between Singapore and China that bring the two nations closer together. He said the “high frequency of interactions at senior leadership level has conferred a high degree of resilience and strategic trust in our relationship.”
Singapore and Malaysia
In light of Malaysia’s application to the International Court of Justice to re-open the Pedra Branca case, MP Amrin Amin wanted to know if it “has affected the overall tenor of our relationship.”
MP Baey Yam Keng had a similar question, asking the minister to “elaborate on Singapore’s response to Malaysia’s application, and whether this case (would) affect bilateral relations with Malaysia?”
Mr Balakrishnan replied that “our relationship with Malaysia is as good as it ever has been”, as evidenced by the landmark agreement over the Singapore-KL high-speed rail. He also revealed that Singapore is trying to reach an agreement with Johor over a Singapore-JB rapid transit system.
Regarding the Pedra Branca case, he said that it reflects both Singapore and Malaysia’s willingness to resolve differences “amicably, and according to international law”. He assured Parliament that “Singapore is committed to resolving this issue amicably” and that “relations with Malaysia are good, and will remain good”.
Singaporeans, he said, “should not be disconcerted by these developments”, because “even with the best diplomatic efforts, one can only expect other states to act in their own self-interest”.
Singapore and Indonesia
MP Amrin Amin wanted to know what some of the recent highlights of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia were, and also the Minister’s assessment of Singapore’s relationship with Indonesia.
Mr Balakrishnan replied that Singapore-Indonesia relations were “strong”. He pointed to a successful leaders retreat between PM Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Semarang last November, and said that “Singapore was Indonesia’s top foreign investor in 2016”.
MP Chia Shi-Lu, noting that Singapore and Indonesia will be celebrating their 50th anniversary of bilateral relations this year, asked: “I would like to (know) whether there are plans for Golden Jubilee celebrations with Indonesia.”
Said Mr Balakrishnan: “Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi announced the start of official celebrations (for the Golden Jubilee) last month during her visit to Singapore.” More details will be unveiled by the MFA soon.
Singapore and ASEAN
MP Low Thia Khiang asked: “What is the status of ASEAN integration? Has the South China Sea issue effectively blocked any progress towards integration? Are the Philippines really embracing China, and if so, what are the implications for ASEAN unity, given that the Philippines is ASEAN chair this year?”
Replying, Mr Balakrishnan admitted that ASEAN’s cohesion and unity have been “tested by difficult issues, not just last year, but many times before”.
But he pointed out that “(Singapore) upgraded the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement in 2015” and “facilitated the successful and substantive ASEAN-China 25th Anniversary Commemorative Summit in 2016”. He promised that Singapore will “work closely” with the Philippines to ensure a successful ASEAN chairmanship, and also lay the groundwork for Singapore’s own ASEAN chairmanship in 2018.
MP Liang Eng Hwa queried what Singapore was doing “to maintain strong links with our fellow ASEAN countries.” He also asked: As the ASEAN chair in 2018, how can Singapore help to advance economic integration within ASEAN, and with its key partners?”
The minister said that Singapore would “explore ways to help ASEAN ride the technological wave of the fourth industrial revolution”. He added that Singapore would “continue to partner with organisations like the Singapore Business Federation and the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises to help our businesses maximise the economic opportunities that ASEAN presents.”
However, he cautioned: “the events unfolding in the European Union are a salutary reminder (for ASEAN) to not reprise their problems.” ASEAN “must be pragmatic and practical in maintaining (the) pace and scale of economic integration”, or risk falling apart.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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