09 Jan 2017
Mr Zaqy Mohamad: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) what is Singapore's state of relations with China in view of the recent seizure of SAF's Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles in Hong Kong; (b) how can Singapore continue to balance its existing trade and foreign relations interests with strong expectations from China to align with its One China policy and claims over the South China Sea; and (c) what are the Ministry's plans to normalize relations and minimise the impact of China putting more focus on competing economies in the region.
1 As the Minister for Defence has already addressed the specific issue of the SAF Terrex vehicles, I will focus my reply on the second and third parts of your question.
2 The Singapore-China relationship is a long-standing, multifaceted, and mutually beneficial one. Since 2013, Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor and China has been Singapore’s largest trading partner. Our top leaders meet regularly and there is a constant stream of official visits at all levels from both sides. When PM Lee met Chinese President Xi Jinping in September last year, they did so on the side-lines of the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Hangzhou, for which Singapore was invited by China. Both our leaders agreed to strengthen our mutually beneficial relationship based on the principle of mutual respect and mutual understanding. Over the years, we have built up a significant reservoir of trust and respect with our Chinese partners and stakeholders.
3 In international relations, it is natural for countries to want other parties to act entirely in line with their own national interests. As a small state, Singapore will from time to time encounter such expectations from other countries, and many of these other countries will be much bigger than Singapore. This is realpolitik. However, it is important for us to conduct our foreign policy as a sovereign, independent nation, and not be seen as acting at the behest of any other country. This is essential for our international credibility, our standing, our relevance, and our usefulness to our partners and friends.
4 We must also maintain our emphasis on upholding international law and scrupulously respecting agreements which have been entered into with other countries. This attitude to international law and scrupulously respecting agreements is basic to the rules-based international order that benefits all countries, and is especially crucial for our long-term survival and independence as a small state.
5 Our relations with China, and our interactions with Hong Kong and Taiwan, are based strictly on our “One China” policy. We have consistently abided by this policy and the understandings reached when we established diplomatic relations with China in 1990, and we will continue to do so.
6 We are not a party to the disputes in the South China Sea. Our position on the South China Sea has been articulated on many occasions, including by our Prime Minister. Our position reflects Singapore’s need for peace and stability in our region, freedom of navigation and overflight in major trade routes, and respect for international law.
7 Singapore and Chinese leaders have continued to interact and we cooperate in many areas of mutual interest. Just last year alone, I made four working trips to China. We remain committed to the three government-to-government projects, namely, the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-city, and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, and we continue our engagement with our Chinese partners at multiple levels. We are also engaging China in new areas such as the Belt and Road initiative. We are working together to conclude negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, and this Partnership encompasses ASEAN, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
8 We welcome China’s growing engagement of our region as this creates new opportunities for mutual growth and prosperity. Singapore’s relations with China, and our relations with other major powers, should not be seen as a zero-sum game. We believe in interdependence, characterised by an open, inclusive regional architecture that promotes collaboration and win-win outcomes. Ideally, if I would be allowed to paraphrase President Xi, we should all be part of a common circle of friends.
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TRANSCRIPT OF MINISTER FOR FOREIGN AFFAIRS DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN’S REPLY TO SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTIONS, 7 NOVEMBER 2016
Mr Zaqy Mohamad: Thank you Minister for your explanation. Firstly, I think it’s good that Minister has shared what we are doing with China to enhance growth and prosperity between our countries. But I think those who have followed Chinese media, especially the state-linked media, have also noted the discrepancy between what the government is doing and saying and, at the same time, what the media is also saying about Singapore and portraying Singapore to be. How do we handle this bi-dimensional approach that China is taking to its relationship with Singapore? Secondly, based on feedback from the industry as well as clan associations, you will also notice some complaints or feedback that market access is restricted of late. Is that true and is there any direct impact from our strained relations on market access of late? Lastly, back to the Terrex comment earlier on. I know Minister Ng covered this, but given that MINDEF has mainly worked with the Hong Kong SAR government, and given our relations with China and that we know that China has a certain amount of influence over Hong Kong, have we opened dialogue with the Chinese government to see if we could mediate this at the State level between Singapore and China? Thank you.
MINISTER: Thank you. Three relevant supplementary questions. First, on the discourse which you hear in the media, we live in a new media age. The tone of the discourse which you hear on private social media like WhatsApp, versus public social media like Facebook, versus even the new media platforms of established government organisations or state-owned enterprises, will differ in tone and the positions that are taken. What I will say on behalf of MFA is that I do not believe in megaphone diplomacy. I don’t believe in engaging in a whole lot of invective, and in conducting affairs in a way which generates more heat than light. So it is important that we maintain communication and engagement at the top level, and similarly, at the functional level, and also continue interactions and businesses at the people-to-people level. That relates to your second question. As far as I know, so far there has not been any formal restriction of market access of Singaporean parties, whether commercial, clan associations or the rest. In fact, I want to encourage that these interactions on the business, commercial, cultural, education, and people-to-people level continue. We should insulate these from issues that will come up from time to time. However, if any association or any company has specific concerns, they can always approach me or the Ministry. Your final supplementary question was on whether we have opened dialogue with China. The short answer is no, we have not. Let me explain. As far as I am concerned, and I have stated this before, we expect service providers providing services to the Government to comply with all local regulations. In this specific case, I expect APL to comply with local regulations. The other thing that we expect is that the law will take its course. So in this specific case, we have been informed and in fact assured by Hong Kong that investigations are ongoing, and they need more time. But this important point that it will be handled in accordance with the law is a very important assurance, and one that we welcome because it is best that this matter be handled through the proper legal process. There is no need to politicise it. There is no need to engage in megaphone diplomacy. Let’s have some patience and give this matter time to resolve through an appropriate legal or judicial process.
Mr Low Thia Kiang: The Minister for Foreign Affairs has said that with respect to this Terrex incident, you expect the law will take its course. Would you agree that if the law is in fact being respected, the incident would not have happened in the first place? For my second supplementary question, I would like to ask the Minister what is his interpretation and assessment of a rising China and its behaviour in relation to the detention of the Terrex vehicles. Thirdly, I would like to ask him if China’s progress economically and militarily, and becoming a superpower, has made her arrogant and aggressive, and to become a big bully.
MINISTER: Thank you Mr Low. On your first question, I do not want to speculate. Let the investigations be complete and let’s see what conclusions Hong Kong arrives at. On the question on whether or not APL complied with the regulations that they were supposed to abide by, I do not want to speculate or prejudge the issue. Your second and third parts are really a broader issue, which is that as China rises and gains both economic and military strength, what implications do that have on us; what implications do that have on the way they conduct international affairs and indeed on their relationships with the rest of the world. The first point I want to make is that Singapore has been a long-term, reliable, and consistent friend of China. I say this not in a facetious way, but because we believe that a rising China, a strong China, one that is deeply engaged with the rest of the world and economically integrated, is one that brings enormous benefits. If you look at it from a historical point of view, never before in history have hundreds of millions of people been raised from abject poverty into an opportunity now where they can enjoy the prospect of being in the middle class and consuming at the middle class. This is an enormous achievement of China in the last 70 years. Secondly, this emergence of China as a manufacturing, service and consumption hub provides enormous opportunities to the rest of the world. If you look at the way Southeast Asia, and even Singapore, has progressed over the last 70 years since the end of the World War, there were several critical ingredients to this. One, we’ve had peace and stability. Two, we’ve had international law. Three, we’ve had reasonably free trade. These have been ingredients for us all to achieve progress and prosperity without war or conflict. Against this light, we must welcome a rising China, a stronger China, and an economically more integrated China. We have to focus on the opportunities, whilst at the same time recognising that there will be issues to resolve from time to time. This is where we have to learn to take things in our stride. We are a tiny city-state. We are a multi-racial society. We are located in the centre of Southeast Asia. These circumstances are permanent. What this means, and I’ve said it earlier, is that from time to time, other countries, big countries, will place expectations on us. Quite frankly, sometimes they will put pressure on us because they want us to completely align ourselves with their interests. This is where we, from time to time, have to courteously and respectfully differ, and remind everyone, big or small, to please let Singapore be Singapore. We may be small, but we are an independent, sovereign nation. We have our own permanent interests. We want to maintain our independence. We want to have as many friends as possible. We cannot be at the beck and call, or act at the behest, of any single superpower. Let us be ourselves. If that means from time to time I have to have a difference with you, so be it. But I am not against you. I am completely in support of your rise. As to our attitude to international law, because of the circumstances of our independence and our existence in the heart of Southeast Asia, international law and adherence to agreements are absolutely crucial to us. Again, this is not personal. This is a matter of the way Singapore got its independence, and the way Singapore will continue to remain an independent, viable nation. Similarly, for free trade, whether it is TPP or RCEP or any other free trade agreement, the point is this: Trade represents three times our GDP. This is a ratio which I think no other country has, and because of that, trade is not a negotiating point for us. It’s not a debating point. Trade is our lifeblood. So when we go around the world saying that we want to lower the barriers for trade because we believe this is a formula that has generated enormous opportunities and wealth for so many of us, that doesn’t mean that free trade is an unalloyed good. You have to be aware that for each nation that engages in this negotiation, you also have to ensure that you protect the vulnerable groups in our society. And Members of the House will also appreciate that that is what we have been doing for the last ten years. So we are trying to find that happy balance between free trade and social security; between expanding opportunities and making sure that no one gets left behind; between sometimes having to stand up to big powers to tell them that we will have to have a polite disagreement but we are still for you and not against you. Do not force us to make invidious choices. That is really the strategic backdrop to the decisions that we make, the actions and the words that we put out. I hope Members of this House and all Singaporeans will understand. Take this in our stride, remain calm, and understand the big picture. Do not panic, and most importantly, do not be divided. Mr Low, I am glad to say, and I hope you will agree with me, that this is an issue on which the Workers’ Party and hopefully all Members of this House, whether from the Opposition, or NCMPs, or NMPs, stand with the Government. This is one of those occasions for us to learn the right lessons and stand together because ultimately foreign policy begins at home.
Ms Chia Yong Yong: I would like to thank Minister for your clarification and I would also like to say that I agree with your assertion of our country’s sovereignty. Minister, I would like to seek clarification on the last point in your answer to the specific third question, which was whether or not we had communicated with China in relation to the seizure of the vehicles. I do understand your point, but in the light of the comments made by China after the reports of the seizure, particularly comments that we should respect the “One China” policy, that they have communicated with us, and that they have also requested that we abide by Hong Kong’s laws, what are the grounds that the Ministry has to assume that China has not influenced Hong Kong’s decision to detain the vehicles or the decision-making process? Could you share that with us and, if that is the case, why do you consider those assumptions to be reasonable? Thank you.
MINISTER: When I first got to MFA, the first lesson the diplomats told me is to assume nothing. So I do not want to make any assumptions or presumptions. But having said that, I do not want to engage in conspiracy theories either. I want to go by face value. Hong Kong has told us that they are conducting investigations. They told us that they will handle this in accordance with their laws. Both the Minister for Defence and I stand before you, and I am sure that the message will be conveyed to them, that we welcome at this position that Hong Kong will handle this according to its laws. I should add that China also has publicly stated that this will be handled according to Hong Kong SAR’s laws. This is a position which we welcome, and we await the resolution of this matter on that basis. You have raised the other important point which is on our “One China” policy. Again, because this is so important, I hope Members will bear with me if I repeat word for word what I said earlier. Our relations with China, and our interactions with Hong Kong and Taiwan, are based strictly on our “One China” policy. We have consistently abided by this policy and the understandings reached when we established diplomatic relations with China in 1990. This is a longstanding position. We have always abided by it, and I am standing here to state that we will continue to do so. Some of the nuances of what I have said here may not be immediately obvious to everyone listening to this. But let me assure you that the senior leadership in China, who are au fait with this issue, will understand exactly what I am referring to. So I beg the indulgence of this House. Let’s avoid politicising this. Let’s avoid megaphone diplomacy. Let’s give this incident every opportunity to resolve itself in, I hope, an appropriate and sensible way. Thank you.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
9 JANUARY 2017