Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Hybrid Doorstop Interview Following his Working Visit to Washington D.C. and New York City, 21 June 2023

21 June 2023

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: It has been a very hectic week. I have been here seven to eight days, and it has been an excellent series of meetings and engagements. I had an opportunity to meet the (US) Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, just before he went off to Beijing for that very important series of meetings. I just met National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. I also met the US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and the Deputy Commerce Secretary Don Graves, many leaders on Capitol Hill, both Senators and Congressmen, and other senior officials like (Deputy Assistant to the President and Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs) Kurt Campbell, who I have also known for a very long time. So, it was a full suite of meetings in Washington.

I also went up to New York to the United Nations for the historic adoption of the Treaty for (conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). It was a full set of both bilateral as well as multilateral issues that we discussed.

First, to reaffirm that our relations are in an excellent state. It is grounded in the key role that America has played in our economy. America remains our largest foreign investor (and) our largest trading partner for services. The access to American technology, markets, supply chains, (and) the 5,700 American companies in the Singapore economy all mean they have played a critical role over the past five, six decades of our economic development.

On the defence side, that is another very close relationship based on trust, strategic alignment, (and) access to American technology - our air force, our navy, our army, and the fact that we train on American soil as well. Beyond these traditional pillars, we have also explored new areas. For instance, with the Secretary of State, we launched the updated (US-Singapore) Climate Partnership. With the National Security Adviser, we discussed the establishment of a bilateral dialogue on critical and emerging technologies. We are also looking at other areas. For instance, cybersecurity, outer space, and many (other) fertile areas to explore for the future.

The fact that our meeting occurred at this time was quite fortunate. We were sandwiched between Tony Blinken’s trip to Beijing, (and) tomorrow, Prime Minister Modi from India arrives. So, they also have their diplomatic calendar full. But still, we are very fortunate they made time for us to continue this engagement, this reaffirmation, as well as exploration of new ideas.

In New York, the adoption of the BBNJ treaty - I cannot overemphasise the importance of that at a time when the world is so unsettled. We have got a war in Ukraine, we have got a pushback against globalisation. Sometimes, you think international law is in retreat, and even the role of the UN (United Nations) is questioned. But in times like this, the UN was able to arrive at a new legally binding international treaty, which was adopted unanimously. What made it extra special and significant was Ambassador Rena Lee from Singapore. She was the President of the (BBNJ) Inter-Governmental Conference. She really had to wield her diplomatic magic to listen to all parties to arrive and bring the ship safely to harbour. To be able to have a legally binding agreement at this point in time is a victory for multilateralism, and a victory for the United Nations, and a very good affirmation for Singapore. We may be small, but because we have very good diplomats and officials, we can make a mark and contribute constructively to the international stage. So, it has been a very tiring but very fulfilling week.

Charissa Yong (The Straits Times): The US tends to be a little distracted in the lead up to elections and there is one happening soon. Do you see it having staying power in the region, particularly in the event of a change of administration? On the BBNJ, how quickly do you see it being ratified and taking effect in the future?

Minister: The US is capable of chewing gum and walking. Elections will always consume the bandwidth of politicians. To be fair to the US system, and the establishment and their officials, they do pay attention and they do engage — the fact that I am here at a very busy time – they were able to fully engage with us, including exploring new areas of cooperation. The other point I would like to add is that in terms of the bilateral relationship between Singapore and the US, what is remarkable has been the bipartisan consistency with which the US has engaged with Singapore. My own take is that this bipartisan consistency and willingness to engage Singapore, and particularly to explore new frontiers, new options with us continues. This is a rambunctious democracy, a noisy democracy, but that does not mean you cannot get work done, business done, agreements and contracts settled, and explore significant, strategic opportunities that arise.

On the BBNJ, we are going to open it for signature from 20 September 2023. When it comes into force depends on when we reach a critical mass of ratifications. We are also going to go around trying to encourage as many countries to sign on as possible. There is a fair amount of public education that will be necessary,  even with Singapore. People ask, “What is BBNJ and how is it relevant to Singapore (and) to our business interests and to our people?” I will try to explain it simply as the following:

First, the ocean is especially critical to a city state like Singapore. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) under which the BBNJ treaty flows from is absolutely critical for Singapore because of our dependence on maritime routes for trade, and because trade is three times our GDP. Upholding the convention, international law, freedom of navigation and overflight is absolutely critical to our national, strategic and business interests.

Second, the ocean and particularly the high seas and biodiversity that exists beyond national jurisdiction is a common heritage of mankind. Even as we have revolution in digital technologies, biology and synthetic biology, the genetic biodiversity which is available there and the potential it has for future applications in healthcare, agriculture and on the economy are profound. Getting rules in which we will properly conserve and utilise this common heritage of mankind in a way that is inclusive and fair to everyone, not just in Singapore but also across the world, is another very important principle.

The third reason why I said this is important is because it demonstrates the relevance of the United Nations and it also illustrates that small countries can make a difference and can make a positive contribution on the world stage. Each of the member states of the United Nations will have to make this pitch and explain to our people why this treaty is important and why it is worth ratifying, so we will work on it in the months to come.

Nam Yunzhou (LHZB): You described the meeting between Secretary Blinken and his Chinese counterparts as essential but not sufficient. How confident is Singapore and Southeast Asian nations that China-US relations are back on the right trajectory and will remain so for the near future? Because we have seen quite an intense ebb and flow for Sino-US relations – what does this mean for regional stability?

Minister: I think this was an essential first step, but it is a long journey. As we have seen in the last few months or years, there can be many potential pitfalls, potholes, or even minefields that one or either side can wander in, sometimes inadvertently. It would be wrong to say that this is a complete reset, and all the deep fundamental differences are resolved, but it is absolutely essential that there are open channels of communication. In all my interactions with the American leaders and officials, all of them agreed that having open lines of communication is essential. Based on what I observed and based on my interactions (with US officials) after (Blinken’s) series of meetings in Beijing, I think people are cautiously optimistic that at least conversations have begun. The fact that President Xi granted a meeting with the (US) Secretary of State – I saw that as a positive sign that China feels and also agree that it is important to establish these lines of communication, and that there is this basis for conversation.

The other signs to look out for in future is to watch how many bilateral visits occur between (the) US and China. It will be good to see other Secretaries, for instance, for commerce or climate change, on both sides, to meet either in Washington or Beijing. A steady cadence of interactions will be a positive sign. I told them that from a Southeast Asian perspective, as a part of the world which is deeply invested in peace and security and hopes very much for a constructive and viable and peaceful engagement between the United States and China, (that) the more they engage, the more I think we can sleep a little bit more soundly at night.

Benji Hyer (CNA): Thank you Foreign Minister. Following on the theme you said before the US Secretary of State’s visit to China, that Singapore was watching with interest, concern, and some optimism – I am wondering what you feel might have changed if anything? Did the talks reinforce or temper that optimism? And on the BBNJ, what is your message; what is Singapore’s message to other countries in terms of speedily ratifying that?

Minister: I came here last week before he (Secretary Blinken) went (to China), and I met the Secretary before he went to Beijing. I am here now after (Blinken’s visit), and I would say I am encouraged by what I saw. But I would stand by my initial caution that this is only a first step. Essential, but it is only a first step. It does not mean everything is resolved. I should also say, as someone who has been travelling extensively between both capitals, that we know the enormity of the strategic challenges. The differences in perspective are actually quite profound, and these are not some things which you can just wave your hands and wish away with a clever turn of phrase or words. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has in a discreet but effective way, reminded both sides that a relationship depends on mutual respect. You need, over time, by interacting and doing things together to build up that reservoir of strategic trust. We hope these two dimensions of mutual respect and strategic trust will slowly accumulate. Issue by issue can then be resolved carefully. There are some issues that may even take generations to resolve and we must be able to live with that kind of ambiguity, and sometimes even apparent contradictions, but not let that distract us, or worse, divert us down pathways which will lead to miscalculations or escalations.

Benjamin Hyer (CNA): On BBNJ if I may.

Minister: On BBNJ, I have explained why it is important to Singapore, and at the UN, certainly. The reason why I took the trouble to travel up to New York and make the personal pitch. Both Prince Albert of Monaco and I spoke at the assembly was to make the pitch to the other countries that this is important, this is significant, and this is worth celebrating. Particularly at this point in time to be able to arrive at a legally binding treaty with a unanimous decision at the UN, is worth celebrating, and is worth bringing it to pass and getting it ratified as quickly as possible. But we will keep working at this to the maximum extent that small countries like us can, but I think it is no accident that Monaco and Singapore spoke because, we are both small, tiny city states. The oceans are important to us. You do not need to convince us but we need to persuade others to come on board the ship.

Keyla Supharta (Mothership): Good morning. Earlier this week in Parliament, you mentioned that one of the challenges for Singapore after concluding the negotiations of the BBNJ Treaty was to get countries, to actually get countries to come on board and implement the treaty. Could you give us an update on the status of these countries with respect to implementing the treaty? What can Singapore and ASEAN do to encourage other countries to get on board? Thank you.

Minister: To be honest, it has not even opened for signature yet. What has happened at this stage is that we have adopted it formally and unanimously at the UN. So the next stage is to watch in September, when the registers open for signature, we intend to be one of the early signatories. We will watch and see who else comes on board. We will probably need to engage in more diplomatic outreach at that point to get as many countries to sign as quickly as possible and to ratify. Ratification depends on the domestic processes in each country.

Charissa Yong (ST): Can I ask a question and you can choose whether or not you want to answer? It is about Non-Resident Ambassador (NRA) George Goh. I just wanted to ask how are (NRAs) appointed and why was he in this case appointed? Are there any restrictions on his activities now that he's serving notice?

Minister: Singapore is a very small place. For ambassadors, whether it is resident or non-resident, we can only have Singapore citizens. MFA is also a small ministry. Because of that, we cannot generate enough people to take up ambassadorial positions in all the countries that matter to us. We have the NRA scheme because it enables us to expand our potential talent pool. Having a corps of non-resident ambassadors drawn from the private sector also enriches the dialogue and the access to talent and ideas for MFA. That is why we run the NRA scheme. As far as George is concerned, I will say he has done good work in representing us in Morocco. I do not think I should comment on his candidacy for the Presidency. Thank you.

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