Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview with Singapore Media Following the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting and Related Meetings in Phnom Penh, 5 August 2022

06 August 2022

Minister: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us. It has been a very hectic three and a half days since I arrived. This is ASEAN’s first full-fledged in-person meeting. ASEAN engaged almost 30 countries over the last three days. It was good, it was essential, it was important. Let me set the stage so that you get some idea of the issues that came up and were just discussed.

This is a profoundly dangerous moment in world affairs. If you think about it, (in) many other countries, divisions, polarisation, hyper-nationalism, xenophobia, are gaining ascendance. Not only that – on a global stage, five months ago, we had the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which represented a full-fledged assault on the UN Charter, on international law, on the principles of sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity. I think you all know Singapore had to take a stand, because these principles are absolutely existential for us. Beyond the war in Ukraine, we are all also facing the secondary impact – a rise in prices of energy and food. In fact, in some other parts of the world, Africa, especially South America, the impact of this inflation is pushing countries over the abyss.  There is no question that there are multiple areas in the world that are either already in crisis or on the verge of crisis. So that is one cluster of issues. This week, we all know about cross-strait relations. What is really happening there is a reflection of just the latest, acute chapter of a growing and dangerous divergence between the United States and China. That has got profound implications for Southeast Asia, and for the world, because if you stop to think about it, what the world needs right now, we are still dealing with the pandemic. There is even a new epidemic – monkeypox – on the horizon. We have got climate change, as a medium to long term challenge. What you actually need is a united, cohesive, coherent, functioning world order. But right now, you do not have it.  That was the mood in which we were meeting.  I would say it was important to meet in person. Because it is only in person, you can look in each other's eyes, state what you need to state, and get an idea of what the real existential concerns are. We had a very good attendance. Nine members from ASEAN, and there were lots of other countries. In particular, all the major countries were fully represented. America, by Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken, China, State Councilor Wang Yi, the EU, (High Representative/Vice President) Josep Borrell, Russia, (Foreign Minister) Sergey Lavrov. So, literally all the big guns were in the group, and I found that very useful. It allowed a no-holds-barred discussion and to be honest with you, sometimes the discussions got a bit heated. There was a bit of verbal jousting, pushing and shoving, but I think it is better for this to occur and to be ventilated. It cannot be dealt with remotely. So, that was the context in which this meeting occurred. I will stop there and take questions.

Ganapathy Sundaram Sathiyanarayanan Monolisa (Tamil Murasu): You have met Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr. Jaishankar, twice in the past two months. What are some of the specific areas of discussion in the ASEAN-India Foreign Ministers’ meeting?

Minister: If you add the population of India and ASEAN, you end up with something like more than 2 billion people. If you add the GDPs (gross domestic product), it is about five and a half trillion US dollars. But that is not all. Because if you look over the next ten to twenty years, that number will quadruple over 20 years, because there are still many young people in Southeast Asia and certainly in India. It is an area with lots of potential growth. We are currently the coordinator for ASEAN-India relations. Some of the things which we have been working on to facilitate – basically two areas. 

One, India has certain strengths – FinTech, digital finance, digital inclusion, and what they have done with digital identity and payment systems, is a clear opportunity for us. In Singapore, of course, we have all those systems as well, but for the rest of Southeast Asia, to explore how we can interconnect our payment systems, our financial systems, in order to facilitate payments and expand opportunities for small businesses across the subcontinent and across into Southeast Asia. That is one stream of work. 

There is the other more traditional work, which is economic integration. For instance, we are reviewing the ASEAN-India Trade in Goods Agreement  to facilitate trade, to facilitate customs clearance, and to reduce the friction for the movement of goods between the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. We have got quite a lot of work there. I had the chance to meet (Indian External Affairs) Minister Jaishankar twice the last couple of months, and there will be more meetings. But this is an important area.

Wun Yun Fang (LHZB): We are all very interested in the cross-strait development. We would like to ask, what are the implications of (US House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi’s visit on US-China relations, as well as the security situation of the region, and also based on your observations of the meetings, what are the temperatures like? How would you describe the temperatures on both sides? 

Minister: I had the privilege – I met Speaker Pelosi together with Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) on Monday. I subsequently met (PRC) State Councilor Wang Yi. I have also discussed the same issue with (US) Secretary of State (Antony) Blinken. I had a good opportunity to assess what was going on. Let me just say a few things. Number one, although this is not the first visit by a US Speaker to Taiwan – it occurred 25 years ago – actually this visit occurred at a very sensitive time, a politically sensitive time for both China and the US. I am sure that has also contributed to raising the temperature and the tensions. That is the first part. The second point is that clearly China takes this very, very seriously. They have couched it in terms of territorial integrity, sovereignty.  Once you get into that, you have to take a very, very strong stand, which is what we are witnessing right now. I would say my observation from my interactions, not only just with Secretary of State Blinken today, but, Prime Minister (Lee) has been to Washington D.C. twice in the last few months, so we have also had opportunities to engage (US) President (Joe) Biden himself. I would say, both China and America are actually not looking for conflict. But both sides, for political reasons, need to take a stand. The main danger, and I said this to State Councilor Wang Yi yesterday, (the) main danger is you have got a lot of ships and planes and missiles massed around there. There is a danger, even though I know you do not want to go to war, but there is a danger of accidents and miscalculations. For what it is worth, we repeat the appeal that for the rest of us in Southeast Asia, we actually want temperatures to come down. It is actually very important for Southeast Asia for China and the United States to get along. 

Maybe I should explain why it is so important for us in Southeast Asia. Since the end of the Second World War, peace and prosperity has been the result of globalisation based on economic integration, free trade, the Bretton Woods Organizations – WTO (World Trade Organization), the IMF (International Monetary Fund), the UN (United Nations), international law, UN Charter – this allowed many countries, including Singapore, to ride on globalisation, the growth of multinational corporations, the rapid progress in science and technology, and we were basically all working off a single application stack of technologies. Now, if the relationship between America and China breaks apart, that means the potential end of this period which has been characterised by peace and prosperity. If you think about it, overall, a remarkable period of relatively low inflation previously, and low interest rates, which were very conducive for economic growth. Once you split (it) apart, it means higher prices, it means less efficient supply chains. It means a more divided world, a more disrupted and dangerous world. Those are the stakes. So when we make the appeal, please have a care. I know you have to compete, maybe even confront, but we all have skin in this game and we do want America and China to get along. Like I said, my own personal observation is they are not looking for conflict. But I have to tell all Singaporeans right now – this is a dangerous, dangerous moment for the whole world. 

Hariz Baharudin (Straits Times): As US-China tensions heighten as they have in the past week, how can ASEAN stay united? During the meetings that you attended, was there a pressure for members to take any sides? What can ASEAN, as a group, do to continue to stay relevant in the more complex world that you alluded to earlier? 

Minister: We have a problem, obviously, in Myanmar. But let us just set that aside first. Certainly, for the other nine ASEAN members, at peace, there is economic development and social uplifting. We are united, and the argument I made was to use the metaphor that PM (Prime Minister) Lee has used, that in Southeast Asia, the regional architecture that we are trying to create is what he has referred to using the metaphor of “overlapping circles of friends”. We are not looking for a line that bisects Asia, that forces countries to choose sides, invidious choices and false dilemmas. I think this metaphor of “overlapping circles of friends” is one which has traction and support within ASEAN. To be fair to ASEAN Dialogue Partners, I asked the Chinese or the Americans or even the Russians, they are actually not, so far at least, forcing us to choose sides. They all start off with a preamble “We are not asking you to choose sides… but this is why we are doing what we are doing. These are our interests”. The fact that ASEAN has been able to operate on this basis (of) “overlapping circles of friends”, more and more economic integration, riding the digital revolution, the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, and even in terms of what we are doing with the superpowers. I will give you an example. With India, we have tech, trade facilitation and customs clearance. China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner. But similarly, if you ask China, China will also tell you that ASEAN is China’s largest trading partner. But if you go into the details of the trade, which by the way is growing remarkably, between China and ASEAN, a lot of that trade also consists of intermediate goods, which ultimately are also destined for markets in the EU and the United States. The point is, we actually all have skin in this globally integrated economic system. All of us in ASEAN get that. With America, for instance, we are looking at cybersecurity, we are looking at green technologies. For trade facilitation, there is a specific problem with America because they could not sign onto the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); what they have offered now is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF). Frankly, it is not as ambitious as the TPP, but in my view, it represents a half-step in the right direction and it gives credence to America’s statement that it is a full member of the Asia Pacific, it wants to participate fully and knows that the growth prospects in Southeast Asia are very good. 

On Myanmar, I have to be very frank: it is very dire. I think there is a real danger that the coup is sliding into a civil war. There has been no progress on the ASEAN Five-Point Consensus. In fact, the timing of the recent executions or even the earlier bombing by the Tatmadaw so soon after Prime Minister Hun Sen visits Myanmar, or the Special Envoy goes to Myanmar, reflects a high level of cynicism or even outright disrespect for the role of ASEAN. The point is – we cannot interfere, but if they do not see that there is value in dialogue, national reconciliation and making use of ASEAN’s good offices, then I am afraid that it is a very dire situation. How long will this go on for? I have heard estimates from between four to twenty years. I do not know, but I am pessimistic. 

Leong Wai Kit (CNA): Now, the ball is in Myanmar’s court to show progress on the Five-Point Consensus. How would you define or measure progress, and what do you think is the next level the ASEAN leaders could take? What is your envisioned peace plan if it is rethought? Also, the ASEAN Special Envoy has been encouraged to engage all stakeholders. Would that also mean that he does not need the approval and control of the Myanmar army? 

Minister: At a practical level within Myanmar, it will be very difficult for the Special Envoy to engage all the other stakeholders without the permission or the cooperation of the Tatmadaw. Obviously, (engaging stakeholders) out of the country, it is easier. The opposition to the military coup is not just out of the country; it is within the country. The point which we are making to Myanmar is – we cannot solve your problem for you. We want to help, but we cannot solve it. Unless you are willing to, in good faith, engage and to achieve national reconciliation – the immediate prospects of the people of Myanmar are very grim. All of us have friends in Myanmar, they are hardworking, pleasant, courteous and dignified people. They deserve so much more. 

Leong Wai Kit (CNA): Could you answer how ASEAN would define and measure progress before November? 

Minister: We are formulating some options which I am not at liberty to share, but which we would place on the table of our leaders when they meet in November. But let us not jump the gun, because if for instance, in the remaining few months, they actually stop the violence and engage across the political spectrum, give access to our Special Envoy, in particular, let him meet with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, I think those would be positive steps and we do not need to go into other things. I remain pessimistic about what additional pressure would do for the Tatmadaw. In the end, they have to see that this is a dead end, and the only way the country can move forward is by national reconciliation. Thank you.

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