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Transcript of Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's Press Conference during the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting on 4 August 2018

06 August 2018



Minister: Thank you ladies and gentlemen, thank you all for being here. It’s now 6.35PM. It’s been a long week, a marathon of a week followed by a sprint at the end. I’ve asked my staff to check and they’ve told me that I’ve personally chaired and attended well over 23 ASEAN related meetings in this week alone. And I’ve met 30 of counterparts from this region and beyond. This is my third ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. And I can honestly say this has been the smoothest, the least contentious, and the most constructive and positive meeting so far. So it has been on a good trajectory, let me now go through some of the details.


First, we’ve marked a handing over period, of the coordinatorship. So for instance, Singapore has been the coordinator of the ASEAN-China Dialogue Partnership for the past 3 years. I think two days ago, I explained what has been achieved on that front, that’s been positive. We’re now the new coordinator for the ASEAN-EU relationship. And I’ve had some preliminary discussion with Federica Mogherini who is in-charge of the Foreign Affairs and Security for the EU. For a start, the EU has indicated their support for our ASEAN Smart Cities Network and we will explore various avenues to do more together with them. We’ve also agreed to conclude the negotiations on an ASEAN-EU Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement which we hope to do by the end of this year. And we will resume negotiations for an ASEAN-EU Free Trade Agreement. What I’m saying is that, these are some ideas that we’ve discussed. We’ll obviously have to take them back to our respective capitals, sort out what our hopes, aspirations and demands are and then work them out. The point is that there is a substantive agenda that ASEAN and EU can work on in the years to come. And we will play an active role in this.


The other defining project that you all may have noticed is that we highlighted the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, and you would have also seen some demonstration projects out there on e-commerce, remittance of money, as well as how we’ve been able to put the action plans of our 26 pilot cities together on a single platform, in order to catalyse and attract both foreign as well as private sector engagement with these projects.


All of us have reaffirmed this concept, that we’re not looking for a monolithic ASEAN system to be imposed on everyone. But that we will have a series of inter-operable systems, operating in each country.
I think this concept of inter-operability better reflects the diversity of ASEAN and is a more practical and safer way of implementing the network of smart cities. And we also expect this network to grow over the next few years so 26 is just the initial number. We also expect the number of partners, both from the private sector and the foreign partners to increase with time.


Some of the projects you may already be aware of. For instance, there was the Phuket Eagle Eyes Project which harnesses data in order to achieve its vision of a safer and more secure city. Ho Chi Minh City’s Integrated Operations Centre, which will be a central brain for the smart city by integrating information across various sectors. The Banyuwangi Smart Kampong Project, which aims to improve access to public services for villages and encourage them to sell their products on a digital online market. This are just a couple of examples of projects outside Singapore where we will employ digital technologies in order to improve livelihood and opportunities for people, for citizens on the ground. Our external partners have expressed their strong support for this network, and that’s why you would notice that we curated a special Smart Cities Showcase, in which we invited all the Foreign Ministers to spend some time in order to showcase these action plans, and to just get a flavour of the emerging technologies that would have salience in our part of the world.


Let me move on now to regional and international issues, which sort of dominated our discussions. These were the issues included. First, let me deal with trade. I think you would also recall the Prime Minister’s speech, as well as my comments made at the opening of this series of meetings that the global scenario has changed. There is an emerging multipolar world, to replace the world that we used to know for the past seventy years. Second, that there is a push back against free trade, and yet free trade has been a formula for peace and prosperity in our region for seventy years. And third, the ongoing digital revolution. That is the context. But as far as our individual and collective reactions to this, let me start with trade.


All ten ASEAN countries, and our external partners, acknowledge that the multilateral, rules-based trading system, which has underpinned our progress and peace for the past seventy years, is under pressure. We acknowledge there are trade tension between the US and China, EU, even Canada. And that these trade tensions have escalated. For ASEAN, our response must be to double-down on the multilateral trade system and to work with other like-minded partners in order to strengthen this web of interconnections and interdependence for trade and the economies. And I am glad therefore, that everyone whom I heard, agreed to redouble our efforts to settle the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) by the end of the year. It does not mean that the negotiations are over, or that there are no sticky issues - there are. But at least, the political will and the acknowledgement that this is something which we need to settle. And all the more so, given the state of the world and the anxiety over trade wars.


We also discussed the Korean Peninsula. We reaffirmed our support for a complete verifiable and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and for this to be achieved in a peaceful way. It is worth emphasising that for this to be achieved in a peaceful way. The Joint Statement signed by the US and DPRK at the Singapore Summit on 12 of June, is an important step, an important first step, but it is still only one step out of a long journey. And we had some very frank discussions, especially at the ARF where the US, DPRK and ROK are all present. There are major issues that they need to resolve. I’m glad that the discussions could take place in a very candid, very frank, brutally frank way, but nevertheless, people acknowledged that there has been some progress and that Summit in Singapore did change the tone of the conversation. And hopefully it will help set the stage for a peaceful resolution of the outstanding issues. So we will have to wait, be supportive in every way that we can, whilst at the same time, complying with our international commitments to fulfil all the Resolutions of the UN Security Council.


Another topic which had a lot of airtime obviously was the South China Sea. And again two days ago, I briefed you on the fact that China and ASEAN had arrived at a single draft of the COC Negotiating Text. This is a significant milestone, not yet a complete solution but it’s a significant milestone which builds confidence and gives everyone a sense that this continuing engagement will lower tension, and will encourage all the claimant states to seek a solution which has two components to it.


The short-term solution, the main objective of the Code of Conduct is to avoid conflict, avoid accidents and to promote peace and stability on the sea. At the same time, we want to reaffirm the role of international law, especially the 1982 UNCLOS, and the peaceful resolution of disputes through international law. And whilst we still continue to encourage bilateral negotiations in order to solve the long-term, much more difficult challenges of disputes over sovereignty. So the point is there’s both a short-term, medium-term and long-term dimension to it. The fact that we announce a single draft COC negotiation text made a big difference to the tone of the discussions this time compared to previous ASEAN meetings.


And another issue which came up obviously was the Rakhine state. There was obviously great concern about the humanitarian disaster that this represented and the fact that so many people have been displaced and remain displaced. We all encourage Bangladesh and Myanmar to press on with their shared commitment to carry on a voluntary return of the displaced refugees, but it has to be done in a safe, secure and dignified manner and without undue delay. At this point in time, we have been informed by Myanmar that actually no refugees have returned officially through these arrangements that have been made between Myanmar and Bangladesh, so clearly there’s still work that needs to be done, on the ground and at negotiating tables between Myanmar and Bangladesh.


We obviously stand in support of their negotiations but in the meantime, there is a humanitarian disaster and ASEAN has been and will continue to provide humanitarian support for the refugees, both those who are in Bangladesh as well as those who are remaining in Myanmar.  But we have to do so in a way which is acceptable to Myanmar because ultimately, they bear responsibility and accountability for this.  ASEAN cannot supplant their role in this.


So all in all, we’ve had a good series of meetings.  Like I said, the tone was far more constructive, far more positive this year.  At the same time, it allowed the issues to be discussed very openly.  The superpowers were able to put forth their views.  I think they didn’t pull any punches but nevertheless, it took place in a safe, constructive and comfortable forum.  I think in a sense, this also illustrates why ASEAN is so important.  It is important first for the 10 of us because it brings us together – this concept of hanging together rather than hanging separately.  It has allowed us to integrate our economies, it has allowed us to lower trade barriers amongst ourselves to fulfil that ultimate goal of creating a single zone for production and investment.  And actually all the 10 member states’ economies are growing pretty healthily considering the challenges that are confronting the world at a global level.


Beyond its impact on us as individual members of ASEAN, the convening capacity of ASEAN and the ARF – this is our 25th anniversary; there are 27 members of the ARF and I counted we had at least 23 foreign ministers present.  You know, foreign ministers are very busy and they do a lot of travelling but to be able to convene 23, or maybe even 24, at one place, at one time, to discuss issues openly and frankly, to me it is testament to the convening capacity of ASEAN.


And finally, let me thank literally the hundreds of staff from MFA who have had many, many sleepless nights.  Whenever Singapore convenes an event or a summit, we make it look easy but I can guarantee you there’s furious paddling under the pond as this swan apparently glides gracefully across the waters.  So let me again thank my colleagues in the Ministry for really a fantastic job that allowed the Ministers and the political leaders to focus on the issues and get to grips with it.


So I’ll stop here and take questions.  Lay Cheng, I’ll leave you to do the arrows.


Moderator: Okay, thank you Minister.  We’ll now proceed straight to Q&A. Media wishing to ask questions, as a few of you have indicated, please raise your hand right up and a colleague of mine, after I have acknowledged your presence, will pass a microphone to you. But before we commence, I would also like to seek your understanding to please keep your questions short and very focused, and at the same time state your name and organisation very clearly.


Minister: The other reason for keeping your questions short is that I didn’t bring a pen so I can’t write down your question in full.


Moderator: With that, shall we just kick off the first question? How about Ash, from Straits Times?


Straits Times: Hi, Minister. Asyikin from the Straits Times. So today, the US announced $300 million for security cooperation in ASEAN. Meanwhile, China said that its build-up in SCS is actually due to external powers wading into the region. So I would like to ask you, is ASEAN at risk of becoming an arena for big power rivalry to play out? And how can we channel that energy so that ASEAN can benefit rather than split apart?


Minister: Thank you for that question. First point I would make is that we were a forum, and all the superpowers were represented. The most salient in our region are China, the US and Russia. And in the closed-door sessions they were able to express their demands, their anxieties and their hopes quite frankly. That’s the first point.


The second point is that in fact this precisely illustrates why ASEAN needs to remain united. You will also recall the comment which I made a few days ago that ASEAN has to first be united in order to maintain our centrality and our relevance. What you are really alluding to is the question of whether there will be a resumption of the old Cold War, and whether we will end up being proxy states, entangled in both the diplomatic, strategic and the defensive entanglements of the superpowers. And our answer is we have no intention of allowing that to happen. Hence we have ASEAN. Hence we will remain united, we will be relevant, we will maintain centrality and we will continue to convene these regional and extra-regional platforms.


The point is ASEAN believes in interdependence, we believe in integration, we believe in free trade. We need infrastructure investment, we need greater connectivity. And we are a region with 630 million people, with a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion, and with projected growth rates of at least 5% on a regional basis, for the foreseeable future. We are a significant repository of investments. For instance, the US has at least 630 billion [dollars] stock of investment in Southeast Asia. At the same time, China is our largest trading partner and China’s investments in Southeast Asia are also increasing. The EU in fact is currently still the top source of FDI for Southeast Asia. So the point is, rather than looking at this as a competitive situation where we all just become proxies, our concept of being united and central, open and inclusive, and welcoming investments and trade with all parties, in fact is precisely the right response. This is what we have communicated unequivocally to all our external partners, including the superpowers, and to be fair to them, I think they all appreciate our position. No one has said that they would rather have a disunited ASEAN, or that ASEAN breaks up into rival blocs. Our formula, interdependence, win-win cooperation, open, inclusive and, in the case of Singapore, precisely because we are so small, our role as an honest broker, I think has been appreciated, and has allowed us to be relevant beyond our geographical boundaries.


Moderator: Second question. Afifah? 


Channel News Asia: Evening Minister. Afifah from Channel News Asia. On RCEP, negotiations are expected to be concluded at the end of the year. But you mentioned that there were some sticky issues. So can we know what these remaining and difficult last issues are? And also as these negotiations come amid the rising trade tensions between China and the US, how has ASEAN weighed in on this in the talks in the past few days?


Minister: Again, thank you for that question. I am not going to go through the specifics of the negotiating points, because frankly we don’t believe in megaphone diplomacy, and negotiations are best conducted behind closed doors. But let me try to give you a kind of a strategic overview on this.


First, why is RCEP important? It is important because if we get this done, it encompasses about 45% of the world’s population, and it amounts to about 30% of global GDP. So it is a really big FTA. First thing.


Second point is that this is a FTA which is actually centred and led by ASEAN, because it consists of the ten ASEAN countries and the six external partners whom we, as ASEAN, already have FTAs with. So this is the second point- ASEAN is at the heart of the RCEP.


The third point I would make is that the RCEP includes Northeast Asia, and clearly the big giant there is China. But it also includes Japan, which is a very big - you know, it is either the second or third largest economy by whatever reckoning you use - and obviously, the Republic of Korea. And then it includes India, which within the decade is set to have a population that is larger than China, but whose GDP currently is only about one-fifth or one-quarter of China, but it has significant growth potential. And then on our southern flank, it includes Australia and New Zealand. Now, if you think about it, the one missing element is that actually today, China and India do not have a bilateral free-trade agreement. 


But if they agree to the RCEP, in effect, they are setting the stage to liberalise the trade of goods and services between India and China. Now, when you are dealing with two mega continental-sized economies, I think it is entirely reasonable for them to be very careful. Given their size, given their disparity and diversity, there is good reason for them to very carefully calculate what are they agreeing to, what are the implications that has nationally and bilaterally. So I’m explaining this in some detail so that you will understand it’s not a simple matter of just a form of words and put a deadline and wave your hands and magically it occurs. So we will really have to wait and see. They had one meeting in Tokyo, in the beginning of last month. There’s another meeting of the Economic Ministers later this month. Basically Minister Chan Chun Seng is going to be very busy for the next few months, at least, just trying to settle, trying to land the RCEP.


Moderator: The Minister will take a third question. Stefania?


Financial Times: Hello, I’m Stefania Palma from Financial Times. I have two very very quick questions. One is to confirm whether the reported cyber agreement between ASEAN and Russia was actually signed, or not. There were reports about this earlier this week and if so-


Minister: Short answer, no.


Financial Times: Is there a specific reason why-


Minister: No, we didn’t get down to settling it.


Financial Times: And there’s no timeframe in terms of when that could be?


Minister: To give you a fuller answer, cybersecurity was one of the major issues discussed. It was discussed both within ASEAN as well as the ASEAN meetings with external partners. Certainly it came up at the EAS and the ARF. Everyone knows that as the economies become more digital, cybersecurity is the flipside of that. You can’t expand opportunities on one hand without also safeguarding cybersecurity. The second point is that cybersecurity is another example of a transboundary issue, a global commons issue and no one country can solve it alone. So we’re not looking at exclusive agreements to any one country or any one region. We are looking at building, expanding that reservoir of knowledge and skills, exchanging and enhancing capabilities, and ultimately my own sense of it is that at a global level there needs to evolve a set of norms and perhaps even rules and regulations in order to protect this global commons called cyberspace. My own view again is that in the same way we’ve had the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, we’ve also had the Paris Agreement for Climate Change. In due course I think we will need some kind of global convention for cybersecurity and to make sure both the security and the benefits and the responsibilities in cyberspace are allocated appropriately.


Financial Times: The second question was if you could talk to us about Singapore’s own experience and potential worries about the escalating trade war between China and the US, two countries with whom Singapore has always sought to maintain a very balanced rapport over the years.


Minister: We have good relations with both of them. We have, in our usual way, courteously but directly expressed our position. For Singapore, trade is three times our GDP. Global trade and also because we are actually part of a global value chain, any trade war, in fact, any unilateral sanctions, will have a disproportionate impact on us. So we’ve expressed this concern to both the Americans and to the Chinese.


Now obviously, we don’t control their agenda or their decisions. But for what it is worth, we have conveyed our concerns. Secondly, we have also stated that we believe in a multilateral rules-based system and we have the WTO, and the WTO has got processes to deal with trade disputes. And ideally, in an ideal world, everyone would resolve their differences on trade through the WTO or at least in a WTO-compliant fashion. So that’s the position we take. It’s not exactly identical to what the United States or even China may want. Because we say the same thing to both sides and they know we’re being honest, we’re being transparent, we’re not playing games. I won’t say they agree, but they understand why we say what we do.


But I would say that actually the position that Singapore takes is actually entirely consistent with that of all our ASEAN neighbours. All of us in ASEAN are part of a global supply chain, a global value chain. All of us want, and depend, on increasing trade. And whilst ASEAN has recognised that we can’t stop trade wars externally, what we have recognised is that for a start, we can try to catalyse, or try to enhance intra-ASEAN trade. That’s something which I think belated recognition has been appreciated. And given that in the next two, three decades we expect to see a rising middle-class in ASEAN, I think the days when ASEAN is just an exporter of spices and raw materials, or an exporter of components, I think we are transiting into a new age where there will be a rising middle-class in ASEAN and ASEAN will be a consumer in its own right. So there is certainly scope for increasing intra-ASEAN trade but that’s why our concept for the economic community within ASEAN becomes all the more salient.


We can’t stop what happens outside but we can prepare ourselves. And that’s why in a sense our theme for this year when we are chairman is “Resilience and Innovation”. To be resilient to external shocks, natural disasters, financial crises, or pandemics; all of these things have happened, can happen again. At the same time to focus on innovation because that’s a way of preparing for the future rather than being a passive recipient of external events and of the fact that we’re living through a digital revolution. I think we’re doing the best that we can and as I said, based on my interactions this week with all my counterparts, I think we’re all on the same page.


Moderator: Okay thank you for your thoughtful questions. The Minister has another engagement to go to. And on that note the Press Conference will now come to a close.




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