Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's Doorstop Interview with Local Media Following the 56th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia

14 July 2023

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: First, it has been a very exhausting, hectic week of meetings, literally morning, afternoon, night. But three things are evident. First, ASEAN remains relevant and has convening ability. Everyone that is relevant is in town – the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans; Saudi Arabia signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (with ASEAN). ASEAN’s ability to convene, bring people around the table remains as salient as ever before.


The second point is about the regional strategic architecture. In all our engagements, both within ASEAN as well as with our external parties, we have been able to make the point that we are looking for an open and inclusive strategic architecture, which means we are not choosing sides, we are not forming blocs. We want everyone to have a stake in peace, stability (and) development in ASEAN. We want more investments, we want more trade, we want more interoperability. That kind of open, inclusive architecture is one which we believe will create a more peaceful, more stable, and a safer world. It is an outlook which is encapsulated in the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. We made the point that even as all our external partners have their own versions of an Indo-Pacific strategy, that these plans, these outlooks, these strategies should dovetail into the ASEAN outlook. I think we have made that point quite clearly, quite unambiguously.


My third point is, this was also a meeting where we were focused on the future. We are all emerging post-pandemic, but the emphasis was very much on two themes — the digital revolution and the green transformation. To give you some examples on the digital revolution, I think everyone is nationally and regionally focused on investing in digital infrastructure, in making sure it is inclusive, making sure that everyone, regardless of age, regardless of the size of the company, will be able to take maximum advantage of the digital revolution.


Specifically for our region and beyond, we are looking in terms of interoperability. One key project is on digital finance. Singapore has this link with Thailand — PromptPay — and we also more recently launched the link with India's Unified Payments Interface. A very promising start, but this is still only the beginning. Because as you can imagine, as we create more and more links, within ASEAN and from ASEAN to India. India, in turn, has been trying to link to the Middle East. We will be looking at opportunities in Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. These sorts of efforts to connect digital systems and digital finance have a network effect, which means the more partners you have, the utility of this network increases exponentially. There is a fair amount of focus and agreement that yes, we will all have our own national systems, we will all have our own national priorities, but aim for interoperability. That means working together on standards, ensuring that there is both the protection of privacy, cybersecurity and at the same time, that systems work reliably.


The other area of future orientation is on the green economy. One thing which came up recurrently was this question of having an ASEAN energy grid, or power grid. I pointed out that the arrangements we have made so far, connecting Laos PDR-Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore, that is a pathfinder, or the first phase of what we hope eventually will go into an ASEAN-wide network. An ASEAN Power Grid will improve access to energy. It will help facilitate the transition to green energy. It will also, I believe, make the region more interdependent, more stable, and more competitive in this global chase for investments, especially nowadays, with more of the digital investments which want access to clean energy. The point is, (by) working together, collaborating, every bilateral arrangement in turn can become regional, and every regional (arrangement) can become extra-region.


Another dimension to the green economy is food security, and Indonesia also has highlighted this. I think (for) all of us, it is one of the lessons post-COVID – the need for resilient supply chains. Even for a place like Singapore, where we can never grow enough of our own food or all the essentials of life that we need, nevertheless, the combination of stockpiling, diversification, and having as wide a network of supply chains is necessary. This is another area where everyone has agreed that we need to work and collaborate together in order to improve resilience. All in all, I think it has been a very good series of meetings.


Mohammad Hariz Bin Baharudin (ST)Minister, maybe you can expound a bit more on what was talked about the convening power of ASEAN, and why it means that ASEAN remains relevant in this time of heightened tensions. And so there was a lot of talk about the AOIP (ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific), could you please share a few more comments about the outlook and why it is important in this day and age?


Minister: If you think about the world, what is happening on a global stage is that we are moving from a unipolar world into a multipolar world. The rise of China, and now India, its population overtaking that of China, although its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is still one quarter, one-fifth of China. Africa also is becoming more resilient. Clearly, Australia and New Zealand also want to connect to the global economy. Europe also, although it had a head start in a sense from the past but is now rediscovering the importance of the Pacific. So, the first point is there is a trend to a multipolar world.


Next, we often talk about ASEAN Centrality. But it is not Centrality that is ours as of right. ASEAN has to make itself relevant, useful (and) constructive. Otherwise, why would all the major powers of the world send their foreign ministers here and (and leaders) for the ASEAN Summit in September and for East Asia Summit? The fact that we were able to convene, the fact that they feel it is worth their while to attend these meetings is testament to the relevance, the Centrality and the convening power of ASEAN. I would not underestimate that. I was pleased to see that virtually everyone showed up, and there are others who are knocking on the door who say I want to sign on to the Treaty of Amity (and Cooperation in Southeast Asia). Others who want to upgrade their relations to Sectoral Dialogue Partners. Others who want to upgrade their relations with ASEAN to Strategic Partnerships.


EU (European Union) and Singapore have a free trade agreement. The EU also realises that that is an important step — but actually, they should also be considering an EU-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. At a time when there is almost some degree of antipathy to globalisation and worldwide supply chains, to be able to convene, and to prove relevance, and to get all the world's major powers interested, engaged, and invested in our region is something which we should not take for granted. I would say, at least based on this week's attendance, we are doing well.


Another point I would also make is a qualitative point, which is that the tone of the conversations this year, frankly, I think has been better. Less sharp, more constructive, more emollient. I think everyone is acutely aware that the post-pandemic recovery is rather tepid. Everyone therefore is also aware this is not the time to have unnecessary confrontations or global conflicts. So, the tone of the conversations around the table, the speeches made this year, I feel were more positive, more constructive, more amenable to dialogue. Now, it does not mean that differences, and there are major differences — US, Russia, EU, US-China — those differences do not disappear just because your tone of conversation has improved. But the point is, at least people are trying to avoid unnecessary or gratuitous arguments or conflict. I take some solace from that.


On the AOIP (ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific), the clear message from ASEAN is we are not choosing sides. We do not want to be proxies, we do not want to be vassal states, we do not want to be divided. We do not want to be an arena for proxy wars. This message (has been) received. Next, we are interested in investments, we are interested in trade. Trade is strategy in our part of the world. I think that message also has been received unambiguously by all our Dialogue Partners, including the superpowers. That is again a point which we should not take for granted because we are trying to avoid the bad old days of the Cold War, of proxy wars, when Southeast Asia was divided, or worse, an arena for proxy wars. We are reminding everyone that this is a region of 680 million people. In fact, we have more people here than in Europe. It is a place where the GDP can double or quadruple within the next 20 to 30 years. It is a part of the world where there is still a demographic dividend, meaning there are still many young people — I think 60% below the age of 35. If we play our cards right, the prospects for Southeast Asia are very ripe. So, on all these counts, I find reason for guarded optimism for Southeast Asia. 


Leong Wai Kit (CNA): Minister, the first question is: I wonder whether Thailand’s Foreign Minister shared more details about the meeting because (the) majority of the Myanmar people do not believe the exchange, the contents that the Foreign Minister had shared. Two, given that Thailand had gone on to meet Aung San Suu Kyi and took everyone off guard, some have said that it splits ASEAN further. What are your views? Third, how will the bloc ride on this wave, especially now that the stakeholder Aung San Suu Kyi is in the picture? 


Keyla Mercubuwono (Mothership): Could Minister shed further light on the Thai Foreign Minister’s recent meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi? Does anything about that meeting change ASEAN’s position on Myanmar? 


Minister: Let me answer these in a logical sequence. The first point I want to emphasise is that all of us discussed, and all of us, in a united way, reaffirmed the primacy of the Five-Point Consensus that our leaders agreed to in April 2021. Number two, we also know that ASEAN has a wide diversity — size, political systems, economies. Some (of us) are direct neighbours of Myanmar, others a bit more remote. There is a diversity of concerns, and that in turn affects the way people relate to or react to the profound challenge that Myanmar poses to us. The third point I would make is that the Thai Foreign Minister made a trip on his own. It was not an ASEAN trip, but (was) on his own. According to him, he had access – according to the military authorities in Myanmar, they say that he had access to her (Aung San Suu Kyi) for perhaps an hour and a half. I do not want to share too many details, except to say that he indicated that he thought she was in good health, which we are all very relieved to hear. But it has been two and a half years of isolation and she has not had access to the media. She is not reading or watching international media. While he is not a doctor, he thinks that she appears to be in good health, which is something which we were all very concerned (about).


I think this recent turn of events — he met her I believe on Sunday — indicates a few sub-conclusions. Number one, the Five-Point Consensus remains salient, remains reaffirmed by ASEAN, and is a consideration when the military authorities in Myanmar are trying to decide how to handle this. I think it is one of the factors in their calculus. Number two, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi still remains the key pivot for any solution. You cannot have any solution without her participation. Is this one visit and one interaction sufficient? No, I do not believe it is. In fact, if you go back to the Five-Point Consensus, what it calls for is that the Special Envoy of ASEAN will visit Myanmar, will be given access to all stakeholders which must include Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The other point which Singapore has made, our Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) has made, is that you actually need to release Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint. Because if you are going to have real heart-to-heart negotiations between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military authorities, it cannot be conducted while she is detained in a prison facility. Now, that may be our recommendations, whether the military authorities will work on that basis only time will tell. I would say this is one step, but it is still a long journey.


The other thing that we are concerned with is that it has been now two and a half years, the level of violence, unfortunately, does not seem to be abating. All of us are deeply concerned with civilian casualties, the damage to the economy, the loss of welfare for the people. Our hearts bleed for the Myanmar people.


Leong Wai Kit (CNA): May I ask a follow up question?


Minister: Sure.


Leong Wai Kit (CNA): The fact that military allowed the Thai Foreign Minister to meet Aung San Suu Kyi instead of ASEAN’s envoy, does it still show that the Myanmar army has the Five-Point Consensus in its calculus?


Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: I am sure it does. It did not happen in isolation. But what I am saying is, we encourage all channels of communication to be open. We encourage all the stakeholders to be engaged. I should add that the Indonesian Chair has told me there has been over 100 engagements – phone, Zoom, direct meetings across the whole spectrum. I wanted to express our support for Indonesia's efforts this year. We must not look at things in a zero-sum game. Look at this as a complete scenario. There are multiple factors, multiple actors, multiple stakeholders, each operating under their own imperatives, political and military imperatives. We just have to keep at it step by step, de-escalate tensions, encourage dialogue, ultimately, reconciliation and heal and reform the political entity. That is what Myanmar needs.


Nam Yunzhou (LHZB): I would like to draw your attention to another part of the region and that is the South China Sea. This time around, it was made known that the second reading of the Single Draft Negotiating Text (SDNT) of the Code of Conduct (COC) was completed. I would like your views on the significance. What does it mean for all the parties involved, and also for regional cooperation?


Minister: The first point is that the South China Sea is critical. So much of global trade flows through the South China Sea. Even without an actual war, you just have tensions, insurance premiums go up, the cost of trade is aggregated. So, the South China Sea remains as critical as important as ever before.


Next point is that we were making progress early on. This is before COVID. With COVID and the inability to have face-to-face meetings, frankly, progress slowed. Now that we have resumed direct face-to-face negotiations in person, two things have happened. One is, as you just alluded to, a second reading of the COC has completed. There was another positive development, which was the agreement on the guidelines that will help facilitate these negotiations. But clearly, based on all the statements made at our meetings, both within ASEAN as well as the ASEAN-China meeting, there is a collective commitment to have a substantive and effective Code of Conduct that is consistent with international law, and especially 1982 UNCLOS, which sets out rights for freedom of navigation and overflight for everyone. The South China Sea and its trade arteries are essential for the whole world’s trade system. I believe there is political will to move forward.


But again, I just want to caution that this is a complicated subject. It has been 20 years since we signed the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea). The DOC was meant to be an interim, a stopgap until the COC could be settled. It has taken 20 years. I am not in a position to give you a timeline for when we will reach the destination, but for what it is worth, the political will has been expressed. And that is certainly a part of Singapore. Fortunately, we are not a claimant state. So, we do not have to take sides on the merits and demerits of the individual claims of sovereignty. But nevertheless, as a city-state, where trade is three times our GDP (Gross Domestic Product), we do have a stake in peace and stability in the South China Sea. Obviously, we will do our best to facilitate, be constructive and to encourage a positive conclusion of these negotiations.


Nam Yunzhou (LHZB):As there is no concrete timeline, what are the next steps?


Minister: The next step is to continue those negotiations. As I said, we have completed the second reading. There are still many areas, which are quite frankly, not easy to resolve in a hurry. But it helps that there is political will. It also helps that we are now able to meet face-to-face. One thing that COVID showed us is yes, it is good to be able to meet via Zoom. But there is still no substitute. You need face-to-face meetings. You need to be able to shake hands and look into each other's eyes and try to get an accurate assessment of where those red lines are and where potential landing zones are. There is still no substitute for face-to-face meetings, and the fact that we can do so now is very helpful.



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