Edited Transcript of Minister's doorstop with Straits Times and Feature Story News, 6 May 2017

06 May 2017

Straits Times: Minister, could you give us your sense of new priorities that have emerged, that you see emerging at the Department of State and the White House in this new administration?


Minister: We had a good set of meetings and I am very glad that Rex Tillerson organised this meeting. I think it gave a chance for him to meet all 10 ASEAN countries. It gave us a good sense of the priorities of the new administration, some of their concerns. I think top of the list was North Korea. It is very clear that they view North Korea as a clear and present danger, and a threat to the long-term peace and stability, not only in Northeast Asia but also a threat to the United States as well. What came across very clearly is that they are looking for full compliance with the United Nations Security Council resolutions. Full compliance on the part of North Korea as well as full compliance with all the sanctions that have been imposed by the United Nations. All the ASEAN countries were able to give them an assurance that we are all fully on board and will comply fully and strictly with all the UN Security Council resolutions. So that was one clear focus.


Another aspect that was discussed was the evolving relationship between the United States and China. Now obviously North Korea is also part of that equation because the United States needs China to assert its influence upon North Korea. This is something which is still evolving so we’ll have to wait and see.


The third area of focus was on economic ties between ASEAN and the United States. Here it is noteworthy that in fact the cumulative investments of the United States in Southeast Asia, I think at the latest count, is about US$274 billion. That represents an amount that is larger than the combined investments of the United States in China, India and Japan. And quite frankly I think most of us were surprised at that. But it underlies the fact that Southeast Asia is important for American prosperity. In terms of trade, there is over US$100 billion worth of American exports to our part of the world. This US$100 billion worth of exports in fact supports more than half a million jobs within the United States. Now having said that, it is not just one way. The benefits are mutual. The American investments in Southeast Asia also created good jobs. The economic integration and the trade links have provided many opportunities for both people in Southeast Asia and as well as in America. American workers do benefit. I think there is an increasing recognition of the importance of economic ties between our part of the world and the United States. There is a need even though the United States has withdrawn from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and there is a need nevertheless to focus on economic ties and to see how best to harvest these opportunities. Southeast Asia is too big an opportunity to miss.


Feature Story News: You anticipated my question there. I wanted to ask you about North Korea. Just specifically, were there any discussions amongst the ASEAN members about tighter sanctions on North Korea, introducing further measures?


Minister: No. The focus was on full compliance with all the UN Security Council resolutions. That was all that the Americans were asking for. Not more than that.


Straits Times: Were there any specific in relation to Singapore, that Singapore could do?


Minister: No. We are fully in compliance so there were no issues specific to Singapore. We don’t have a mission in Pyongyang. We have a few diplomats from North Korea in Singapore. The ties are minimal but more importantly, we fully comply with the UN Security Council resolutions.


Straits Times: Minister, could you give us a sense of your key takeaways from the two meetings you’ve had with the Secretary of State Tillerson and National Security Advisor McMaster?


Minister: As I’ve said, first that there is clearly interest in Asia and Southeast Asia on the part of America. Second, economic ties are important. Third, there’s a need for continued American engagement with our part of the world for mutual benefit. We also had, in particular with the meeting with General McMaster, some discussion on extremism, terrorism and avenues for cooperation and collaboration. This is a clear and present danger that confronts all of us and it’s an area where I think there can be more intelligence sharing, more operational cooperation. But at the same time, the ASEAN ministers also conveyed to the administration that even as we do all this, it’s very important that it does not come across or is perceived as an anti-Islamic movement. Yes, there is a problem, it’s a cancer. It’s a political movement that’s abusing religion. It needs to be dealt with assertively and decisively but it must not come across as anti-religion. So getting that nuance right is essential. It’s essential in order to win the support of people on the ground and it’s also essential in order to win the battle for the hearts and minds of our people.


Feature Story News: I want to ask you about another hotspot in the region, the South China Sea. The US has been scaling back some of their naval operations in terms of sailing through international waters, contested waters. Is that a concern for Singapore and for…


Minister: Well we didn’t discuss any of the operational aspects. Clearly on the South China Sea what everyone wants is peace and stability. US$5 trillion worth of trade flows through the South China Sea. Nobody wants any threat or disruption to that trade. At the same time everyone is also committed to a rules based world order based on international law and United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). We were happy to be able to inform the Americans that ASEAN is making progress in formulating the Framework for the Code of Conduct. I would say there is progress, there’s promising signs. Let’s give this process some time to ripen.


Straits Times: Recently the administration has launched a review process looking at existing trade agreements. A couple of ASEAN countries have in fact been named in the list. Was the issue subject to trade raised specifically?


Minister: Trade was discussed. We didn’t have enough time to go into specific details. But we did discuss the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. In fact, the United States’ first bilateral free trade agreement with an Asian country was with Singapore. We signed this in 2004. In the past 13 years, trade has more than doubled. There is, at this point in time, a surplus in favour of America. But we believe that at the strategic level this free trade agreement has opened strategic opportunities for Singapore companies expanding outwards as well as for American companies entering into Singapore, creating jobs, bringing technology, opening new markets. There is no anxiety on the part of America with respect to our specific bilateral free trade agreement. The point now is to examine why is it that ours works and whether the lessons that can be gleaned from the US-Singapore bilateral Free Trade Agreement can be used as they explore the opportunities to expand trade links in other parts of the world. What the Americans have also been very keen to emphasise is that they are not against free trade but what they do want, and I have some sympathy for their view, is they want market access, they want free, fair and reciprocal arrangements and I have some sympathy for that point of view. At a more political level, we need to understand that you can’t just make arguments for free trade in the abstract. Ultimately it has to create jobs, it has to expand opportunities, it has to uplift the standard of living of your citizens and it’s important to keep this in mind. So even as the reviews are ongoing, even as free trade agreements I’m sure will be negotiated or re-negotiated in future, we can all keep the fundamentals in mind. We can make progress and we can look forward to greater economic integration across the entire Pacific. And speaking of integration across the entire Pacific, I also pointed out that we are also negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which includes ASEAN at the heart of it, with our other six partners including specifically China, India, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea. The point here was that the situation is not static. It is evolving and ultimately what we are hoping for is a whole larger integrated web of trade relationships across the entire Asia Pacific. The other point I emphasise was that ASEAN as a region, 628 million people, is still young, dynamic, growing, vibrant and with great growth potential over the next few decades. Again it is a region that is replete with opportunities, too big to miss. We hope that Americans will pay attention to us and the upshot of this visit is that it is clear that they are paying attention to Asia and to Southeast Asia.


Feature Story News: Just to follow up on that. The Trump administration, we’ve seen them pull the US out of the TPP, we’ve seen them recently threatening to pull out of another trade pact they have with South Korea, and you’ve actually mentioned that. In light of that, is Singapore still very confident in terms of their trade relationship with the United States?


Minister: They are settling into a period of review but I believe their point that they continue to subscribe to free trade but they want it to be fair and they want reciprocal market access. As I’ve said, at the political level, it’s got to expand opportunities for ordinary people, middle-class citizens in all the countries. I think that is a reasonable position to take. We have to take into cognisance the political dimensions of all free trade negotiations, so I am not pessimistic. I think this review is ongoing and because I believe that the administration as a whole remains committed to free trade, let’s give this process some time to mature.


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