Transcript of Joint Press Conference of the 13th Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee in Canberra, Australia, 1 May 2023

01 May 2023

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles: Today, we have had a really productive meeting of the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee. At its heart, what is completely clear is the deep affection which is felt between our two countries, and that has really been embodied in the rapport which exists between the six Ministers who have been participating in the meeting today. We really welcome the involvement of our Singapore counterparts, welcome you to Australia today and thank you for the participation in today’s meeting.

As we have discussed many topics, what has become really clear is that we really do live in a world with great strategic complexity and significant strategic threat. We want to play our parts, as two nations, in creating pathways for peace within that world. But as we look forward and we look at the uncertainty of the future, one matter becomes manifestly clear, and that is the importance of the friendship that we have between our two countries, and the importance of making sure that we make this relationship even deeper into the future.
The relationship is unique. From a defence point of view, Singapore and Australia have a very specific and close and unique relationship embodied in the way in which Singapore does so much of its training in Australia. Singapore has as much presence in respect of defence in our country as any other nation in the world. That is something that we really welcome. We understand the significance of that to Singapore, but we really appreciate it from the perspective of Australia. We love having members of the Singaporean Armed Forces coming to our country to do their training and we have looked at ways in which we can expand that into the future. Where there are issues in respect of facilitating that, we are working really closely in terms of trying to resolve those.
We have also looked at other issues within the context of our relationship, and there has been a conversation around Australia’s supply of energy to Singapore, including the supply of gas. We want to make clear that we regard Singapore’s energy security as profoundly important in terms of Australia’s national interests. We made very clear to our Singaporean counterparts that Australia will continue to be a completely reliable partner in terms of the provision of energy into the Singaporean market and that includes the provision of gas. This is really important in terms of our bilateral relationship. It is obviously important, therefore, in terms of our broad interests within the region, and the significance of our relationship with Singapore in terms of our broader interests within the region. We were very pleased to be able to have that conversation today. As we approach the 10th anniversary in 2025 of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), we look forward over the course of the next month to when our two leaders will be having their own Leaders’ Meeting, and that very much formed part of the backdrop of the discussions today. As we enter into the next Leaders’ Meeting between Australia and Singapore, we do so with a lot of optimism about the future of our bilateral relationship.
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: Thank you. Let me thank Richard, Penny and Don for that very warm welcome for Eng Hen and Kim Yong. This is the 13th Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee. I was just reflecting – I think I have attended almost half of all those meetings. So, when I stand here and say that this has been a long-term, consistent relationship based on mutual trust and a proven track record of cooperation, I mean it and I have the years in service to say that with utmost conviction. You are right – by 2025, we would have had 10 years of CSP. You know, the word “strategic” is bandied around a lot nowadays. But when Singapore and Australia agree on something, we have complied with it, both the spirit and the letter, and it has come along wonderfully over the years. We will also be celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties in 2025. I think at a time like this where the world is in an unsettled, volatile, and uncertain phase, it becomes even more critical. Obviously we are different in size, in location, but we are complementary, we trust each other, we are absolutely reliable, we fulfil our commitments to one another and the level of trust which Australia has demonstrated to us, and I believe on a mutual basis, means all the more reason we need to double down on this. Thank you once again for this session.
Minister Penny Wong: Thanks very much to Minister Vivian, to Eng Hen and Kim Yong, thank you very much for the spirit of our discussion today. As we discussed, you are one of our closest partners, (and) it has been a great pleasure to host you here in Canberra. The Committee has reaffirmed in the discussions today, an ambitious agenda. As Minister Vivian said, we have a CSP. We have done a lot of work in the context of that partnership but we envisage – on the Australian side, as we go forward – an even closer and deeper strategic relationship given the circumstances. We are very pleased to have the discussions we had today.
Obviously, we are linked to Singapore for many reasons. Historically, I spent a fair bit of time there when I was younger, so we are linked by geography, we are linked by our people, and by choice. We share a region and we share a future. Our friendship is underpinned by a great deal of strategic consistency, by similar and complementary shared economic interests and a shared vision for an open, stable and inclusive region.
I just wanted to add one point, because I think Richard has covered a lot of what I wanted to say in the opening, but we have the tenth anniversary of the CSP in 2025. So, what we do want to do is to ensure that we work towards the next iteration in a way that enables us in 2025, to have an even closer relationship, and a more ambitious and dynamic next iteration of the partnership. Thank you all for making the journey to Australia, and we hope we can reciprocate in the near future.
Minister Ng Eng Hen: I will make some comments on defence that Deputy Prime Minister Marles made. First, let me thank Mr Marles for his kind words. We had a very productive meeting, we are very thankful for the progress we made under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) about ten years ago. We want to thank the Labour government under Prime Minister Albanese and his Ministers here: Deputy Prime Minister Marles, Minister Penny Wong and Minister Don Farrell for supporting our training here – we have a big footprint.
Every year, thousands of our Singaporean young men doing their National Service experience your wonderful bushlands and your weather, and they go back with very fond memories. And it is only possible because of the affection that Deputy Prime Minister talked about. The affection of the officials, the affection of the people who put up with our military training – whether it is Shoalwater Bay, Pearce, or Oakey. We thank you for that.
It was also very productive because we are looking forward, with more training opportunities bilaterally, as well as for us if you allow us to train here. We understand your processes, there are some developments in the CSP that are delayed, but we respect your processes and try to be helpful wherever we can.
I want to end off by saying that another aspect that we talked about during this Ministerial Committee was of the way forward and the complex environment. And for that, we believe that Australia can play a bigger role in our region, for Australia’s vested interest is in Asia. It is an Asian country, not only just an Indo-Pacific country, but an Asian country. We would welcome Australian ships and planes through our bases, and ultimately when your submarines are ready, we would welcome them to call on our ports, we will facilitate. We believe that Australia adds to regional security in ASEAN and beyond. We look forward to these very, very positive aspects, and thank you once again for your friendship and your confidence in each other.
Minister Don Farrell: Thank you, everyone. Thank you for our Ministers from Singapore coming to join us today. I first met Minister Vivian when we both had the responsibility for water, a nice 10 or 11 years ago, and we have had a very good relationship. I first went to Singapore in the 1970s as a student and continue to go there and enjoy it. But thank you for coming to Australia today.
One of the things that happens this year is that we celebrate 20 years of our Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Singapore. Singapore is our closest friend in Southeast Asia, and we see great opportunities to build upon the past and build upon those complementary features of our economy, whether it be in the digital space – and we have got a very progressive agreement with Singapore in the digital space - whether it be in the green space. Australia intends to be a renewable superpower, and we believe that we can be great partners with Singapore.
On this year of the 20th anniversary, we think that there are even more ambitious things that we can do together. At the World Trade Organization (WTO), we have no better friend than Singapore in terms of building a sensible, rules-based order for trade. We both share an ambition to make trade fair in the world, and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleague, Minister Gan, to build on that wonderful relationship that we have had over that twenty years. Thank you.
Minister Gan Kim Yong: Thank you. First, let me thank my Australian hosts Minister Don Farrell, Deputy Prime Minister Marles and Foreign Minister Wong. It has been a great opportunity for me to be here to discuss various issues of concern between our two countries. As Don pointed out, we celebrated our 20th anniversary of our Singapore-Australia FTA (Free Trade Agreement). We even cut the cake, but I am still waiting for the cake to be delivered. But I think it is an important milestone. This Free Trade Agreement has formed the foundation for many of our collaboration that have emerged over the years. As Don pointed out, we had a digital economy agreement. Last October, we signed the world's first green economy agreement. These agreements have now become the pathfinders for many bilateral as well as regional collaboration in both digital and green areas. So, I think there is great scope for us to continue to work together. As the world economic landscape becomes more challenging going forward, it is even more important for like-minded partners like Australia and Singapore to work together to see how we can strengthen bilateral collaboration and regional cooperation. These will include areas not just (in) green and digital economy, but also supply chain resilience, particularly in the energy security area. I am very happy to note DPM (Richard Marles)’s comment about Australia committing to be a reliable partner in our energy security considerations. It is important for us to continue to work together, and I look forward to working with both teams to see how we can iron out the details. I think there are a lot of opportunities for us, whether in a digital or green economy, as well as supply chain resilience arrangements. At the same time in a regional arena, whether it is IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity), World Trade Organisation, or CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership), we have always worked very closely with one another to ensure that we discuss with one another and to have consultation with one another, to ensure that we are able to bring forward and to strengthen regional cooperation. I certainly look forward to meeting Don in (the) future to discuss further our areas of bilateral cooperation. Thank you.
Daniel Hurst (Guardian Australia): On the trade front, Singapore was one of the countries that signed up as a third party to the World Trade Organization disputes that Australia initiated against China's actions on Australian barley and on Australian wine. Does Singapore believe that those trade measures were coercive in nature? And should there be a reason for China not to be accepted into the CPTPP?
Minister Gan Kim Yong: Thank you very much. Singapore's interests as the third party is really to better understand how the process is being conducted as a member of the World Trade Organization. It is also in our interest to see how we can strengthen the dispute resolution mechanism. That is the primary reason why we are involved in the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement as a third party observer. On the CPTPP, as we have mentioned, it is a consensus-based approach for ascension processes, and Singapore welcomes economies who are able to meet the high standard that is required under CPTPP and have demonstrated the ability to comply with rules that are set down in CPTPP.
Brandon How (InnovationAus): Question for Minister Gan and Minister Farrell. Note that Singapore introduced the enterprise innovation scheme, which has a lot of generous incentives for research and development in Australia as well as very big expenses in supporting and encouraging R&D expenditure. Given the collaboration ongoing in the green and digital space, what opportunities do you see for closer integration and collaboration between the two startup ecosystems?

Minister Don Farrell: Australia, as I said earlier, at our meeting, of course, continues to be the lucky country. One of the things that we have an ample supply of is all of the critical minerals, and for that matter, rare earths that are going to decarbonise not only Australia's economy, not only Singapore's economy, but the world's economy. Australia has either the largest or the second largest reserves of all of those resources that are going to allow us to make that transition from a fossil fuel economy to the decarbonised renewable economy. One of the ways in which we can get the maximum benefit from the agreements that you are talking about is to ensure that we are working together as two countries committed to decarbonising our economy. The thing about critical minerals is that, well, if you look at say, an iron ore mine, if you go up to northern Western Australia, you can see an iron ore for as far as the eye can see that red, red dust. Critical minerals are actually quite different. They are much smaller deposits, they are much deeper down, they are going to be more expensive to extract, and they are not going to last as long as an iron ore mine will. That is just one example I think of the opportunities that we both have in that green space.

Minister Gan Kim Yong: Maybe I (will) just give a few comments on the innovation that you asked about. In fact, Singapore and Australia have several programmes ongoing on innovation on the research and development, and our Enterprise Singapore has set up several Global Innovation Alliance around the world, including Australia, to encourage small and medium enterprises to embark on innovation, as well as collaboration with one another to better understand the market needs and to do product development. So it is an area that we are very keen to explore with Australia. In fact, this afternoon, I am going to visit a hydrogen testing facility to look at how we can better manage hydrogen as an alternative energy source. These are areas that we will continue to explore how we can collaborate both on the digital side as well as on the green economy to bring benefit to both countries.
Dominic Gianni (AAP): On the gas supply, why did you feel it necessary to reassure Singapore that Australia will be able to attend to their energy security? Was our reputation harmed by their quiet quitting comments that came out of Japan and just, if I might, Senator Wong, can I please ask for an update on the PNG (Papua New Guinea) defence agreement? I know the negotiations were scheduled to be concluded this month.
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles: I will just answer simply in relation to the first question. We spoke about Australia’s role as an energy supplier to Singapore because it is a really central part of the bilateral relationship. Australia’s supplies are a significant proportion of Singapore’s energy and it is unremarkable for us to say that that is a relationship which is beneficial to both countries, that we value it. We value that part of it which provides the energy security to Singapore and we value being a reliable supplier of gas going forward. So that is the context in which those remarks were made.
Minister Penny Wong: First, as you know, we are appreciative of Prime Minister Marape’s strong support for this negotiation, and we will continue to work with PNG on the details of those negotiations. I am sure we will talk to you when we are able to talk about that.
Jonathan Pearlman (ST): Question for the Singaporean ministers. There was a comment about allowing Australian submarines through Singapore and I wonder if that would extend to nuclear-powered submarines under the AUKUS Agreement? And just generally, what the view from Singapore is on those nuclear-powered submarine acquisitions?
Minister Ng Eng Hen: Well, you will not be the first. We have the US (United States) nuclear-powered submarines that called at Changi Naval Base.
Stephen Dziedzic (ABC): A question for the Singaporean delegation. You have recently seen a ramping up of tensions around the Philippines with the announcement of new US bases in the region and recently, a clash between a Chinese naval coast guard vessel and a Filipino vessel. Are you concerned about tensions in the South China Sea?
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: For both Australia and Singapore, the relationship between the United States and China is absolutely vital. If you look at our strategic position, if you look at our economic interest, for both Australia and Singapore, the ideal world is one in which a modus vivendi is achieved between Washington and Beijing. Our vital relationships with each of them are based on a stable rules-based regime, an open and inclusive Southeast Asia and to create a balance of power which maximises the options for all of us much smaller countries, and that both the United States and China have a stake in our success and prosperity. That will be the ideal world. So, I think it is worth making that as the general starting line.
Having said that, we also recognise that we do not control the agenda in Washington and Beijing. I think it is going to take some time before a sufficient level of strategic trust is built up between the two of them, and for relations to be on an even keel. That would give all of us much relief and a sense of stability. Having said that, from a Southeast Asian perspective, I think all of us want to ensure that Southeast Asia does not become an arena for proxy wars. We all want to ensure the sea lanes, freedom of navigation, is achieved as a right under UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and not by permission or by grace of any power. We want all powers, not just the superpowers, but all middle powers –I would include Australia in that – to have free access and opportunities in Southeast Asia and in the sea lanes and in the air lines of communication. Obviously, we do view any altercations, collisions or incidents at sea with grave concern.
The point here is that we want to head off these situations. Speaking from the point of view of ASEAN, that is why we are continuing our negotiations on the Code of Conduct. It will not resolve the disputes over sovereignty, but it can help build confidence by lowering the thresholds for conflict or for escalatory actions. That is what we hope for, and certainly in the case of Australia and Singapore, and (Minister) Penny can add to that, we all want a rules-based regime. We want an open and inclusive regional architecture. I think what is special about the relationship between Australia and Singapore is that we both see the critical need for a rules-based regime, for compliance with international law, for compliance with the principles of the UN (United Nations) Charter, and we see this in exactly the same way. There were some questions just now related to defence and economy. It is worth remembering that the defence relationship between Australia and Singapore goes back many decades, in our case, even before independence. We have the Five-Power Defence Arrangements, and I have lost count of how many Singaporean youth have spent time training down here. This is a unique arrangement. When we say that we believe Australia is a constructive partner, it is absolutely sincere. Even on AUKUS, if I could speak not from a military perspective, but from a strategic perspective, insofar as it contributes constructively to regional security, we are in support of it. We are comfortable with all the three partners within AUKUS because with each of them, we have had long-term relationships. That is why I think we are able to work together and I want to make the point about that - complementarity and that trust is unique. Long may we nurture and double down on it.
Minister Penny Wong: Hear, hear. When we speak about our closeness and the strategic trust. These are not matters only of history, of affection, of geography. They are also a perspective, a shared perspective, or very similar perspectives, about our interests and what matters to our interests and Minister Vivian, more eloquently than I, has outlined those. I just want to make three points. Our interests are very aligned because we understand, given who we are, the importance of the multilateral system and rules, and we acknowledge in particular, that Singapore has been clear about, its position on Ukraine, and has articulated its understanding on why all states need to push back on the breach of the UN Charter. Secondly, we, as Minister Vivian has said, understand the importance of rules to our national interest and to stability. In that context, particularly, given our location, UNCLOS matters. It matters to Singapore and it matters to us, and it matters to the region and it matters to the stability of the region. The third point is where the Minister started. We have spoken about the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the region in which we live. Whether it is AUKUS, our commitment to ASEAN centrality, our economic engagement with the region, (and) all of our work that we do, that is the focus Australia has. We have also spoken about the importance of guardrails in the relationship between the US and China. Minister Vivian uses a different formulation, modus vivendi, but they are essentially seeking the same thing, that is, we all want those powers to ensure that they operate in a way that lessens the chance of miscalculation or escalation and enhances the possibility of continued stability and peace.

Stephen Dziedzic (ABC): Just to follow up on AUKUS, you spoke just then about the trust between Singapore and AUKUS nations. And those reservoirs are something you have talked about before. 18 months in, what is your current assessment of the regional response to AUKUS? What is your message to countries like Indonesia that have publicly expressed concerns about the way that AUKUS might undermine norms of non-proliferation or regional stability more broadly?

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan:   Let me say I cannot speak on behalf of my neighbours. I do not want to overstate the case. I speak on behalf of Singapore and how Singapore relates to Australia, and I choose my words carefully. As long as AUKUS contributes constructively to regional peace and stability, it is a good thing. Do we trust the individual partners of AUKUS? In the case of Singapore, we have got long standing relationships with each of them. That is why we have, in a sense, not expressed any reservations. Penny took the trouble to call me, and I think Richard called Eng Hen as well, before the second round of announcements, to underline Australia's commitment to the Treaty for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the role of the International Atomic Energy Agency. I have absolutely no reason to doubt Australia's commitment on this front.
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Photo Caption: Joint Press Conference at the 13th Meeting of the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee (SAJMC) in Canberra, 1 May 2023

Photo Credits: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore


Photo Caption: Family photo at the 13th Meeting of the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee (SAJMC) in Canberra, 1 May 2023

Photo Credits: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore


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