Transcript of Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's and Senior Minister of State Sim Ann's Doorstop Interview with Singapore Media Following Minister Balakrishnan's Official Visit to the People's Republic of China, 21 February 2023

21 February 2023

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: Thank you all for being here. Let me start with a few introductory remarks and I will invite SMS Sim Ann (to speak) as well.

First, this has been a very good, intensive series of meetings. This is my fifth trip to China since COVID-19 began. One clear point is that interactions have proceeded despite COVID-19. I would also say that the experience of COVID-19 both in China and Singapore has deepened the reservoir of goodwill and trust and the spirit of collaboration between the two countries. In a sense, this trip was already riding on that momentum. One clear sense which I got from this trip was the fact that life has returned to normal and that is positive. I was even glad to be caught in a few traffic jams, as an index of normalcy. I was also very glad to meet our own Singaporean community here – students who have returned to university; businessmen, some of whom have stayed here throughout COVID-19, as well as others who have returned (to China). All these are a good index of a return to normalcy.

In terms of the meetings, my schedule was completely packed. Yesterday morning, I met the Party Secretary of Beijing Yin Li, whom, I had met two years ago in Wuyishan, in Fujian when I first came to China in the midst of COVID-19. At lunchtime, I met the Minister in-charge of the CPC International Department, Liu Jianchao, whom I have also met before in his previous assignment when he was involved in anti-corruption efforts in China. He has now been promoted. I also met the host of my visit, the new Foreign Minister of China, Qin Gang. We had a very long session yesterday. If you add the total amount of time, it must have been about three and a half hours – a very good introductory meeting for both of us to get a sense of what our priorities and what our anxieties are. So, that was an excellent meeting. This morning, I met another old friend Song Tao, who is now in charge of the Taiwan Affairs Office, for another good opportunity to catch up as well as to get a sense of his concerns as well.

It has been a full and packed programme. As I said, my impressions, first, is the return to normalcy. Second, the fact that our students and businessmen are also raring to get back to where we were pre-COVID-19. One key pre-requisite for that is to restore connectivity, in particular air connectivity, between Singapore and China. Over the last few weeks, there has been a progressive return. We are not there yet, I think we are only at about 15 percent so far. But the direction of travel is clear – to restore connectivity and to allow the normal pace of interactions and business. On the political side, bilateral exchanges have already commenced. In addition (to) my visit, right now in Singapore, the Party Secretary of Suzhou is in town. We also had a visit from the Vice Mayor of Tianjin. Over the next few months, you should expect to see an increasing pace of bilateral travel between the two countries and the leaders, as we restore the agenda and the pace of activity back to pre-COVID-19 and beyond. All in all, a very useful set of meetings and on a positive note, the keyword is a return to normalcy. Thank you. Can I invite Sim Ann?     

Senior Minister of State Sim Ann: [In Chinese] 新加坡和中国之间有多个不同形式、不同层面的合作机制。在过去三年内,因为疫情的关系,主要都是靠视频会议来维持,人员的互访非常的有限。不过现在随着中方对于抗疫方针的调整,相信今年我们可以全面的恢复面对面的交流和互访。我相信这对于两国之间的合作和交流,会起到快马加鞭的积极作用。除了官方的互动之外,我相信商界还有民间之间的交流也会变得更加的频密。我们在两天前和旅居北京的新加坡专业人士、学生、商人交流,大家都有这样的一种共识。我们都对今年充满了展望。

[English translation] Singapore and China have many different forms and levels of cooperation mechanisms. Due to the pandemic in the past three years, (the bilateral relationship) has been mainly sustained by videoconferencing, with limited exchange of visits. However, now with China adjusting its pandemic policies, Ibelieve that we can resume face-to-face exchanges and mutual visits fully this year. This will give bilateral cooperation a positive boost.

Aside from government-to-government interactions, there will also be more frequent interactions between our business communities and peoples. During our interactions two days ago (at the reception hosted by the Singapore Embassy in Beijing) with Singapore professionals, students and businessmen living in Beijing, everyone agreed that this would be so. We are all looking forward to this year.  

Olivia Song (CNA Broadcast): Minister, you talked about returning to normalcy. As China has reopened and its borders have been relaxed, you mentioned a bit about top-level officials’ visits.  What else does this mean for businesses and people-to-people links? Also, what can we expect? Is there a timeline of what Singapore is expecting to see? You mentioned air connectivity and we saw yesterday that it was something you raised in your meetings. What was the response from the Chinese side? Is there a timeline? What can Singaporeans expect? 

Minister: First, let us review the last three years. Both China and Singapore supported each other at critical moments, perhaps out of public eye, but effectively, convincingly and in a way that builds up mutual trust and support.

Our three Government-to-Government projects continue to do well, in Suzhou, Tianjin, (and the) Chongqing International Land-Sea Corridor. The eight business provincial councils continued to meet, albeit virtually, but clearly what you are going to see in the next few months is bilateral exchanges and actual face-to-face meetings between leaders from Singapore and leaders from China. In that sense, you will see a return to normal scheduling, normal meetings. But the key point is that these projects and these interactions continued to do well even during (the) COVID-19 (pandemic).

Now as China opens up and Singapore has gone back to DORSCON Green, it is really about accelerating that pace of return. One key area of focus for us has been (the full resumption of) air connectivity. The other thing is that we still have a few students who are still in the queue waiting. We want to quickly resolve that, and I have mentioned this as well to the Chinese authorities, because (for) a university education, online lessons are no substitute. You do need the on-campus experience, the networking (and) the informal interactions that come.

Similarly, for the businessmen, those who have had long-established business and networks in China and in Singapore have been able to carry on, more or less. There were some setbacks, some interruptions, but they were able to carry on. But for new businesses and new opportunities in the digital field, in the green economy – people need to meet, people need to suss each other out, get an idea of who they are comfortable working with, who they can rely on, explore the opportunities that these new areas present, particularly in the digital and green, renewable energy space. You should expect to see a lot more. Watch this space in the next few months.

Wong Siew Fong (LHZB): Minister, you had your first meeting with Foreign Minister Qin Gang. What is your impression of him? 

Minister: As I said, we had a very extensive, long (meeting). I was not even aware that it took so long – it was a very good, in-depth discussion. He is a very accomplished diplomat with extensive experience in Europe as well as in the United States – after all, he was just the Ambassador down there.

am very glad that he has already engaged those of us in Southeast Asia. He has met the Thai Foreign Minister, spent considerable time with me, (and) today he is on his way down to Jakarta, Indonesia. I hope to see more of him in Southeast Asia and at ASEAN meetings. He is a good man, and I am looking forward to working closely with him, just as I did with his predecessor State Councillor Wang Yi. I did not get a chance to catch up with Wang Yi because he is at the Munich Security Conference, but I will catch up with him on the next occasion

Tan Min-Wei (Mothership): I was wondering whether you could share with us what the new Foreign Minister’s experience and relationship with Asia and Singapore is like, and whether we can expect a shift in approach during his tenure?

Minister: I do not think you are going to see a shift. I think what you are going to see is continuity. I am going to focus my comments on Southeast Asia. Since 2020, the largest trading partner for China is Southeast Asia. We have overtaken the US and the EU (European Union). Second, there has been a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between ASEAN and China since 2002 – we upgraded it in 2015, and right now we are in negotiations to upgrade it further. The relevance and importance of this FTA was that this was the first between China and the region, and for ASEAN with an external partner. In turn, this led to the RCEP, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which we signed and has entered into force, which includes the whole of ASEAN, plus China, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

The political significance of this is that at a time when globalisation is under strain, when free trade and economic integration is facing political pushback; for us as a region and with a major economic partner like China to continue making progress in agreeing to upgrade economic ties, is strategically significant. I expect China’s interactions and engagement with Southeast Asia to accelerate in the years ahead.Yes, there are ongoing issues for which progress will be needed. For instance, the South China Sea, the Code of Conduct – negotiations in person fortunately have commenced. I am not in a position to put a deadline but I hope to see progress on this front. It will not resolve all the disputes and differences in the South China Sea. But insofar as enhancing confidence and ensuring stability and peace, and therefore further catalysing economic engagement, all these will be positive signs. What I can say is that Foreign Minister Qin Gang appreciates this practice and I do expect to see more of him in Southeast Asia.

Dawn Tan (ST): Minister, let me ask you about the balloon saga, which was front and centre at the Munich Security Conference. My question is how does Singapore and how does Southeast Asia view this crisis? It has become a sovereignty issue now, which is something that is quite sensitive in the region, given the many outstanding issues.

Minister: It was a setback to the interactions between the United States and China. But I am very glad that (US Secretary of State) Antony Blinken and (PRC State Counselor) Wang Yi met face-to-face at what appears to be an open, candid and frank discussion. I hope this will restore a very necessary engagement, collaboration and cooperation between the United States and China. This may be a matter for (the) two superpowers to resolve, but for the rest of us in the world, we want them to achieve amodus vivendi. It will bring a measure of stability and calm which is necessary for the world at this point.

Dawn Tan (ST): Did you speak to Mr Qin Gang about this yesterday?

Minister: We had, but I am not going to go into details.

Davina Tham (CNA Digital): My question goes back to air connectivity. You mentioned earlier about the importance of full resumption of it. I wanted to pick up specifically on whether we are looking at a timeline on this full resumption and China's reception to any proposals that we had.

Minister: No, I am not ready to put a timeline to this. What I can say to you is that when I flew in here, my flight was full. The Chinese authorities are aware of that. I pointed out that right now I think we have about 56 flights a week, which is about 15% of what it was pre-COVID-19. I told them that what we really need to aim to is to restore pre-COVID-19 levels as soon as possible. But I am not yet able to give you a timeline for that.

Norman bin Sawi (BH): My question is on Europe and China and what is Singapore's position on the relationship between China and Europe from the position of the current tension between US and China?

Minister: Clearly the problem in Europe right now is centered on the war on Ukraine. First, let me say from a Singapore perspective, our position as a tiny, independent, sovereign city-state. We have taken this as a matter of principle –full respect for territorial integrity; independence and sovereignty of a nation, big or small, must be respected. Hence, we have taken the stand that we have taken.

My hope is that in the next few months, which incidentally at this point in time are looking rather worrying, nevertheless, I hope that some negotiations some engagement, maybe even a ceasefire can be worked out. I hope for this for the sake of the Ukrainian people themselves who are suffering. Also, it will lower the global temperature for the very delicate interactions and relations between superpowers – United States, Russia, China, Europe. The sooner the war ends, the sooner tension is dialed down, the faster they can resume the recovery from COVID-19 and get back onto the agenda of economic integration for which there was a significant growing account between Europe and China. I think everyone recognises this. Everyone is hoping that this de-escalation will occur sooner rather than later. But I have no illusions. The situation now is worrying. In fact, looks like it will get worse before it gets better. So let us wait and see and hope, and whatever it is, do not make things worse.

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