Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Doorstop Interview With Singapore Media via Phone Call on 7 June 2021 at Chongqing, China

08 June 2021

Minister: Let me start off with some opening remarks. This was an important commemorative meeting. We are celebrating the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China diplomatic relations. The last three decades have been momentous. Within China, clearly, the economic development has been incredible. Within ASEAN itself, development, both economically as well as strategically, has also been very significant. For instance, everyone knows that China has been ASEAN’s largest trading partner since 2009. But what many people may not be aware of is that last year, ASEAN was China's largest trading partner. 

In these three decades, there have also been challenges. One example of a challenge is the situation in the South China Sea. This was an occasion to reflect on successes, as well as to assess how we move forward, and how we move forward given the challenges that confront both China and ASEAN. There were three areas which we focused on. One, is the clear and present danger from COVID-19. We reflected on the very effective cooperation between China and ASEAN since last year, in terms of China's support for vaccination in Southeast Asia, China's support for the provision of essential medical supplies, including gloves, masks, and PPE (Personal Protection Equipment). The fact that we were able to help each other at that point of need, built confidence and augurs well for the future. For the next few months, we are looking at how we can carefully and deliberately re-open safely – assuming the situation stays under control. For that, we had discussions on things like bilateral recognition of vaccine certificates and sorting out the details of the protocols for travel. There is a lot of staff work, a lot of discussions and negotiations before we actually trigger (the re-opening). Right now, it is not the time yet. Nevertheless, as and when the situation improves both in China and Southeast Asia, we can effect all these proposals that we are discussing. 

The next thing was on the economy itself. I think all of us are very pleased with the way trade and investments have been developing in particular along the Belt and Road, and the opportunities for investment in connectivity and infrastructure that provides for Southeast Asia. Particularly for Singapore, our China-Singapore (Chongqing) Connectivity Initiative (CCI), and the CCI-New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor, and how this concept links both the “Belt” and the “Road” to Southeast Asia and beyond. That was another fertile area for much discussion, and there is much to look forward to. 

The third area was on sustainable development. China has announced new, ambitious goals for green and sustainable development. I also explained what we are doing in Singapore with our “Green Plan” as well as the other opportunities across Southeast Asia. All this provided good material for discussion and ample opportunities for collaboration in the future. 

On the more difficult issues, for instance the South China Sea, we have been working over the last few years on trying to make progress on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. This morning, the officials met at the Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (SOM-DOC).  All this is preparatory work for what I hope will be progress in the years to come, to a substantive COC, which will improve stability, security, peace and opportunities for prosperity across Southeast Asia and in the South China Sea, which is between us and China.  

Another delicate topic was Myanmar. I think all of us were united on the need for an immediate cessation of violence, the release of (political) detainees, and for meaningful negotiations and dialogue to occur amongst all parties. The appointment of an ASEAN Special Envoy only makes sense if there is a genuine desire within Myanmar for genuine dialogue, negotiation, and reconciliation.  This is still work in progress. To be honest with you, we are disappointed at the very, very slow progress. Unfortunately, we know that there are still civilians who have been hurt or killed. There has been no release of political detainees. There has been no real sign of meaningful political dialogue and negotiation. We will have to watch this space. As I said, ASEAN’s main role is not to interfere. Because in the end, only the people themselves within Myanmar can determine its future. But ASEAN stands ready to help, to be supportive, and to facilitate mediation, if possible. But we will have to wait and see. Disappointing, but let us not give up hope. I am happy to take questions.    

Gwyneth Teo (CNA): Dr Balakrishnan, is Singapore in talks for, specifically, mutual recognition of vaccine certificates with China, or any other further travel arrangements, to allow more general travel?

Minister: Yes, we have been discussing it. I would differentiate between recognition of vaccine certificates, and vaccines itself. They are two different things. But clearly, you do need to have mutual recognition of vaccine certificates if you are going to facilitate travel, especially in a post pandemic phase. Yes, discussions are ongoing, and are positive. But like I said, this is not the right time to press the start button yet. But as and when the situation improves, both in Singapore and in China; at the right time, we will be ready and all the staff work would have been done.

Cheryl Lin (CNA Digital): We just discussed some ways to go about post pandemic recovery. Specifically, what are some new examples that will involve Singapore in particular?

Minister: You know our strategy within Singapore. The next few months are critical. We have to double down on vaccination. We have to do a lot more testing, in particular, early testing, and secondly, to be able to trace and to isolate very early. Now, assuming we can do this, and do this well over the next few months, I would expect the situation to continue to improve in Singapore. At the same time, we have to watch very carefully what is happening in our immediate neighbourhood, because clearly, Singapore cannot open if everywhere else is having a resurgence. It is very important to watch how the vaccination programmes, and the control within our neighborhood occurs. When we look beyond that, particularly in the case of China, China has been very successful in controlling COVID-19 in the last one and a half years. A combination of border controls, very tight border controls, very strict discipline, social distancing measures, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. But they are now also ramping up vaccinations. Actually, vaccination prevalence is essential – both in China, as well as in Southeast Asia – if we are able to open up our borders more safely. That is why I said it is premature to press the button now. But we know what needs to be done. We know what the thresholds will be, so that we can liberalise, and when we reach that, we will explain. And the processes, steps, and protocols will be in place. That is how we are going to approach it over the next few months.

Minister: Thank you.

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