Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan in Conversation with Rory Medcalf, Professor and Head of the National Security College, Australian National University at the 6th Raisina Dialogue, 14 April 2021

14 April 2021

Minister: Let me begin by thanking the Observer Research Foundation as well as my good friend, and I was going to say, my old friend, Foreign Minister Jaishankar for this invitation to the Raisina Dialogue. My starting proposition today is that COVID-19 has not changed history, but it has accelerated and accentuated pre-existing trends – all of which were there before and all of which have significant implications on Singapore, India, Australia, and indeed, globally.


First point, COVID-19 has turbocharged protectionism and nationalism all over the world. The outbreak of COVID-19 and the imposition of lockdowns significantly disrupted trade flows and disrupted supply chains, and sharpened the tendency for policymakers to turn inwards. This, in a sense, was a political inevitability. It has underscored the importance of upholding open and connected supply chains, free trade, and a multilateral, rules-based order. Particularly for a tiny city state like Singapore, whose trade volume is three times our GDP, it is in this context that we worked with partners like Australia, New Zealand, and obviously, our partners in ASEAN, as well as other friends in the Latin American countries in the early days of the pandemic to maintain these open and connected supply chains. So, this was a necessity, it is not just a debating point.


We also spoke up early about the importance of vaccine multilateralism – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the first to use this term – and to make the point that fair and equitable access to vaccines was essential. That is why we were an early supporter of the COVAX Facility, which seeks to harmonise public and private incentives for global vaccine development, and also contributed to the COVAX Advance Market Commitment to support low and lower-middle income countries, who need access to vaccines. We also founded and co-chair the Friends of the COVAX Facility group, to provide impetus and support for the Facility’s development.  


My second point is that COVID-19 has sped up the adoption of technologies, especially digital technologies, for managing the pandemic. We saw this in almost all aspects of our life - work, school, transport, transactions, you name it, we have it. This increased dependence on technology will accelerate the already ongoing disruption brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and its impact on jobs, lives, and livelihoods. For example, the threat of automation to low-skilled occupations has now broadened significantly to other sectors, as the demands of physical contact and labour decreases in our “socially distanced” world.


At the same time, technology and digitalisation will be crucial as we seek to establish a post-COVID-19 normal. In Singapore we launched a digital contact tracing programme, we call it TraceTogether, which was based on Bluetooth proximity data, and which has succeeded in cutting the average contact tracing time by two and a half days, down to about one and a half days or so. It used to take us four days to establish that social graph for every person who was infected with COVID-19. This has made a difference to our ability to constrain the impact of the pandemic in Singapore. In India, we heard of the Aarogya Setu app which has a very similar function.


To revive travel, there are efforts currently underway to develop mutual recognition of health certificates, and to ensure that there is interoperability and verification across borders and across systems. Singapore has also developed a globally interoperable Healthcert digital standard. This is based on blockchain technology for COVID-19 test results and vaccine certificates.


At a broader level beyond the technology, this actually underscores the need to establish common rules and common standards in order to facilitate cross-border digital transactions, and this will also extend to areas such as e-payments and data flows. This is why Singapore has taken the effort to conclude Digital Economy Agreements with Australia, Chile, and New Zealand. We are actively exploring more of such agreements with other partners. I am also glad that the WTO is also working to create new rules to govern the global digital economy.


Third point, COVID-19 has heightened and sharpened the tensions within the US-China relationship, and this has got implications on all of us. The fundamental shift in US-China relations actually preceded the outbreak of COVID-19. But friction over trade, contest over emerging technologies, divergence in human rights, issues related to defence, finance, and cybersecurity have continued. We have also witnessed increasingly sharp exchanges between senior figures on both sides, including over the handling of the pandemic. All these are deeply worrying. The US-China relationship is the linchpin of both regional and global stability, and is an imperative for global recovery and growth and, needless to say, global peace. Obviously, we all hope that the major powers can exercise leadership in order to underpin a stable international order. 


In Southeast Asia, it will be all the more crucial to maintain ASEAN unity and Centrality amidst this greater geopolitical competition, even as we deal with our own internal challenges, sharpened by COVID-19. If ASEAN Member States can hold together, maintain ASEAN Centrality, maintain our relevance, then the long-term prospects for our region are very good. We have 650 million people, a growing middle class, and a fast-growing digital economy. ASEAN Member States will press on with economic integration, the ASEAN Community Blueprints, and we will continue to expand cooperation within ASEAN and with our external partners as well. All this, we hope, will reinforce the concentric circles of an open and inclusive regional architecture, which includes mechanisms like the East Asia Summit and the ASEAN Regional Forum.


In this context, India has a crucial role to play amidst all these trends, and in helping to shape the post-COVID-19 world. I am aware that there is a surge in cases, which continues to pose an immense challenge worldwide, including in India, but we hope that this will not slow down the momentum of global cooperation. India has in fact been one of the strongest supporters of global vaccine cooperation. India's strong pharmaceutical sector has quickly risen to the challenge of vaccine manufacturing. It has supplied more than 64.5 million doses to over 80 countries, including 18 million doses provided through the COVAX facility.


In the digital economy and beyond, Indian companies have tremendous growth potential, and have an important role to play in stimulating global recovery. With its wealth of engineering talent, and a robust digital infrastructure, India's digital and innovation space has thrived and is really ready for lift-off. I am happy to note that India is doing more to encourage foreign investments; this will create more jobs and will boost India's target of a US$5 trillion economy by 2025. So, I do hope, and here I am making a plea, I hope that India will reassess regional trade pacts like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and even the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership. These trade pacts will give Indian companies a platform to showcase their strengths and access even larger markets. Indian conglomerates like Tata, Reliance, Bharti, Adani, TVS, Zomato, DLF, and Forbes Marshall are already globally competitive. 


We believe that India can make major contributions to regional affairs, helping to keep the regional architecture open, inclusive and competitive. ASEAN-India relations have also been enhanced in recent years, under Prime Minister Modi's Act East Policy, and by his administration’s support for ASEAN Centrality. India has also supported ASEAN’s recovery efforts, including by contributing US$1 million to the ASEAN Response Fund, so there are certainly good prospects for greater cooperation. In August this year, Singapore will commence our term as the coordinator of ASEAN-India Dialogue Relations, and I believe it will be an important opportunity to further deepen and strengthen the ASEAN-India partnership. India's contributions to regional peace, to stability and prosperity will be welcomed as we push against the tide of protectionism, economic disruption, and renewed major power competition. So, let me pause here and look forward to a dialogue with Rory. The floor is yours. Thank you.



Rory Medcalf (moderator): Firstly, I would like to ask you a little bit more about the economic challenge, and I think we began with this note, but I would love to go a little bit further about attitudes towards supply chains in the Indo-Pacific – questions about economic diversification as one of the pathways to resilience. If you accept some of the logic of that argument, how is ASEAN as a hub of global trade prepared to deal with the new pandemic and post-pandemic economic challenges and economic realities?



MinisterThat is a very salient point. If you think about the pandemic, and especially if you cast your mind back a year ago, one of the key measures that almost all countries needed to embark on was some form of border closure, some form of friction at airports, ports, tourism. That was a health-related measure but there was an immediate knock-on measure – what does this mean for transit of people, transit of goods, supply chains?


One key fact which immediately popped up on the policy-makers’ radar screen is that pre-COVID, it was about managing inventories just-in-time. You wanted it to be efficient, you wanted to have as low an inventory as possible, you were trying to eke out profit margins. COVID-19 suddenly reminded everyone: just-in-case. There was therefore an immediate realisation that you actually want to have resilience in your system, and in particular, economic resilience and therefore, the other essential pillar called supply-chain resilience. 


If you stop to think about it, there are three ways to achieve resilience for essential goods. One, is that you have stockpiled it before. In the case of a new pandemic, it illustrated that the world had not adequately prepared and not had adequate stockpiles of essential medications, drugs, vaccines. Part of the problem, obviously, (the vaccines) had not been developed yet. Beyond stockpiling, the other method is onshoring. I think you saw that to some extent, but onshoring is something which you cannot just switch on instantly. It takes time to bring the capacity, to invest in the infrastructure to do that. The third strategy is diversification, which means you do not have all your eggs, literally, in one basket.


I think you saw a combination of these three responses in different places, with different emphasis on these different modalities. Now, in the case of Singapore, because we are so small, and we are just a city-state, and our trade volume is three times our GDP, absolute closure was not an option. We wanted to remain open for transit passengers, which we did. We wanted to make sure supply chains of essential goods: food, drugs, medications, all those things continue to flow. In fact, we felt it would be a source of competitive advantage if throughout this one year – and now it is almost one and a half years –  we would be able to show that Singapore was trustworthy, reliable; we never shut down, we never panicked, and we fully complied with and honoured the sanctity of contracts. This became, in a sense, a competitive strength. But the other point – and here is where it relates to Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and to India – keeping our network of relations functional and open gives us greater stability in numbers. We were rafting our economies and our supply chains together. All in all, I would say the challenges were expected. The responses were constrained. But I think we did the best that we could. I am reasonably confident that we can emerge stronger. The habits, the agreements, the processes, and the experiences that we have all experienced will give us greater confidence for the post-COVID world.


MedcalfThere is a high degree of competition globally in the vaccine space; this is a challenge to vaccine multilateralism. I wonder what you see is the way forward here – vaccine nationalism on the one hand, vaccine multilateralism on the other. What scope is there to work through existing architecture, existing groupings? Or is there a need for some other approach?


MinisterLet me put this in context. If you had asked me a year ago, whether we would have, within one year, effective vaccines being manufactured and distributed worldwide, I would not have believed you. 


The first point is, what you have just witnessed, is an incredible pace of vaccine development, on multiple platforms in different countries, occurring at unprecedented speed. We should give everyone – the scientists, healthcare professionals, the policymakers, the infrastructure developers, the companies – credit for that. This has been absolutely incredible.


The second point, then, if you look in terms of the major vaccine manufacturers, the sites of production: obviously the US, the EU, and then it is India and China. If you just look at India itself, for instance –India has exported about 64.5 million doses of vaccines. It has administered another 95 million doses domestically, within its own borders. If you look at China, China has exported about 114 million doses, and it has administered domestically about the same number of doses. The point here is that there has been remarkable production and distribution, even as we speak. The numbers speak for themselves. 


Having said that, we cannot ignore politics, and domestic pressures that leaders are going to be confronted with. If the domestic level of pandemic control is not there, and there is panic, and there is anxiety, there will inevitably be pressure on political leaders to shift the balance point between manufacturing for domestic consumption and export. I think the point about vaccine multilateralism, which really is an expression of a deeper underlying belief: that we are not going to get over this pandemic until everyone is safe – that is still valid. But we need to accept that in context, it is completely unrealistic to expect a major manufacturing site to say: I am going to export it all, and not pay any attention to my domestic circumstance. I am just trying to look at things in context and to be fair, and to recognise what is really going on. But the big picture view is that this is an unprecedented speed of development. In fact, it is a remarkable pace of distribution that I would not have dared to anticipate a year ago.



MedcalfCan you make a general observation on whether we are seeing actually a return of scientific, medical expertise to guide policymaking thanks to the crisis?



MinisterI think this has been an acute stress test. First, of healthcare infrastructure within each country: hospital beds, ICUs, ventilators, drugs, vaccines, etc. Second, of government competence: the ability to marshal all resources and make decisions on the basis of data and evidence, scientific data, and to be able to explain and communicate, and convince people to do so. That has been the second aspect of the stress test. The third aspect of the stress test is social capital within each of our societies: people's sense of collective responsibility for each other, whether to wear a mask, not really for my sake, but for your sake, whether to comply with social distancing measures. We have got laws and regulations but a lot of it depends on your own self-understanding, and collective responsibility. On these three counts, you are witnessing diverging trajectories based on the level of healthcare infrastructure, the level of the government’s overall competence, and that ability, as you said, to meld scientific and health rationale and data into policies, and a measure of social capital within each society. On the basis of these three things, you are watching divergence in trajectories. That is how I see this unfold.



MedcalfAnd I guess we all want to be on the right side of that trajectory.



MinisterWe do. Right now, we are facing either the second, third, or fourth wave, depending on how you count it all over the world. The other element that is happening is that there is fatigue. People are tired, people are losing patience. Sometimes, even the credibility of experts is being questioned. This, in fact, leads to a more dangerous situation. 


Let me give you a perspective, from a medical side of it. The virus is evolving, and mutating, and the number of new variants generated is directly proportional to the number of people infected at any given moment in time. When you have widespread infection all over the world, what it means is you are going to get more variants developing. As we have witnessed, some of these variants may be more contagious, or more lethal, or more resistant, even perhaps, to some of the vaccines which we are using. There is a race going on right now between trying to bring down the overall level of infection in humanity, and the measures that we are rolling out like vaccination, and all the non-pharmaceutical interventions, which are, by the way, centuries old: social distancing, testing, isolation, mask-wearing. There is no high-tech there. It is just about explaining it, persuading people to do it, and executing it. We are right now in that phase. My own anxiety is that we may have missed the boat, and this virus is now endemic in humanity. We are going to be continuing to struggle over the next couple of years with dealing with these new variants. Unlike SARS, which I experienced 17, 18 years ago, which disappeared fortunately because it was not as infectious as COVID-19, we were able to damp down the reproduction of the virus. We are in a different situation with COVID-19. I end on that note of caution, that it is not over yet by a long way.



MedcalfYou have talked about US-China relations, and strategic tensions in the Indo-Pacific. The Myanmar situation is deeply disturbing. How do you see, realistically, ASEAN trying to come to terms with these challenges and contribute to stability going forward?



MinisterThe situation in Myanmar is tragic. There is no other way to describe it. The people in Myanmar are hard-working, talented, great people who actually deserve so much more. The problem, however, is that for over seven decades, their political system has not delivered on letting the people in Myanmar fulfil that great potential. The more proximate problem now, is that the two poles of the political system in Myanmar – the military leadership on one hand, the civilian leadership, led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – clearly, that nexus broke down. In turn, whatever has led to this current situation where you have got a coup, and the civilian leadership has been arrested. What ASEAN wants most of all, number one, stop the violence. Number two, have honest, direct dialogue, negotiation, communications between the military leadership and the National League for Democracy. That needs to occur not because external parties say so, but because the leaders within Myanmar agree to do so. What ASEAN is trying to do is to be supportive, to provide a conducive environment – a safe environment, if you like – in which these discussions and negotiations can go on. I do not believe in megaphone diplomacy. Similarly, on sanctions, we also have to be very careful. COVID-19 has already inflicted a grievous blow to the economy of Myanmar, before these recent events. 


The worst thing which we could do would be to add on to the burden of the ordinary citizens of Myanmar. It is a very delicate moment, and we need to be very careful. Again, I would share with you my medical instinct. First, do no harm. Second, make the right diagnosis, and then carefully embark on hopefully the road to recovery. It is going to be a long road. I will not raise false hopes. The final point I will make on this: it is not only ASEAN, but also the role of its immediate neighbours, India and China. They too, have strategic interests at stake. They too, can also play a quiet, constructive, and helpful role behind the scenes. We will have to watch this space with concern. But let us not give up hope that some form of reconciliation can occur. It may take time.



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