Kate Fisher (CNA): At UNGA (United Nations General Assembly), leaders of the US and China each issued a diplomatic opening to cooperate and touted the importance of diplomacy over militarism. Does that signal, possibly, that both sides are trying to calm the waters after the UNSC (United Nations Security Council) saying that growing confrontation risked a new “Cold War” if the two superpowers are unable to find common ground?
Nirmal Ghosh (ST): To add to that for a second, you also mentioned in New York about US-China relations, the need for competition not to take into conflict? Did that also figure in your discussions in D.C.? How cognisant was everybody about this?
Minister: Well, actually it was President (Joe) Biden who said to be very careful not to allow this competition to tip into conflict or into an adversarial relationship. Similarly, President Xi (Jinping) re-emphasised the point that it should not be a zero-sum game. One does not have to achieve success at the expense of the other. So I think based on what the two leaders have said in New York, and as well as my last few days down here, interacting with Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken, (National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific) Kurt Campbell and leaders of both parties on Capitol Hill, I would put it to you this way – first, there is no doubt that there is bipartisan concern (and) anxiety about China, and how its rise affects the strategic balance and the impact of China on the United States. There is no question – both parties (are) very concerned, and in some cases, even anxious about it. That is the first point.
The second point is, I also get a clear signal that both sides – and certainly on the American side of the house – both parties actually want to avoid collision. I think everyone is painfully aware of the enormous consequences if a collision, either by design or unwittingly by accident, occurs. That is the second point.
The third point I would make is one from a Southeast Asian perspective. Clearly, that was why I was here – to give them a view from Southeast Asia. The one point which I made in all my interactions was that as far as Southeast Asia is concerned, we recognise that the stakes are very high. The dynamics of the US-China relationship have got enormous consequences on us. But Southeast Asia does not want to become a token, or a lever, or an arena for proxy contests between the two superpowers. Southeast Asia and Singapore want to be taken on our own right – meaning, that in Southeast Asia, we have 650 million people, we have a combined GDP of $2.8 trillion, which by the way, will double and then subsequently quadruple in the next two decades.
The United States is the largest investor in Southeast Asia and has more invested in Southeast Asia than it has invested in India, China, Japan, and Republic of Korea combined. In other words, America has skin in the game. On the other side of the ledger, China is the biggest trading partner for virtually all of us in Southeast Asia. If you ask the Chinese, the largest trading partner for China, is now ASEAN – Southeast Asia. The point I was trying to make was that there is a lot going on in Southeast Asia. There are great opportunities emerging in the next two decades. Take Southeast Asia seriously on our own merits, and not just look at us in terms of the great big power competition, and I think I succeeded in making this point or I will continue to emphasise making this point.
The next question is, having made the argument for why the United States should engage Southeast Asia on our own merits, what are the specific fields they should look at? I reiterated the point that in Southeast Asia, trade and investment are strategy. That is really what the 10 of us in Southeast Asia are looking for. Who is going to trade with us? Who is going to invest in us? How can we get mutually beneficial economic relationships? It is economics that drives the strategy. I think my interlocutors accept that argument.
Clearly, one interesting missing piece of the jigsaw is the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership). It began as a multilateral free trade agreement between four small countries - Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, and Chile. And then, the United States got interested, Japan came in and it became the full TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) with 12 partners. Unfortunately, due to political reasons, domestically, and also I think, there is a certain zeitgeist against free trade and globalisation and the competition that brings. Whatever the cause, you realise that certainly within America, there was no appetite to proceed with the TPP. Fortunately, Japan and the other 10 members decided to proceed anyway. We renamed it the CPTPP. Think of this as a skyscraper built. To a large extent, if you look carefully at the details, in terms of intellectual property protection, in terms of labour protection, in terms of environment protection, this would have been the most high standard, ambitious, multilateral free trade agreement in recent memory.
Anyway, the United States would not proceed. Now, just within the last two weeks, it is China that has come knocking at the door. In fact, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told me, just a couple of days before the formal announcement, that China felt that this was an avenue worth pursuing, indicated that they would pursue it and actually applied to become part of the CPTPP. Of course, China was not the first. The UK had already put up its hand even earlier on. Then of course, later on, Taiwan as well. The point now is that there is this big piece of the jigsaw, which is an icon of economic integration, trade, investment across the Pacific. The United States will have to decide its role in this. It is ironic – having been there at the creation and having substantially negotiated a very ambitious free trade agreement – for the United States to subsequently not have any role at all in the emerging economic architecture in Southeast Asia.
I do not think the political zeitgeist in America is ripe for it yet. But nevertheless, this is a strategic point that needs further debate and discussion down here. I think the fact that the Congress is looking at the Infrastructure Bill and other investments, both in terms of hardware and software within America – if they can settle this within the next couple of weeks or months, and you see a more confident, cohesive America, maybe that might provide opportunities for America to do something in the economic space. That was a substantial part of our conversations on the Hill with both parties.
The other emerging field is in the digital field. China has noticed that Singapore has negotiated a digital economy partnership with Chile and New Zealand. In fact, we have also negotiated one with Australia, and are discussing it with the UK and other partners. China has also expressed interest in this new emerging area of the digital economy. Again, this is something which America ought to be interested in. It may be politically more doable. In a sense, it is a more circumscribed area, but nevertheless, an emerging area with great importance. We will see how this goes. But it was useful for me to be able to put this on the table and say, guys, look at it, consider what else we can do.
Then of course, there is the green agenda, sustainable economy and dealing with climate change. This is something which, on a bilateral note, we are keen on pursuing. But even on a regional level, I think green agreements which will facilitate investments in renewable energy, energy, conservation, energy efficiency, and the technologies of the future, is another area ripe for exploration. And then, of course, there were discussions on the pandemic. In particular, the need not only to produce and distribute vaccines widely across Southeast Asia, but also the need to have resilient, reliable supply chains.
As you can see, there was quite a lot of substantive issues that we were able to discuss on a strategic scale. The short summary of it is they are concerned about China. We pointed out that Southeast Asia is worth investing and looking at in our own right and there are many areas involving trade, investment, digital economy, green economy, pandemic preparation, and supply chains. Much work lies ahead of all of us. We will see where this goes. Watch this space.
Kate Fisher (CNA): US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told ASEAN foreign ministers that Washington will soon release a new comprehensive strategy for the wider Indo-Pacific. The Biden Administration hopes to focus on its main national security priority of countering a rising China. Washington wants to build on a shared vision for a free, open, interconnected, resilient and secure region. What do you think this could entail and what role can Singapore play in that?
Minister: Well, as I said, you know, we are transiting into a multipolar world. Every power, big or little, has its own preferred architecture orientation. But really, for the future, these things need to be negotiated (and) need to be discussed. The key point I was making, is that Southeast Asia is not just an item on the menu. We want to be at the table, we want to discuss, and we want to help shape the agenda. In the case of Southeast Asia, we do not want a collision. We do not want to be forced to take sides, but depending on the issue, we may have to take positions. This is an area that needs far more thought, candid, open discussions, and I think I have had lots of that in the last three days.
Kate Fisher (CNA): Singapore has been a steadfast supporter of the US in the Asia Pacific for the past 55 years. You recently said Singapore is in “uncharted territory” with the rise of China even as the US remains a leading superpower. You added that there are new challenges as well as much opportunity. Do you think Singaporeans can understand the (quote) “geostrategic forces that are playing out”? Can they rise up to the challenges and grab opportunities?
Minister: Well, the short answer is yes. I think Singaporeans do appreciate the delicacy of the moment and the enormity of the stakes. If you just take a step back – we have only been independent for 56 years. If you look at the way we transformed ourselves from an entrepot into an advanced manufacturing site, into a key node in a global economy, with multinationals, with access to technology, access to new markets, and the confidence of a Singaporean citizenry who will prepare to compete, compete head on, on the basis of education, organisation, or what Mr Lee Kuan Yew described as a hard-working and disciplined people.
America's role in this, since the end of the Second World War, America has stood for a rules-based world order, it has stood for economic integration and has promoted investments and trade. This has been a recipe for peace and prosperity. Singapore has been a major beneficiary of this. But that same formula, in particular, in the last 40 years when China reformed and opened up – in fact the biggest beneficiary of this system has been China. Therefore, the biggest strategic change is the rise of China, to the point where it is now a peer strategic collaborator, competitor and rival to the United States. In that sense, this is uncharted because this has not happened in recent history. Certainly, America has never faced a rival of this order of magnitude and sophistication.
Now, if that is not enough, you have another revolution in play and that is the digital revolution. That is disrupting jobs, wages, causing anxiety throughout society, and particularly even in the middle classes. Because people worry about what is going to happen to my job. Am I going to be replaced, either by competition or by technology? Therefore, you see this pushback. In fact, all over the world, including in Singapore, that some people feel, well, maybe if you erect walls, you erect tariff barriers, you keep foreigners out, somehow, you will be shielded from competition. I do not believe this. Singapore cannot afford to believe this. Singapore, in fact, needs to double down to prepare for the jobs of the future, and how we can remake, reskill and re-uplift our people to go after the jobs and opportunities of the future. We are dealing with both a geostrategic rebalancing, and we are dealing with a digital revolution. If that is not enough, we have also got the looming threat of climate change. This COVID-19 pandemic has, in fact, been another acute reminder that there are many areas which define this within the global commons, that if the world is unable to work collectively together, it will be a dangerous, difficult world for all of us. That is what I mean by the fact that we are in unprecedented territory. We have both great dangers and great opportunities.
Just imagine for a moment that the world does come together, and we are able to cooperate multilaterally. We are able to deal with COVID-19, with vaccination, with supply chains and deal with emerging threats. Imagine that we can get together and just harness the technology which is already available to deal with the threat of climate change, and droughts and floods, and the impact on food supply. Imagine that we can have a world where we prepare our people for the jobs of the future, where people can be confident that we can make this transition. It will also be a world where we will have to have more secure social safety nets. Because in this transition, there will be disruptions and there will be pain felt in some sectors of our society. We cannot leave people behind; we have got to reach out. My point is, supposing we did all that, the optimist in me believes there is a real prospect for our Golden Age ahead of us. For little Singapore, because of the way we are, the fact that we, in some sense, do not have that many strategic choices – we have to think quickly, carefully and be a constructive player. This will also give us great opportunities, even for a tiny city-state like Singapore. I still end on a note of optimism.
Nirmal Ghosh (ST): On Monday, Secretary Blinken mentioned that you had both discussed Myanmar. What is the thinking in Singapore and the US on the way forward for Myanmar?
Minister: Well, both Secretary Blinken and I are deeply concerned and anxious about the plight of the people of Myanmar. They were already challenged economically; the pandemic pushed the economy down even further and the levels of poverty have risen. Then, the political instability came about because of the coup, and the violence that it has generated.
We are all deeply concerned for the plight of our brothers and sisters in Myanmar. We still believe, and I would include the “we” to include the United States, that ultimately the solution lies within Myanmar itself. The people, the leaders and the leaders across the entire political spectrum, need to sit down, negotiate, and discuss in good faith, for the sake of the future. We cannot force this. We can try to encourage, we can try to cajole and we can try in in our own ways to nudge them in that direction. So far, I must say, unfortunately, I do not see any sign of that. I hope I am wrong, and I hope that they are actually having discussions.
ASEAN is obviously trying to help. We are waiting for our Special Envoy, Dato Erywan (Yusof), to be given access to all parties and for him to be able to help facilitate these discussions. I am afraid there are no quick and easy solutions, but to the maximum extent possible, where we can help, we can help. For instance, right now, in response to the humanitarian crisis, I think you are aware, Singapore has sent medical supplies by working through the Myanmar Red Cross. We will also see whether there are other channels and other avenues through which we can deliver assistance effectively to our brothers and sisters in Myanmar.
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