Minister: I will start with a few framing remarks and then take questions. It has been a very hectic week. This is the first full blown return to normal for the UN General Assembly. Although there was a General Assembly last year, I think there were still some restrictions in place. This is back to normal. It was a very hectic series of meetings. I must have met leaders and foreign ministers from over 60 countries in five days. You can imagine it is really a schedule that is packed (from) morning to night. The general mood, both in the General Assembly as well as the meetings, both bilateral and regional, that I attended, was somewhat sombre because these are occurring clearly at a time of anxiety. There is a war in Ukraine, anxieties about food and energy prices and even food security for countries. (With) the pandemic – there are still lingering effects. I think it will be premature to say it is over. Of course, there were anxieties in the relationship between the US and China. Do not forget the longer term anxieties over climate change. This was the kind of backdrop, sort of an overcast sky, at which most of the discussions were occurring.
The general consensus, as least as far as small countries were concerned – we took this opportunity to celebrate the 30th anniversary of (the) Forum of Small States (FOSS), of which we were the convenor – it grew from 16 countries when we first started to now 108, which means we are now the majority at the UN. We also convened the Global Governance Group, which acts as a bridge between the G20 countries and the non-G20 countries in the larger UN membership. From a perspective of the large number of small states, there was a sense that we do need to double down on multilateralism, on a rules-based system with the UN charter at the heart of it all, and to the maximum extent, to try to persuade, cajole, (and) encourage bigger powers to act with self-restraint and to comply with international law. That was the mood and the sentiment on the ground this week in New York at the UN.
Nam Yunzhou (LHZB): Just to follow up on the point you made about the mood on the UN General Assembly being very sombre and (that) there are just so many challenges happening. In that respect, does this make countries more united or divided and how does Singapore position itself in response to these global trends?
Minister: Well, clearly there are divisions, in the relationship between Russia, Europe and the US. Clearly that is a huge chasm. The relationship between the US and China, at least as far as the UN is concerned, President (Joe) Biden made a very careful speech, which in essence reiterated the traditional US position on Taiwan and on China. I am glad that Secretary of State Antony Blinken met State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi – so these conversations are going on. If you just listen to the speeches from Europeans and from the Foreign Minister of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, you can see that there is a very wide gap. My sense of it right now is that, as far as Ukraine is concerned, the conditions are not right for negotiations. Of course, we have got the news earlier this week about the mobilisation of additional recruits and conscripts for the Russian army. These are bad signs. They show escalating tension and the fact that you are not going to get a quick resolution. We will have to wait and see.
Tan Min-Wei (Mothership): I just wanted to ask whether Singapore was concerned that the United Nations has thus far been unable to act as a mediator in the crises between Russia and Ukraine or China and Taiwan and the United States?
Minister: I would not put it that way. I think if you look at it objectively, and in particular, the (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ great efforts to broker a deal so that grain from Ukraine could be exported through the Black Sea, I think that is a remarkable success, considering all the circumstances. If you look at the anxiety about the nuclear power station, Zaporizhzhia, and the fact that you have got officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency on the ground, this illustrates that there is a role – and a critical role at that – for the UN in these conflict zones. I would say these are examples of how it is very difficult, but there is a role and it has been constructive, played by the UN and other international, multilateral institutions. It is very hard, if not impossible, if the UN cannot impose peace, unless the protagonist to any conflict actually arrives at a determination that war is futile – you cannot stop it. It will continue, and it will take time for the realisation to sink in that war does not solve anything. At the end you will still need to meet at the negotiating table and find a solution.
Nirmal Ghosh (ST): What are your thoughts as to the direction of US-China relations and more broadly, how would you assess the top concerns of ASEAN as a whole in the current global geopolitical environment?
Minister: Let us take the first question. Clearly, if you look at the rhetoric and the actions that have occurred across the Taiwan Straits in recent weeks, it is an area of concern – I would say even grave concern. But I am a little bit hopeful, because as I have said, there has been a meeting face to face between the Foreign Minister of China and the Secretary of State of the United States. I think both sides understand the gravity of the situation. We can only hope that cool heads and good sense will prevail, and that they will avoid the possibility of mishaps, miscalculations, accidents, or worse, getting into an escalatory spiral. But that is an expression of hope. We will have to wait and see. I think from now till the end of the year there are a series of meetings – the G20 (and) the East Asian Summit on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit. I hope that the two Presidents of the China and the United States will meet face to face, arrive at some kind of modus vivendi and set the tone so that the officials, ministers, and all the people (and) stakeholders involved can conduct constructive – hopefully positive negotiations. You are not going to remove all differences, but at least manage the contention, damper down the tensions, de-escalate the situation. I think the next two (to) three months are quite vital on this score.
Your second question as to where ASEAN stands on this. ASEAN is exquisitely vulnerable and sensitive if there is a real collision or conflict between China and the United States. All of us hope that it does not come to this. Insofar as ASEAN still has convening power, I hope the two Presidents meet on the sidelines of the upcoming Summits. I think that there is still a role, minor but still relevant, and salient for ASEAN. Let us wait and see. Let us see how things evolve for the next two months.
Lauren Ong (CNA): Myanmar is being put into focus at the UN. Malaysia has spoken about the lack of UN action in the Myanmar crisis. There are also warnings about the upcoming election in Myanmar, that it might be a fraud. You spoke a lot about multilateralism in your statements. How can multilateralism, with ASEAN countries and UN nations, (work) on a situation in Myanmar, and how will Singapore facilitate this?
Minister: I am unfortunately pessimistic about the situation in Myanmar. From the reports that we have, violence continues. Political detentions and even violence in the name of politics continues. Our view remains that the only way out of this quagmire is for political reconciliation, and for good faith discussions and negotiations between all the parties. In the case of Myanmar, it must involve Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on the one hand, the leader of the NLD (National League for Democracy), who in our view won the election, and the military led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. There has to be a proper meeting (and) a proper attempt to put the interests of their country first, to set aside the differences and to try to negotiate. Without that happening, you will not get a solution. It is equally important to emphasise that this is an internal Myanmar matter and ASEAN was never set out to interfere in internal matters. Nor should we – we should not get into this. What we can do is to encourage, to cajole, to facilitate and our (ASEAN) Special Envoy will do his best to try to bring the parties to at least talk to each other across the table in good faith. But we cannot solve the problem externally. External intervention never works.
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