Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's participation at the Asia Society Dialogue on "Southeast Asia in 2021 and the crisis in Myanmar" held via Zoom on 20 May 2021 at 2000hrs

22 May 2021

Asia Society Policy Institute Managing Director Debra Eisenman: His Excellency Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs. He previously served as Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative from 2014 to 2021, and has also served as Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports and Minister-in-charge of Entrepreneurship, among many other roles. He has also been a Member of Parliament since 2001. After his remarks, Dr Balakrishnan will be joined by Kevin Rudd, President and CEO of the Asia Society and the inaugural president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. Kevin has served as the 26thPrime Minister of Australia and as Foreign Minister. Now I look forward to turning to the Minister. Please welcome His Excellency Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.


MinisterThank you Debra, and hi Kevin. A good morning or good evening to everyone, wherever in the world you are. I am going to just begin with a set of framing remarks before the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ by Kevin Rudd. 


Let me begin with three “D’s”: disease, digitalisation and the divide between the two superpowers. First, very quickly on disease. COVID-19 is now endemic, it is permanent and is going to circulate and re-circulate in humanity for a very long time if not forever. Unlike SARS, 18 years ago, COVID-19 has spread globally, and we now know that human immunity wanes over time. That means it will get to recirculate, and it will also get to generate new mutations, new variants. Vaccinations will certainly help to reduce severe disease or mortality, and we have data for that. What this means is that at some point in time, when human beings have collectively built up enough immunity, either through infection or through vaccination, we will have to learn to live with the virus. The question is how many lives will be lost – and many unnecessarily – before we get to that modus vivendi with the virus. 


And there will be secondary questions on the scars that this pandemic will leave, on social cohesion within societies, on the economic potential of our own economies, on political legitimacy of the ruling classes, and whether human beings nationally and collectively will be prepared for the inevitable next pandemic. 


My second framing point is on digitalisation, and when you talk about digitalisation, this is something that is layered on top of globalisation. The digital revolution was well underway before COVID-19 even came onto the scene. In Southeast Asia alone, we now have 400 million internet users, and this is growing. We also have a rapidly growing digital economy, which is expected to triple in the next five years to over US$300 billion. Digitalisation and globalisation are two forces that reinforce one another, and especially here in Asia. We will certainly see a positive impact; there will be new jobs, there will be new forms of economic activity. The digital marketplaces for instance, now enables small businesses outside traditional urban centres in Southeast Asia to reach even more customers, and work can be more flexible. In a paradoxical way, COVID-19 in fact has turbocharged flexible work schedules and arrangements. 


For Singapore, technology – and its integration into our lives – has been a key tool in our response to COVID-19, whether to support safe distancing measures, contact tracing or to get accurate and reliable information out very quickly. But I think we should also be very clear-eyed. There are significant challenges due to the speed of globalisation, the porous digital borders, and the pandemic of misinformation, which arguably has sometimes been worse than the pandemic itself. Misinformation is now one of the biggest challenges in tackling COVID-19, especially with these digitally enhanced echo chambers which are fracturing our societies. We have also witnessed culture wars spreading across borders. We have witnessed xenophobia, accelerated. We have seen deepening social, ethnic and religious divisions. All these digital channels have in fact amplified demagoguery in our politics. So, we need to ask ourselves, will digitalisation make us all one happy global village, or will it divide us into tribes living in our own echo chambers in a state of permanent outrage? Will digitalisation bring greater wealth to all or greater inequality? Can we democratise the digital tools of production, and then create a new golden age? Or will we have to go through a gilded age of greater inequality, with all the political dislocation and disruption that that entails?


My third point is that in Southeast Asia, these trends sit uncomfortably across a fault line – the divide, the strategic rivalry – especially between the US and China. The fundamental question, to quote Henry Kissinger, my favourite tutor in diplomacy, is whether the US and China will achieve "creative coexistence". Or will they fall into Graham Allison's "Thucydides Trap"? Again, to paraphrase Kissinger, avoiding an all-out, high tech catastrophic conflict is necessary and attainable, but it is not automatic. China is a civilisational state that has existed for millennia; its fortunes may wax and wane over the long arc of history, but it has never disappeared, and it will not disappear. 


America, on the other hand, has never faced a peer strategic rival on such a scale since independence 245 years ago. China will continue its march towards economic and technological prowess and will naturally seek to reclaim what it sees as its rightful place in the world. I believe the United States is still ahead by a not insignificant distance. But as we move towards a multipolar world, it would be a mistake to assume that the US is a declining power. It is not. Neither the US nor China seek the collision. But the sense of it is that neither is prepared to risk ceding strategic ground at the moment. So for the rest of us, the challenge is, how do we navigate the complexities of this fast-evolving volatile, US-China relationship, especially with the prospect of bifurcated supply chains and technological decoupling occurring in the short term? There are encouraging signs that both sides are willing to work together in areas of common interest. Indeed, we hope that they do arrive at a modus vivendi, especially when global leadership is so urgently needed. The clear examples in front of us – COVID-19, climate change. 


Let me now turn to a current hotspot in my immediate neighbourhood – Myanmar.  It continues to be roiled by mass protests, and a bloody crackdown after the coup. Many of us here I think had hoped – and perhaps wishfully – that Myanmar was on the road to democratic transition. But I think what is clear now, is that in fact, what we witnessed over the last decade was an uneasy power sharing arrangement between the military on one hand, and the civilians led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on the other hand. Clearly, this power sharing arrangement has now gone off the rails. This instability is worsened by the serious economic disruption caused by COVID-19. There are now shortages of food, medical supplies, and energy. We do not know how much testing, much less vaccination, is being done. Healthcare workers are on strike. All this is occurring at a time when COVID-19 is on an exponential rise throughout Asia. So, although the headlines have focused on the political upheaval, we should not forget the very serious humanitarian situation that is now unfolding on the ground. 


Technology and information have also played an outsized role within Myanmar. The protesters share news, they organise over social media; the diaspora raises money through crowdfunding, despite the military’s attempts to curtail internet access. Taken together, all these point towards a protracted crisis that will not be resolved quickly, and it will impact regional stability. Singapore's position has been clear and consistent throughout. We strongly oppose the use of lethal force against unarmed civilians. It is deplorable, it is unacceptable under any circumstances. The military authorities must exercise restraint, and they must desist from further bloodshed and violence. President Win Myint, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, and other political detainees must be released, so that all stakeholders can negotiate in good faith to find a durable and peaceful political solution. These negotiations must involve all key stakeholders, including the Tatmadaw, the military authorities, which has always been a key institution, the National League for Democracy, which clearly commands popular support, and all the ethnic groups. We continue to support regional and international efforts to maintain constructive engagement and dialogue within Myanmar. 


The return to Myanmar's path of democratic transition, frankly, will be a long, difficult, and tortured journey. There are deep religious, and racial fault lines which run across eight major ethnic races, 135 official ethnic groups. And yes, there was unprecedented political liberalisation during the last decade. But even then, we are all painfully aware it was always delicate and precarious. But ultimately, Myanmar's future must be for its own people in Myanmar to decide. The rest of us must, and can, support and facilitate negotiations. We can help the stakeholders uphold and protect the fragile process of national reconciliation and peace. But let us ask ourselves honestly, where does this leave us? How do we go forward? 


For the international community, I would offer two principles. First, do no harm. Second, protect the vulnerable. A key outcome of the recent ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting (24 April 2021) was the Five-Point Consensus, which underscored the importance of exercising maximum restraint, and the need for meaningful dialogue with all parties concerned. The Myanmar military authorities represented by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who was present at that meeting, agreed to it. We now have to work on implementing this consensus, including through nominating an ASEAN Special Envoy or Envoys, and arranging for them to engage all the relevant parties in Myanmar. At the same time, we must also deal with the acute impact of the instability, including the future of those displaced by violence and the looming food and humanitarian crisis. 


Frankly, our past attempts to isolate Myanmar have had very little impact, except to make life harder for ordinary people. An isolated military, in the past, always fell back on those willing to work with them for strategic reasons – remember that Myanmar is between India and China – and they seem prepared to do so again. But the international community still plays an important role. The military, to be fair, has shown some willingness, at least to continue engaging ASEAN. Our dialogue partners and the United Nations can play a constructive role in complementing ASEAN efforts. Our common purpose now must be to support Myanmar's return, hopefully, to stability and normalcy. For the wider Southeast Asian region, we must not allow this single issue, important and painful as it is, to completely impede ASEAN's substantive cooperation with external partners across the entire spectrum of our agenda. We still need effective international cooperation to deal with the immediate threat from COVID-19. Vaccine multilateralism to support equitable and timely access to the vaccine is essential. We need to help each other secure medical supplies, diagnostic test kits, oxygen, and life-saving equipment. We need scientific cooperation to address the new variants, and to contain the viral spread. And we need to do all this while reforming multilateral institutions like the WHO (World Health Organisation), the United Nations, in order to prepare for the next pandemic, and to prepare for a post-pandemic world. 


On the economic side, we need to press on with economic integration, supply chain connectivity. We have got to keep essential goods flowing across borders, and we need the protocols to reopen travel safely when the conditions improve. Our region is already moving ahead to develop standards and rules for these issues of the day. For supply chain resilience, for digital and green economies, as well as data connectivity and security. One point I want to emphasise at this point, is that it is important for the United States to actively participate in setting the norms and the standards for tomorrow's industries. And to exercise global thought leadership, just as it has, over the past seven decades. In the longer term, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) have laid the foundation for wider and deeper economic convergence across Asia. These two agreements will shape the geostrategic landscape for years to come, with or without the US participation. So, the key is to look at Southeast Asia with a future oriented perspective – the demographics, the digital trends, the opportunities from sustainable development. 


Over half of ASEAN's 660 million people today are below the age of 30. This is a growing consumer base and an expanding tech savvy, digital native generation. And in fact, many people may not even realise that ASEAN has now overtaken the EU to become China's largest trading partner, and ASEAN is the United States' fourth largest export market. In the digital space alone, there are many opportunities for the United States’ tech companies to engage ASEAN, to develop the future economy based on smart manufacturing, blockchain applications, education, AI, robotics, digital health – the whole spectrum. 


To conclude, there is a bright future for ASEAN. But there are also huge downside risks. We remain a very diverse region in terms of history, ethnicity, religion, language. ASEAN has managed to flourish for over half a century despite the Cold War, and in fact, especially after the Cold War. In the next half century, those of us living in ASEAN hope to avoid becoming an arena for the proxy confrontations of the superpowers. We know the outcome does not depend on us alone, but we will do our best to stay united, to be relevant, and to remain an open, inclusive rules-based region, replete with opportunities. 


So, let me stop there and thank you for this opportunity to be with you. I look forward to Kevin's ‘inquisition’. Thank you, Kevin. 


President and CEO of Asia Society Kevin Rudd: Thank you so much Minister, and thank you for joining us at the Asia Society. I think you know you are always a welcome guest with us. And, I also acknowledge your former senior diplomat, continuing senior diplomat Heng Chee Chan, who is a Global Co-Chair of the Asia Society, who is of course with you in Singapore. I listened very carefully to the three “D’s”. The disease, digitisation, the geopolitical divide. There is probably a fourth “D”, which is democracy in Myanmar. And so, on the three or four “D’s”, would you give ASEAN an “A” plus, an “A” minus or a “B” plus so far in handling these regional challenges? How goes the institution, I suppose, in terms of wrestling with all of the above? Let me begin with that. 


Minister: That is an excellent probe. I think we have made it through five decades, and the first characteristic of ASEAN is –I cannot think of any other regional organisation with such great diversity in terms of size, in terms of economic development, even in terms of forms of government. The differences between us are enormous. The fact that we have been able to stay united – in fact, over the last five decades we have also included Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and obviously, Myanmar – just being there, being relevant is success in itself. We have not had open conflict amongst the members within ASEAN. We have been able to maintain convening power to engage all the superpowers, and the middle powers. As the former Prime Minister of Australia, you know that we did our bit to integrate Australia into our own regional architecture. So, in that sense, we have done reasonably well. Could we have moved faster? Possibly. I think certainly in terms of economic integration, lowering trade barriers, we could have done it faster. But if you look in terms of the multilateral trade agreements that we have spawned or been a part of, the RCEP which I mentioned earlier, and those of us who are also members of the CPTPP. 


You can see the nascent development of a free trade area of the Asia Pacific. So, on that front, in terms of economic integration, I think we have also done well. We do have problems, and a clear example now is Myanmar. But even in the case of Myanmar, I mean I have done this thought experiment. Would it have been better for Myanmar and for ASEAN, if they were not within ASEAN? Or has it on balance, been difficult, but beneficial for them to have been a part of ASEAN? For them to have a channel of engagement, and a certain amount of peer moral suasion to be applied, rather than to be completely detached and cut-off and isolated from the rest of the world. So it is a mixed record. But I think in terms of peace, in terms of economic development, and even in terms of diplomacy, we have played a useful role. As far as Singapore is concerned, to us ASEAN is a cornerstone of our foreign policy. 


Rudd: But I have been a huge supporter of ASEAN for the reasons you have outlined. 


Minister: I need to say I am grateful to you. You certainly played a critical role when you were leading Australia.


Rudd: Yeah, but there is a reason for that, which is, you have done well, given the extraordinary complexity of the background. Go back prior to the 60s, we had all sorts of troubles within the region. So when people criticise ASEAN, I always ask, a bit like yourself, and engage in the thought experiment. What if there was no ASEAN? Where would Southeast Asia be today? And I think that partly answers the question. And on the Myanmar question, which we will come back to in a minute. The fact that you have maintained cohesion, and secondly, you have still had strong voices nationally from Singapore, from Malaysia, from Indonesia and others about the unacceptability of the use of military force. I mean these voices have been very important in the international community as well. 


Let us go to the first “D”, which is the disease in the Foreign Minister’s trilogy. You have had a few rough times in Singapore. But overall, against global benchmarking, Singapore has been remarkably successful. I know you have just had to take a difficult decision on the cancellation of the Shangri-La (Dialogue). But so have many countries with comparably significant global gatherings. But as you look out across the region, beyond Singapore, we have handled it well.


If I was to ask you to put your crystal ball in front of you, and give us a sense of where you think the disease will be across Southeast Asia, say by the time we were together again at the end of the year, give me a sense of how you think that trajectory is going. 


Minister: Well it is crystal ball gazing. If there is one thing COVID-19 has taught us is that it is a very wily, almost sentient, and smart virus. So, let us go back to the fundamentals. I said earlier it is endemic, which means it is a permanent resident in humanity. In the case of SARS, which was another coronavirus, it petered out because it was far less contagious than COVID-19. We do know COVID-19 is more contagious. We do know almost half of people infected are asymptomatic, and yet can still be contagious. We do know that because it is global, and because it has millions of human beings in which to replicate and to mutate and to generate new variants, and that human immunity wanes over time, we in fact have a perfect petri dish to keep generating new variants.  You do not need to be a doctor to know that new variants usually evolve towards becoming more effective, more contagious. What this means, and my own assessment at a global level is we are going to be stuck with this for at least the next two years. Things are going to get worse before they get better. But on the plus side, the incredible development of vaccines, the pace of development of vaccines, and the rollout; in the case of Singapore, we have completed two doses of vaccinations for more than a quarter of our population. If you count those who received at least the first dose, it is a third of the population. 


Now, over the next one or two years, the overall level of immunity in humanity is going to increase, either by infection, or by vaccination. What that means is you will then have COVID-19 being a smouldering ember. It is not going to be put away permanently, but it will be there. It will come back. It will probably be seasonal. But if its mortality rate begins to approximate that of influenza, you do not shut down and lock up societies as in the case of influenza. But we have had to at this stage of COVID-19, because so many of us are immunologically naive to it. The biggest risk is that the total number of patients exceeds the healthcare capacity of your system. So I think the two curves will intersect sometime in the next one or two years, and then you can look forward to a post-COVID-19 world where we will not eliminate COVID-19, but we will live with COVID-19. And then at that point, the question would be, how we did and how we performed during that stress test, which will affect our competitive position. Which ones of us were able to not panic, to do what needed to be done, to exercise social capital and social discipline to not panic in a crisis, to maintain open channels, particularly of logistics and transit, to be reliable and to be good for our word when we sign contracts, and to more quickly apply, especially digital technologies, to deal with these current challenges.  So the post-COVID-19 world will have some reordering of the competitive pecking order. In a way, I am conveying to you what we are playing for the long game as well. This is not the first or the last setback, but it will get better, and we do intend to emerge in a stronger position after that. We will work with our partners and our friends, and especially in this region, and with Australia and New Zealand. And we will wait for the United States also to get back into the saddle in this part of the world. 


Rudd: You know the endemic nature of it is a critical message in your remarks this evening. I know you have been speaking about this more broadly, but I do not think the international community has fully registered that fact yet, nor the fact that the future virus curve can still be manageable given what happens with vaccinations, but also with natural immunity factors. Let us go to the second “D” which was digitalisation. You already touched on that in your remarks just then. But in the broader sense of digitisation, and the enormous explosion of digital commerce around the world, Southeast Asia, turbocharged by what we have seen in the last 15 months, as you said, it is kind of bringing forward the future in many respects. When we look at the state of global trade, which is a sorry story at the moment in terms of policy settings. The WTO (World Trade Organisation) has been in some retreat, the Americans stayed outside of Trans-Pacific Partnership. The RCEP has proceeded without the United States. Is it possible on your digital point, Minister, to conceive of a world where we begin to work with the Americans, for example, on a digital commerce part of TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and bring the Americans in? My colleague Wendy Cutler has been working on this in the Asia Society, she is formerly with USTR (United States Trade Representative), but have you given this some thought yourself.


Minister: We have. If you look at global trade volumes itself, it has grown. It has continued to grow, and even during COVID-19, if I look at our marine container traffic, there is still growth, there are still good prospects there. The problem with trade right now is a political one. I think too many of us, you know, took it for granted that free trade is good, that free trade will lift all boats, that all segments of society will do well. And we did not pay enough attention to the domestic impact of that, which basically meant uplifting the productive and competitive capacity of our own local populations to deal with this. What I am saying is that the real problem is political. And once you understand that the problem is domestic politics, you sort of understand why the United States could not go through with the TPP. And right now, you know, I do not want to name names and make it awkward for people, but anyone whom you have a heart-to-heart, serious conversation with, will not argue about the strategic reasons for the TPP or why America should be engaged. But no one can solve the political problem, which is to convince your domestic voters that this is the right thing to do. So, it is a political problem. Now, your suggestion is one which we completely agree with. In fact, you know that we have digital agreements with Australia and with New Zealand. In the same way, even the TPP started out with New Zealand, Singapore, Chile and Brunei, and then grew. We are hoping to grow a series of interlocking digital economy agreements, and we are also looking for green economy agreements, carbon markets, standards setting, environmental rules. All these, we believe, would hopefully be less politically explosive, and maybe might even enjoy political support, which would allow us to create a new architecture in which America can engage with us more quickly, and again play the role it used to play. I mean, the Bretton Woods Institutions, the WTO, the concept of liberal economies, free trade, all these were envisioned, underwritten and pursued under American thought leadership, and it would be a pity for America to be absent at a time when we are formulating standards and norms and rules of engagement on the digital economy and green economy. So, I completely agree with you, Kevin. 


Rudd: Let me flip back from a “D” to a “C”. You have touched on the “C” which is climate. And what are your prospects, across Southeast Asia and the rest of East Asia, to move towards a target of carbon neutrality by the mid-century? And what are the steps you think we need to take to do that, you know, we have had the commitments from Northeast Asia, China, by 2060. We have had the Americans and the Europeans. Now, what is your own view about the desirable trajectory for Southeast Asia. And how do you think we could get there? 


Minister: Well, I look at it in three ways. First at the technical level, all the technology needed to get us to a reasonably carbon neutral world has already been invented. It is a question of execution, implementing, rolling it out. That is from the technical point of view. From the economic point of view, actually there is a simple solution – if we could all get to a global, uniform, comprehensive carbon tax, or at least eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, and then allow the economic logic to apply, economics and technology would lead us to a much greener world. The third dimension of it is a political one. On this front, I am glad to report that I think young people in Australia, in Singapore, in Europe, in fact, anywhere in the world are involved, and the Green Movement is powerful and well. I was involved with the (negotiations for the) Paris Agreement from 2011 to 2015 and served as a ministerial facilitator for many of the thorny issues. But one big issue, which I am very glad we pushed was transparency, meaning, even if your government was not yet ready to make commitments, but having global transparency, and then subjecting each government to the scrutiny of your own local domestic voters – that would also have a salutary effect. So I am actually reasonably hopeful that there is no question about the direction the world will move in. It is only a question now of how quickly we do so, and whether we can work effectively on a global scale in order to achieve it. Because this is the pressing challenge of our generation, and fortunately our young people will, I think, put our feet to the coals – literally – if we do not move quickly.


Rudd: Yes, there will not be just one Greta, there will be Gretas in every country, and these Gretas will become increasingly mobilised. My own attitude is that that is a very good thing. It keeps the flame to our feet. Going back to your framework, the geopolitical divide and the 2000-pound gorillas in our wider region – China and the United States. You and I have discussed this many times in the past, and the analytics are fairly clear; the policy less so about how we bring about a reconciled future. If we can, “Kissingerian” alternatives or “Allisonian” alternatives, as you described before. Tell me, if you are able – on behalf of ASEAN or on behalf of Singapore – to sit down with the Chinese and the Americans in a room, and talk about how to navigate this complex decade ahead in order to maximise ASEAN’s interests and to our wider region’s interests. How would you explain the position to our friends in D.C. and our friends in Beijing?


Minister: Well, I would probably start by recounting my personal experience, and again come back to Paris 2015. It was the fact that we had the Americans and the Chinese in the room. And I can speak from direct experience; I was there. When the two of them are in the room, and on the same wavelength, everything is possible – and it was done. So it is not that it has not been done before. Now, at the risk of being diplomatically incorrect, what I would want to tell my American friends is that the greatest misconception you could have, or the greatest strategic mistake you could make would be to assume that China will collapse. And the second strategic mistake is to presume that you can convert China. On the other hand – and this I have said to my Chinese colleagues – the biggest mistake China can make would be to assume that America is a declining power, and down and out. Now, if the two superpowers can avoid these blind spots, and if they can accept Kissinger's admonition that conflict or war between these two gorillas are unthinkable, and avoiding it is possible but not automatic, then certain things flow from that. I think it is good that they met in Anchorage; it is good that they actually let out steam in Anchorage. I mean, if nothing else, a robust discussion, even publicly, followed by hopefully more restrained but candid conversations behind closed doors, I think, can lead us to a better world. So I am still hopeful that good sense will prevail. 


But the other dimension to this is domestic politics. And you know Kevin, I mean you have lived in or you have been travelling to America for well over a decade now. You know that the bipartisan animus is real, and it has changed from a decade ago. Similarly, you may say China is not a democracy, but they do have domestic political opinion to contend with. And I do worry if leaders become boxed in by nationalistic forces, which sometimes they, wittingly or unwittingly, unleash, and it ends up painting both sides into two different corners. So it is very easy for you and me to talk about it to analyse it, but we are not in the driving seat and that is why I said, ultimately, the decisions will not be made here; it will be made in Washington and in Beijing. But the rest of us have got a lot of skin in the game. Because if they get it right, we will then have a golden age, amplified by digital technologies, scientific advancement progressing at exponential rates because it is the entire world working off a common technological and application stack. And we can use all that to solve climate change to deal with pandemics, to reduce inequality and raise the productive capacity of our people all over the world. So that is what I hope for. I just hope it is not wishful thinking. I suspect I am very much on your wavelength, Kevin.


Rudd: I think that is true, I mean I do worry about a lot about the fatalism I encounter in various parts of the world, including in the United States and to some extent in China, on, on the facticity and unavoidability. I am in the process of authoring a book myself which is entitled "The Avoidable War".


Minister: (Laughs)


Rudd: For the simple reason, it is – it is called human agency; its political agency. 


Minister: There was an avoidable war, it is called World War I. 


Rudd: Yeah, exactly.


Minister: And none of the leaders party to that, when they started out on their journey, I think had planned for World War I. 


Rudd: Absolutely.


Minister: And they ended up on a path dependent course for disaster. So there is a real danger.


Rudd: The book I recommend to everybody is "Sleepwalkers", which is the analysis of the events of 1914. And I know it is one that haunts many of us as we see some evidence of sleepwalking, but parallel to that, a sense of almost fatalism as well, as opposed to human agency. Before we go to questions, one final point on US-China. My observation is that the Biden Administration probably needs to do more to re-engage Southeast Asia. And just looking at it from afar. They have only been in office for 100 days and a bit. You have seen a lot of activity in Northeast Asia, a lot of activity with the NATO, a lot of activity on climate. I do not expect you to say something undiplomatic about the Americans, but it has been a difficult few years, and I think it would be good to see them back across the board. So I do not know if you have any reflections on that question. 


Minister: Well, we know the key players in the Biden Administration well. And I think they know me, and they know us well enough to know that we will always give it to them straight. Look, there iss a lot on their in-tray. And, you know, it may be that we are not the squeaky wheel that needs grease at this point in time. But to be fair, and I have spoken to (US Secretary of State Antony) Blinken, to (US National Security Advisor) Jake Sullivan. (US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific) Kurt Campbell has been very active. They know that Southeast Asia is of strategic importance and of growing importance, and they have assured us that they will be present; they will play a role. And we will give them some time to get that act on the road. So, I am not saying this facetiously or to flatter them. It is just that I understand there are many things going on in the world. And I also understand that, in fact, President Biden's most important political duty is domestic. He has got to unify America. He has got to regain confidence in American society at large. Kevin, you know as well as I do, that foreign policy begins at home. You have got to settle your home front, and then you can go and fix the fences and travel in the rest of the neighbourhood.


Rudd: The team is good in the Biden Administration. They know Singapore and Southeast Asia well and they are deeply respectful, whether it is Blinken or whether it is Sullivan or whether it is obviously Campbell. And we wish them well, and we want to see them more and more active in the wider region. Turning to a couple of questions we have got. One is from a person called Janelle. And Janelle asked this question: how do you respond to Min Aung Hlaing's ASEAN agreement to the Five-Point Consensus, that he put on ice when he returned home, caveating it was the need to have stability before he can carefully consider ASEAN's suggestions, quote unquote, "as you frame them". ASEAN put a lot of effort in the Five-Points – I saw the work on the ground, tough. You took some tough decisions in having the general there. Then he had some less consonant remarks to make via his return to Yangon or Nay Pyi Taw. How do you see this unfolding, Minister?


Minister: Well, I think it will be a long and difficult journey, and there will be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and bargaining. So frankly, I am not too surprised at his comments, but I do not think that can be used as an excuse to just sit still and not do anything. He knows that the other ASEAN leaders in the nine countries are serious and focused on this. He knows that there is consensus in the rest of ASEAN on what needs to be done. He knows that there is a plan. There are certain expectations, and that he cannot just use this as an excuse to obfuscate or to filibuster. He would also know, in the end for Myanmar and even for his own political objectives, it is better for him to engage actively and in good faith with ASEAN, rather than to just stonewall us. And then he will be left all alone, isolated from the entire world. So, this is still work in progress. I do not want to jump the gun. I do not want to make things more difficult through megaphone diplomacy. 


But I would say from my direct observation and direct interaction with him – I used to interact with him even before, on several occasions – he is the Commander-in-Chief of the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw does feel entitled to rule. The Tatmadaw, in fact, has been a critical part of the body politic of Myanmar. And in my comments earlier, I said, in fact, what we witnessed in the last decade was power sharing. The biggest question is how, when, and with whom hopefully, he will be able to make arrangements for power sharing with the civilian side of the house, because it is clear that if you look at the young people in Myanmar today – Myanmar is one of the most internet-connected societies that I know of in Southeast Asia. Paradoxically, it was the previous government before the NLD (National League for Democracy), that made cheap internet mobile access available. I think if you ask Facebook, they will tell you that it is one of the most "Facebooked nations" in the world. 


Rudd: (Laughs) I did not know that.


Minister: Check on that, do not take it on faith from me. We should ask Mark Zuckerberg that.


Rudd: (Laughs)


Minister: But if you look even at our own Facebook feeds, and the people who participate, in my view, there is a disproportionate participation by young people from Myanmar. The point is, the difference between 2007, or even '98, compared to now, is that you have an active, informed and mobilised young people. The other point is the demographics of Myanmar lean towards the younger generation. So it is different. I hope he is listening and taking good and accurate advice, and he will understand that he does need a new modus vivendi. The road that they were on for the last seven decades is a dead end – if you look at Southeast Asia, all of us; if you look at the nine of us – first, we were able to achieve national identity and unity, even with the local diversity. Second, we were able to give security to our people. Third, we were able to give economic opportunities to our people. Look what has happened across Southeast Asia. For Myanmar to be stuck in a time warp seven decades ago is a tragedy, especially when you know the people of Myanmar, and you know how hardworking, disciplined, friendly, imaginative and industrious they are. They deserve so much better. So anyway, I may be engaged in wishful thinking, but I hope he can see that he does need a new role. You cannot just double down on repression and the use of force.


Rudd: This strikes me that demography delivers him a dead end if he is not very careful. That is my observation – not putting words in your own mouth. It would be very smart to reflect on his part, the successful transition out of the New Order period in Indonesia, and the transition of power from TNI (Indonesian National Defence Forces) to the civilian polity, and what happened over time. Different countries, different environments, I understand that. But these things are doable. If we were to reflect more widely in our regional neighbourhood, whether it is from previous military rule in Korea, Taiwan, or in Indonesia, and here (Myanmar) as well. Another question is asked about the role of the United Nations, Minister, and that is that the United Nations has a doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, adopted obviously after Srebrenica and after the tragedies in Rwanda. Do you have any reflections on the applicability of this doctrine to Myanmar's circumstances and more broadly, the role of the United Nations in dealing with the current crisis, and how is that calibrated with ASEAN? 


Minister: Well I am not prepared to wade into its direct applicability to Myanmar at this point in time. You may or may not be familiar with our views on R2P or Responsibility to Protect. As you said, it really came out of a concern that people needed to be protected. The primary responsibility for protecting people must lie with your national, local government. We should not be living in a day and age where we witness genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes or crimes against humanity. If you look at the still-evolving, and I emphasise, still-evolving debate at the United Nations, there is also a caveat that it should be something which is invoked very, very carefully. It must involve the United Nations Security Council. It must not be an excuse for external interference. Because with the few exceptions that you have mentioned, in fact, the rest of history is replete with examples of spectacular failures when external solutions were imposed by external parties. My own sense of Myanmar right now is that external intervention is neither practical nor helpful. I believe reconciliation and dialogue has to be within the people of Myanmar themselves. And therefore, we are focused on helping that process of reconciliation and good faith negotiation to occur, rather than to invoke other spectres, which would press some very sensitive buttons in Myanmar. So, I am just explaining why I am so cautious on this note, but I have not yet given up on bringing parties together and getting good faith negotiations going. Within ASEAN, that is certainly our priority.


Rudd: With the United Nations Special Representative, and when we have finally appointed an ASEAN Special Envoy – do you have a sense of how the two can work together?


Minister: Well I know (Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary-General for Myanmar) Christine Schraner Burgener very well, I mean we have been in touch for several years now. She has done the hard work of engaging all parties. She has also had great patience, and you do need great patience in this job. Right now, in fact I think she is in Thailand; she has certainly based herself now in Southeast Asia. I would expect the ASEAN Envoy to work closely with her, and hopefully be two elements of a chord that would be able to reach out to and engage the military authorities in Myanmar. But I do not want to be prescriptive at this point in time, except to tell you that Christine has my vote of confidence, and I am sure the ASEAN Envoy will work with her.


Rudd: The final question as our time grows to a close, Minister, is, I think all of us have been moved by the extraordinary developments in India recently with the impact of COVID-19 there. And most of us have felt fairly powerless to assist, to be quite honest. As simply in my NGO capacity, what do you do, who do you write to, which NGOs do you fund et cetera. Do you have any wider thoughts on how the international community can be more supportive of India at this particular time? It is a hard one. It is largely domestic, but the needs appear to me to be very great.


Minister: Well, again, I do not want to be prescriptive, but let me go back to what I do know. The variant, B.1.617.2, first identified in India – we now know it is more contagious than the original form that was circulating last year. It may or may not give more severe disease – that part is not settled yet. But what happened in India is that when you get an avalanche of cases, even people who can and should be saved, will not be saved because you overwhelmed medical facilities. To run out of oxygen and ventilators and the necessary drugs which you need in ICU is really a tragedy. It is in fact a salutary warning to all of us that this can happen if we let our guard down prematurely before vaccines have been able to raise our overall level of immunity. So the first point is, this just shows you the power of exponential spread of a pandemic. The second point is that vaccination is essential. But you cannot vaccinate yourself out of an exponential crisis. So you have got to dampen down that. What it means, at a practical level, is all the social distancing measures: masks – and proper masks because we now know that it is spread through aerosols and not just through droplets, which is what we had presumed last year, taking precautions on ventilatory systems, making sure the number of people meeting in rooms with poor ventilation (is low). All these non-pharmaceutical measures which have been around for centuries, will need to be applied for at least the next two years, until we can get our general immunity up. In the meantime, India has acute needs. In the case of Singapore, we have supplied oxygen; we have supplied cryogenic tanks, oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators and the rest of it. But you know India is such a large country. Anything that we can do, we will do. But it is a massive scale problem, so we will continue to support. And Australia has also been very supportive of India. 


Rudd: And all of us, rightfully so. I think we do grieve as members of the wider Asian family when we see such evidence of suffering. So, as we grieved when we saw the outbreak of this in Wuhan originally, and the impact on people in China, innocent civilians caught by the disease. Vivian, thank you so much for your time. You have been very generous with us. You know you are a welcome guest with us at the Asia Society. I always enjoy discussions with you, my friend, because you are one of the most intelligent and informed foreign ministers in the world.


Minister: Thank you.


Rudd: You understand what is happening and you not just read your brief, but you actually dig into what I describe as the necessary technical details. So it is always a privilege to talk with you, but also then to take that information and apply it to the conceptual challenges we face without trying to make this crazy international order of ours sound more effective than it currently is. Thank you so much. We look forward to being with you again, and all the best to the good people of Singapore in navigating the challenges ahead. Thank you for being in our public session. 


Minister: Thank you. You know you have got many friends out here.



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