Photo Credit: Bloomberg Television at Bloomberg New Economy Forum

Shery Ahn (Bloomberg TV)Let us discuss a complicated relationship between China and the US, and Singapore’s role in it. We are joined by Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. Minister, it is great to have you with us. Thank you so much for having us in Singapore.

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: Great to be with you.

AhnSo let us talk a little bit about the comments that your Prime Minister (Lee Hsien Loong) has made. How are you on the ground, at the Ministry (of Foreign Affairs), preparing for any contingencies?

Minister: The first point I would make is that the probability of an actual conflict is low. Second point, it is a deep red line – certainly something which everyone needs to be concerned with. The third point is that the real risk is either an accident or a miscalculation, and the more there is engagement, there is talk, there is discussion, and there is hopefully a meeting of minds, I think that lowers the risk considerably. So that is really where we are at this point.       

Ahn: Are you trying to facilitate some of those talks?

Minister: No, it is not for us to facilitate. This is something which China and Taiwan needs to sort out amongst themselves first. 

Ahn: But Singapore is such a good partner to both of them.

Minister: We are long, old, and good friends to both sides across the strait. We really do hope for the best between them, that they can lower the temperature, lower the tensions, lower the risk of miscalculation. That is the only way you are going to get peace in a sustained manner across the strait.

Ahn: How much has the virtual summit between President Biden and (President) Xi helped?    

Minister: I think that was absolutely essential. This is a stage in which both countries’ decision making is localised at the very apex. The more the two leaders talk candidly, sincerely, frankly, the better. It lowers the chance of a miscommunication.

Ahn: Singapore is supporting China’s application to the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) regional trade agreement. Where do you think that will go?      

Minister: Take a step back. The spirit behind the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) or the CPTPP is for it to be open (and) inclusive to any economy that meets its very high standards. It is the most ambitious multilateral free trade agreement in the world right now. On that basis, we will have to welcome anyone who meets and aspires, and is able and willing to fulfil its high standards.

Ahn: Is China able to fulfil (the high standards)?

Minister: That is something which will need to be discussed in greater detail. The second point is the process. It requires consensus by all the existing members. So this discussion, this dialogue, and this resolution, even on bilateral issues, if any, amongst all the individual members will need to be sorted out.

Ahn: Are you facilitating those discussions? 

Minister: Next year, as the Chair of the Commission, we will certainly have to facilitate these discussions. You need to understand that Singapore is unique because for us, trade is more than three times our GDP. So this is not just ideology or a negotiating point. For us, free trade is our lifeblood. Anything that promotes that cause is something which we would support, we would welcome.

Ahn: Taiwan applied to the CPTPP as well, just days after Beijing did.

Minister: Yes, not surprising.

Ahn: What is the dynamic there and how do you expect that to play out?

Minister: Again, the same principles apply. Are you willing, are you able to meet these high standards? 

Ahn: Are you backing Taiwan as well? 

Minister: We would welcome their application in the same way we would welcome any economy that is willing and able to meet those high standards. Now, having said that, there are obviously political complications in that respect. Like many of the issues across the strait, you do need resolution, you do need a meeting of minds across the strait between Beijing and Taiwan.         

Ahn: What about a meeting of minds when it comes to Myanmar, because of course the US has talked about Singapore having financial leverage on that point in order to help Myanmar achieve democracy. What can you do?

MinisterThe first point I would make is that what is happening in Myanmar is a tragedy – a real tragedy not just of progress towards democracy, but its impact on ordinary people. The increase in poverty, the pandemic – it is really a terrible shame that this has happened. (The) second point is not to overestimate the impact of external interference. It will not work. From our years of working and engaging the people in Myanmar, we know this is a proud nation that needs to resolve its internal problems internally, without others trying to interfere. Specifically, on Singapore, I think we should not overstate our influence or our ability to affect the cause of events in Myanmar. But the people in Myanmar and both sides across the entire political spectrum in Myanmar know our position. We want peace, we want negotiations, (and) reconciliation. That is the only way you can get the peace and prosperity.

AhnWhat is Singapore doing in order to help achieve that?

MinisterFirst, we are all in ASEAN. We have stated our position clearly. You saw the recent (38thand 39th) ASEAN Summits – the representation or rather the non-representation of Myanmar. But the first point is that Myanmar remains an integral member of ASEAN. We are not ejecting them. Second, we state our position clearly, categorically. No question about that. Third, we are delivering humanitarian assistance because our main concern is the people of Myanmar, the economic, the humanitarian plight and the suffering which they are undergoing.

AhnParliament just passed a foreign interference act. What are the biggest threats for Singapore right now?

MinisterWe live in a world in which hostile information campaigns, (and) influence peddling now has got so many additional tools to turbo charge. So to pretend that it is business as usual, and that there are no current or future threats is not tenable. It is not aimed at any country. But we are preparing defences so that we can ensure that there will be no hostile, surreptitious campaigns launched by external parties or through proxies who clearly are advancing the agenda of external parties. 

AhnIt is not uncommon for local Chinese language media toeing the line for Beijing. Have you seen any indication of that?

MinisterNo, I would not characterise it that way. We are unique. We are the only political entity outside China with a majority of Chinese ancestry, who understand the Chinese language, who respond to cultural cues. That is both a blessing and a burden. But the key point is this – Singapore is not China. We are in the heart of Southeast Asia. But we understand China. We certainly have a role sometimes for communication, for explanation, and even being a convening point for dialogue. That is our unique selling point, our value proposition.  

AhnMinister, it is really great to be here with you face to face and thank you so much for having us in Singapore. 

MinisterThank you for being in Singapore. 

AhnVaccination rates here in Singapore are very high, but the restrictions also have been pretty stringent. What are you expecting in terms of easing some of those restrictions and your outlook for 2022?

MinisterWe have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, I think we are now at about 85 to 86 percent (who have had) two doses. Boosters – 20 percent and rising. The unique thing about what we are trying to do is to get to the level where there is reasonable population immunity, but for this to occur with very, very low mortality rates. That is what we need. Right now, what you are watching in Singapore is that the virus is spreading in a population which is immunologically naïve – that is a big word. Basically, we used to be on “COVID Zero”. We are now transiting into an endemic, coping situation. But the difference is, we are transiting in the presence of very high vaccination rates, and our ambition is to get through this with the lowest mortality rate in the world.

AhnMinister, thank you so much for being here and for having us.

Minister: You are most welcome. 

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