United States Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken: Vivian, Foreign Minister, it is wonderful to have you here at the State Department. We have actually worked closely together since the last time I was in government, and I value the conversations we have had over many years. One of the things that I can say very clearly is that every time I have an opportunity to spend time with (the) Foreign Minister, I learn something, and I am grateful for that. Singapore is for the United States, a true partner. Having the opportunity today to discuss so many issues that bring us together, regionally, bilaterally in the first instance, regionally but also globally, was very, very beneficial.
If I could, let me just begin with a few words about my upcoming visit to the People's Republic of China (PRC), since we are leaving tonight on that trip. We look forward to having a series of meetings with senior officials in Beijing, building on the engagements that we have had with the PRC since President Biden and President Xi met in Bali late last year.
To summarise it, the trip has three objectives. First, to establish open and empowered communications so that our two countries responsibly manage our relationship, including by discussing challenges, by addressing misperceptions and avoiding miscalculations. Second, to advance US interests and values, and those we share with allies and partners around the world, including speaking directly and candidly about our very real concerns on a range of issues. Third, to explore the potential for cooperation on transnational challenges, global economic stability, illicit synthetic drugs, climate, global health, where our countries’ interests intersect and the rest of the world expects us to cooperate. Intense competition requires sustained diplomacy to ensure that competition does not veer into confrontation or conflict. Again, that is what the world expects of both the United States and China.
Now, our friends in Singapore and Southeast Asia more broadly, are essential to realising what is a shared vision for a free and open, a prosperous, a secure, a connected, a resilient Indo-Pacific where people or goods or ideas can travel freely, where rules are applied fairly and transparently. Indeed, for six decades now, the strategic partnership between the United States and Singapore, rooted in respect for the rules based international order, has helped strengthen peace and stability in the region and around the world.
I reaffirmed to the Foreign Minister that ASEAN is at the heart of our Indo-Pacific strategy. The United States supports ASEAN centrality, and we see a considerable convergence between our own Indo-Pacific strategy and ASEAN’s Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, epitomised by a shared belief in inclusive economic growth, transparency and the rule of law. Vivian and I discussed Russia and the ongoing war of aggression against Ukraine. Singapore has consistently stood up for Ukraine sovereignty, its territorial integrity, its independence, as well as the United Nations Charter in which those principles are embedded, and joined the United States and our allies and partners in enacting sanctions that are taking a toll on Russia's war machine. We will continue to support Ukraine as we work toward a just and lasting peace, one based on the principles that I laid out recently in Helsinki.
Respect for human rights and self-determination are also being challenged in Burma, where the military’s coup and the brutal crackdown continues to harm civilians, to deprive them of their right to choose their own path and threatens regional stability. We appreciate Singapore and ASEAN’s critical role in seeking a peaceful solution. United States will continue to impose strong sanctions against those perpetrating atrocities. We welcome Singapore's partnership in maintaining the necessary economic pressure.
Our two countries are also seizing new opportunities to work together – from space and cyber, to supply chain resiliency, to clean energy. We spent some time talking about that. As part of the green shipping challenge launched at COP 27 last year, Singapore recently announced an MOU with the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to upgrade digital infrastructure and to reduce emissions. We are partnering to advance our clean energy across ASEAN, including the ASEAN power grid, which will facilitate renewable energy development, deployment throughout the region, and help Singapore transition to net zero emissions by 2050. And as part of our expanded US-Singapore Climate Change Partnership, we are announcing today, new and enhanced areas of cooperation from reducing deforestation to encouraging energy efficient buildings.
All this collaboration is rooted in one of our strongest bilateral relationships in the Indo-Pacific. American companies, we talked about this as well, are the largest source of foreign direct investment in Singapore. We are working to grow our economies even faster, and even fairer through the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), of which Singapore was an early and enthusiastic supporter. Singapore is also a critical security partner, hosting American ships and aircraft, sending pilots to train in the skies above Arizona and Idaho.
For evidence of our robust people-to-people ties, one need look only for example at Singapore's Cabinet, where over half the ministers including Prime Minister Lee has studied in the United States. President (Halimah) Yacob is also a distinguished alum of the State Department's International Visitors Leadership Program, proving that we have a pretty good eye for talent.
Recently, the Prime Minister urged the people of Singapore “to think boldly, to aim high, to seek far”. Those are wise and powerful words, and I look forward to that spirit continuing to guide the close partnership between Singapore and the United States.
Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: Thank you, Tony. It is always special to meet you here. I think we have been meeting regularly for about seven years, including in different incarnations. So, I will confess to being biased, but I think the United States is very blessed to have the ultimate consummate diplomat in you, and more so at this very testing, trying and challenging times. It is an honour to be here and thank you for the opportunity to discuss a wide range of issues just now.
We first reaffirmed the excellent, long-standing, close, stable relationship between the United States and Singapore, and I should add, our shared commitment to a rules-based international order, and the fact that it was the United States seven, eight decades ago, which envisioned, underwrote and supported this rules-based international order. Even now as we go through challenging times, I think we need to reaffirm the importance of such a system. We also covered a range of bilateral, regional and global issues. On the bilateral front, everyone knows that we have got a very robust economic relationship. We are in that special category which is defined as a Major Security Cooperation Partner of the United States. But we have not stood still. We are also expanding into new frontiers. You have just mentioned the updated United States-Singapore Climate Partnership, and this will focus on collaboration in five areas, including regional energy transition in Southeast Asia, and low and zero emission solutions. Watch this space, there is a lot happening. We are also working in other areas like cybersecurity, all the more pertinent now with the challenges that we are facing. We also signed the Artemis Accords last year – that is another whole new frontier for collaboration. I mentioned just now that in fact for 33 years, we have had a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the United States use of our facilities, both naval and aviation. Again, that has been a symbol of our belief that the United States’ strategic presence and contribution to our part of the world has provided stability, has provided opportunity and helped to underwrite the peace which we should never take for granted.
Singapore is home today to over 5,700 United States companies. I also made the point that the United States investments in Singapore exceed what the United States has invested in Japan, China and ROK (Republic of Korea) combined. If you consider how small Singapore is, that statistic becomes all the more remarkable. On the other side of that same equation, Singapore's investments into the United States and US exports to Singapore support more than 250,000 jobs in America itself. I know it is not just about trade for its own sake, but also in terms of jobs and opportunities for people on both sides.
I also wanted to commend the very active regional engagement by President Biden’s Administration, with your shepherding of the efforts in our part of the world. The fact that President Biden attended the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh last year, and the President also hosted the ASEAN-US Special Summit in Washington in May last year – that sent a very strong signal of engagement.
We also elevated the ASEAN-US relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership last year, and it is not just a form of words but the real substance, the real deal. We also look forward to working with you to align the US Indo-Pacific strategy with the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, and we hope that there will be further discussions hopefully, when the President and you can visit our part of the world for the ASEAN meetings, the East Asia Summit, (and) the ASEAN-US Summit as well either here or in our part of the world in the near future.
I think the point is, we do want to reaffirm the critical importance of the US anchoring your strategic engagement in our part of the world. I made the point that there is in fact a deep reservoir of goodwill and trust, and you have many partners in the Asia Pacific. Maybe others may not be as explicit as we are in saying how welcome you are, but I gave you the assurance that everyone wants to see you engage in our part of the world.
The IPEF, which we also discussed, is another strong reaffirmation of the US commitment to the economic agenda in Asia Pacific. We welcome the substantial conclusion of the negotiations on the second pillar of the IPEF, which focuses on supply chains. We hope that the remaining pillars of the IPEF will include meaningful provisions that will lead to concrete benefits, and even greater regional integration. Finally, I know you have got a big visit coming up. I believe you are leaving tonight. I wanted to say that we commend your efforts. This is a very important and critical moment, not just for the United States and China. The rest of the world will be watching. So, we hope and believe that you will be able to manage the differences, but more importantly, establish open channels of communication, build mutual trust and understanding. I wish you a smooth-sailing and successful visit. Thank you, again, for hosting me. Thank you for this chance to, as always, have very open and sincere discussions, and I wish you all the best.
Simon Lewis (Reuters): First to the Foreign Minister, Dr Balakrishnan. The Secretary mentioned that Myanmar came up in your discussions. I wondered if I could ask you for Singapore's position on an initiative by the caretaker government in Thailand to re-engage with Myanmar's military junta and reportedly inviting the junta back into ASEAN meetings. Is that something that Singapore would support? I would also be interested in your response to the recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, on human rights in Myanmar, who identified $254 million worth of goods that have come through Singaporean entities to the Myanmar military, so I am interested in your response to that.
And for the Secretary, I am also interested in your view on whether ASEAN nations including Singapore, also Thailand, should be doing more to stop the violence in Myanmar. And specifically on Thailand, I wonder if we could get your view on efforts to form a new government there. Are you concerned about the Thai military trying to cling onto power despite the pretty clear results of the election? And just an additional one because it is breaking news. President Putin has said that tactical nuclear weapons have been deployed to Belarus. Secretary, what is the US response to that, and are there consequences for Russia and Belarus? Thank you.
Minister: Well, thank you. I think I counted at least three questions. Let me get back to first principles. We condemn the coup in Myanmar, and the ongoing violence against civilians, the instability in the country, the setback to national reconciliation and the enormous impact on the economy. Unfortunately, it is now more than two years. We have not seen any signs of improvement. From an ASEAN perspective, we have the Five-Point Consensus and we haven’t seen any significant progress in fulfilling the Five-Point Consensus. So we believe it would be premature to re-engage with the junta at the Summit level or even at the Foreign Minister level and in fact, our leaders at the recent ASEAN Summit reaffirmed this position.
Having said that, the ASEAN Chair Indonesia is engaging across a wide spectrum of stakeholders and the key point is this – you do need everyone, ultimately, to sit down and negotiate. I do not know how long it will take. The last time, it took 25 years for some form of democratic transition to occur in Myanmar. I hope it will not take that long. But it is very important for the rest of us. Whilst we are in favour of reconciliation and more dialogue, we obviously want to make sure that the level of violence goes down. And certainly, from Singapore's perspective, our policy is that we should all do our best to make sure arms, or even dual-use items which can be used to inflict harm and injury on civilians, should be proscribed. I noted Tom Andrews’ report, and one line in it is worth quoting. He said that “there are no indications that the government of Singapore has approved or is involved in the shipment of arms and associate materials to the Myanmar military”. But more importantly, we are also engaging Tom Andrews because any specific information which he has access to and which we can use for investigations or, if need be, to prosecute companies or entities which are breaching our laws and our policies on arms and dual-use – rest assured, we will get to the bottom of it. But the bigger question is, when will peace come back? Tony, I am afraid I remain pessimistic.
Secretary Blinken: You can sign my name onto every word of what Foreign Minister just said, including unfortunately, the pessimism that he expressed at the end, which we share. But everything that Minister said, I ascribe to as well. We are very focused on supporting ASEAN efforts to move forward towards a resolution that ends the violence, that frees people in jail, that puts Burma back on a democratic path. The Five-Point Consensus that the junta signed onto, has not been, to state the obvious, advanced, much less met. And it is very important that we continue, all of us, to sustain the appropriate pressure on the junta and look for ways to engage the opposition in Burma and find every possible avenue to advance Burma’s return to the democratic path, to an end of the violence, to the freedom of people who have been unjustly imprisoned. And in all of these efforts, we are working, the United States and Singapore, very closely together both through ASEAN and on a bilateral basis.
With regard to Thailand. I simply say that our full expectation is that the government will be formed pursuant to the laws of Thailand. That is our expectation. That is the expectation of people in Thailand as well.
With regard to the reports about Belarus, we have seen comments that were made in the last few hours. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely and very carefully. We have no reason to adjust our own nuclear posture. We do not see any indications that Russia is preparing to use their nuclear weapon. President (Biden) said again this week that we remain committed to the defence of NATO - every inch of its territory. That is our north star. We are very focused on that. I would just note that one of President Putin’s claims for starting his brutal invasion of Ukraine, one of the many rationales he gave at various points, was ostensibly to prevent the threat of Ukraine reacquiring the nuclear weapons that it gave up when the Soviet Union dissolved, and Ukraine voluntarily gave up the weapons they inherited, along with Belarus and Kazakhstan. It would be rather ironic, among many other things for President Putin to now be talking about putting nuclear weapons on the territory of a neighbouring state again, including a state that gave up the nuclear weapons that it inherited when the Soviet Union dissolved. As for Belarus itself, this is just another example of Lukashenko making irresponsible, provocative choices to cede control of Belarus’ sovereignty against the will of the Belarusian people.
Nirmal Ghosh (Straits Times): Minister, you have spoken about new frontiers in relationship with the United States. Could you elaborate a bit on that? You have mentioned the Climate Partnership, cybersecurity and so forth - a few more specifics if you could share. Secondly, as have been mentioned, a lot of the world is watching the Secretary's forthcoming visit to China. I wonder if you could give us a Singapore and/or a Southeast Asian view of US-China relations. Mr Secretary, could you also speak to that latter part about ASEAN centrality and how it all fits into the Indo Pacific strategy?
Minister: Thank you Nirmal. I used to be the Minister of Environment before this incarnation. So, I was heavily involved with the final negotiations for the Paris Agreement. One observation which I will make is that we would not have arrived at the agreement in Paris if it had not been for the confluence of strategic and environmental interests of the United States and China. I can tell you that from direct experience. That is why tonight's trip is so important, because there are many global planetary issues - climate pandemics, even cybersecurity, which require the United States and China to work off the same page and be key pillars for a global system which will help increase resilience to threats to welfare, health, and prosperity for people all over the world. So you (Blinken) go with our full support. But having said that, speaking now as a diplomat, I want to make this plea. Please do not put too much weight on poor Tony's shoulders. The fact is diplomats need time and space and sometimes just some quiet time to engage in some honest-to-goodness conversations without having to put out a tweet every hour or two. The trip is essential, but not sufficient. There are fundamental differences in outlook, in values, and it takes time for mutual respect and strategic trust to be built. So, it is important, but I am also making the plea. I hope people do not have excessive expectations on that front.
On your question about the new frontiers, I already mentioned the Climate Partnership, and there are five focal areas under that partnership which include the regional energy transition. Second, low- and zero-emission technologies and solutions. Third, nature-based solutions and carbon markets. And lastly, urban decarbonisation resilience and capacity building. And even in all these areas, you can see that there are obvious opportunities for synergy and cooperation between the United States and Singapore not just for our own sake, but in our region as well. I mentioned the Artemis Accords, so outer space is certainly another frontier. And of course, we have been working very closely, especially in last couple of years on cybersecurity, because that is a clear and present frontier where there is both risk and opportunity. So, watch this space.
Secretary Blinken: I think the Foreign Minister has captured it very, very well on all fronts. With regard to ASEAN, I simply want to note and emphasise something I noted before. If you look at our own Indo-Pacific Strategy, and you then look at the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific, the coincidence of these approaches, these strategies, these visions are very, very strong, and very, very high. And that speaks to why we do put a premium on ASEAN Centrality, and why as Vivian pointed out, starting with President Biden, we have had significant re-engagement with ASEAN over the last two and a half years. Economic growth, inclusive economic growth, transparency, the rule of law. We also work on discrete issues in areas that have a real impact on the lives of people in the region, as well as in the United States, whether it is climate, whether it is energy, whether it is global health. All of these are front and centre in what we are doing and one of the things that we talked about today is Burma. And of course, in ASEAN meetings and US-ASEAN engagement maybe that tends to get the headlines, and it is usually important. But if you look at the agenda that we are actually pursuing, both at the meetings that we have in the day in, day out, it is a very broad universe of issues of subjects, all of which go to the needs, the aspirations, the hopes of people in the ASEAN region and in the United States.
Minister: So, watch what we do, not just what we say, and you will see that there is a full range of activities for the United States and its engagement with ASEAN.
Jennifer Hansler (Cable News Network): Thank you. Mr Secretary, on Iran, how would you characterise the ongoing inter-talks with Tehran? Would you say that you are optimistic that an understanding can be reached between the two sides on constraining Iran's growing nuclear program? And the Omani Foreign Minister said earlier this week that he believes the two sides are close on a deal for the detainees? Do you agree with that characterisation?
Moving on to the China detainee issue are you committed to raising the case of Kai Li, Mark Swidan, and David Lin in your meetings in Beijing? More broadly, to both you Mr Secretary and Mr Foreign Minister, given what you said about this not being sufficient, are you optimistic that this will lead the way to continued meetings, continued dialogues between the US and China, including on the military-to-military front? Thank you.
Secretary Blinken: With regard to Iran, some of the reports that we have seen about an agreement on nuclear matters or for that matter on detainees are simply not accurate and not true. On the nuclear side of the equation, we are determined to ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. We remain convinced that the best way to do that is through diplomacy. We have not taken any option off the table – you have heard that clearly from the President. But we continue to believe that diplomacy would be the most effective path forward but there is no agreement, and reports to the contrary, are simply inaccurate. When it comes to our detained citizens in Iran, nothing would please me more than to be able to say that we have an agreement that secures their release, but that too, would not be accurate. It is something we continue to work on, intensely on a regular basis. And that is separate and apart from the conversations we have on nuclear matters, but I am not in a position to say that we have an agreement.
With regard to the visit - two things. One, yes, I will be raising the detainees. This has been an ongoing conversation with the PRC, and something that for me is always at the top of my list - that is, looking out for the security and wellbeing of Americans around the world, including those who are being detained in one way or another, including arbitrarily. More broadly, what we are working to do on this trip is to really carry forward what President Biden and President Xi agreed to in Bali at the end of last year, which was to establish sustained, regular lines of communication at senior levels across our governments, precisely so that we can make sure that we are communicating as clearly as possible to avoid as best possible misunderstandings and miscommunications. Because if we want to make sure, as we do, that the competition that we have with China does not veer into conflict, the place you start is with communicating. So, we will see what comes from this visit but this is directly in response to what the two Presidents agreed in Bali last November.
As to what comes next, let us see how the visit goes. I think Vivian said it very well. This is an important, but insufficient step because there is a lot of work to be done. I note as well, that even as we are trying to make sure, through better communications, that the competition does not veer into conflict, we are also looking at areas where we might cooperate in the interests of the American people, in the interests of China and its people but also in the interests of people around the world. One of the clear demand signals that that we get, including from our close friends and partners, is that both the United States and the PRC will responsibly manage this relationship and look for areas where our cooperation might produce results that benefit not only our own people, but people around the world, including in the region, so we will be looking at that as well.
Minister: Well, the only thing I can add there is perhaps a perspective from Southeast Asia. First, if you look a hundred years down the road, we see both China and the United States being a clear presence for the century and beyond. Second, we see the United States remaining a Pacific partner and power and stakeholder. We do not want you to go away.
Secretary Blinken: And we are not.
Minister: Third, if you look at the challenges confronting the world right now, and we have enumerated - climate, pandemics, cyber, opportunities in outer space - we will need, even as the world transits into a multipolar world, now more than ever, a rules-based multilateral system with institutions and processes fit for purpose and updated where necessary. This requires the United States and China to achieve a modus vivendi. So, this trip is important, it is essential, but it does not stop there.
I think Tony knows the views for all of us in Southeast Asia. The more you travel and engage, the better. As I said, I am biased because he is a friend, and I can think of no better diplomat at this point in time. His cool, rational, emollient way to deal with some very fundamental differences, because China and the US are not going to converge and become one identical entity. The challenge for all of us, both mentally, emotionally, and diplomatically, is to hold sometimes contrarian thoughts in one mind. And this is the challenge of the century. Fifty years ago, when Henry Kissinger went to Beijing, it completely reordered the strategic furniture in the globe. We are coming close to a point when this will be necessary again. So, we all watch with interest and concern and some optimism, because we all have to be optimistic, otherwise you will not keep trying. So, let us support these efforts. And let us see where you will take it.
Benji Hyer (Channel News Asia): We have heard Washington and Singapore's position on US-China relations. I wanted to ask your perspective on ties between Russia and China. How much is what they call the “friendship with no limits” between Moscow and Beijing a concern for the US Secretary of State and Foreign Minister for the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN?
Secretary Blinken: You have heard us speak to this on a number of occasions in recent months, and it entirely depends on the practical manifestations of that partnership, with that friendship. I will let China and Russia address how they view their partnership. But we have been very clear, for example, about the importance of countries not providing Russia with the kind of assistance that it can use to advance its aggression in Ukraine. Equally, we have been open and welcoming of efforts and initiatives of countries including, for example, China, to try to play a positive role in diplomacy that can advance a just and durable peace in Ukraine. As it happens right now, there are, I think, representatives from six or seven African countries who are in Ukraine also trying to advance that proposition. I would note the terrible irony of the fact that while they were in Kyiv, more missiles from Russia rained down on the Ukrainian capital, but I will leave that to others to underscore that particular irony. But as with many countries, we want to ensure that no one is adding fuel to this fire Russia is making and if countries by the same token can play a positive, productive role, including China, in trying to find a path to a just and durable peace, that is something we welcome as well.
Minister: Well, Singapore is a tiny city state. We have only been independent for almost 58 years. So, I hope you understand, from our perspective, the UN Charter, international law and the precepts of sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity are sacrosanct for us. We have no other alternative. And therefore, for us, this invasion is something which we have to take a stand on and we have. That is expressed in our votes at the General Assembly and in some specific sanctions that we have taken against Russia. It is something which we do not do routinely or lightly, but it is an expression of how strongly we feel on this matter. I cannot speak for China, but I would say that, at least in their interactions with us and in their public statements, China has affirmed the importance of territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty. Like Tony, I hope that their efforts will bear fruit. You really have to pray for peace, because we know that at the end of the day, you will end up at the negotiating table. But right now, blood is being shed and lives are being lost for perhaps, marginal leverage on the negotiating table, and as humanitarians, all of us must feel the pain and the tragedy of this situation. I think we all want peace. When it will be achieved, I do not know, but we all want peace.
. . . . .
Photos caption: Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Joint Press Availability with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, 16 June 2023
Photos credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs Singapore