Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Doorstop Interview with BBC News, 1 August 2019
BBC JONATHAN HEAD: I am going to start with a couple of questions on your meeting with the new British Foreign Secretary (Dominic Raab), as you have just met him. On Southeast Asia’s perspective on Brexit. I know it is not your biggest concern but at least, your view on how Brexit might affect you. And then, for us, talking a bit more about the strategic position, in particular the trade standoff between the US and China. And also the strategic rivalry, which ASEAN has always had to manage. And obviously, the dynamics are a bit different now under the Trump government.
MINISTER: Is that all right? That is a whole lecture.
HEAD: (Laughing) I am sure you will put it beautifully concisely.
MINISTER: Well, let us deal with the UK. I just had an excellent meeting with Dominic. It’s our first time [meeting], but London is not a strange place for me. I had lived there, and worked there.
On the specific question of Brexit, this is something for the UK voters and the UK Government to decide. We are not party to it. Now, having said that, I would say that the UK and Singapore, from an economic perspective, share a lot of similarities. We are both free traders. We both believe in a rules-based, multilateral world order. We hope that there will be less and less obstacles to the flow of trade and investment. So our starting line, in a sense, is very similar. Specifically, what we are working on with your government at this point in time, is to settle the terms for what we call a short-form agreement. This would allow us to port the provisions from the EU-Singapore free trade agreement to the UK. Now, assuming everyone works feverishly over the next couple of weeks, it may be possible to have that all ready so that when Brexit actually occurs � and that is assuming that it occurs on the first of November � even without a deal, the UK would have at least one free trade agreement in Southeast Asia. And that would be with Singapore. We do this because both countries have a strong fundamental belief in the value of free trade.
HEAD: Many countries [are] looking at what is happening in Britain now. Britain has 90 days to go before Brexit, and it looks like this government is heading for a hard Brexit with no deal. A lot of people are saying that Britain has taken leave of its senses. Now you are a diplomat, you are hardly going to put it that way. But what
MINISTER: I certainly will not put it that way. Like I said before, this is a sovereign decision to be taken by the British voters, and by the British government. We are friends, we are longstanding friends. In fact, this is the year we commemorate the Bicentennial, the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles to Singapore. And interestingly enough, when Raffles came to Singapore, the key genius of his plan was to make Singapore an open port. Now, 200 years later, we are still debating the value – in fact, we are not debating, we are reaffirming the value of free trade, interdependence and economic integration. So what I am saying is that regardless of what, ultimately, is decided upon by the British voters and British government, we stand ready because of our shared commitment to free trade. And that is why we say we will be quite happy to port over the provisions of the EU-Singapore FTA to Britain, and it could occur as early as the first of November.
Head: Perhaps I could turn now to the region. This ASEAN Summit has been overshadowed by the standoff in trade between the United States and China. Those talks are still deadlocked. For you, in Southeast Asia, how badly is this affecting you? I know that Singapore’s own GDP is rather flat right now.
MINISTER: Look, from the point of view of Singapore, China is our largest trading partner. In fact, believe it or not, we are the largest foreign investor in China. On the other hand, the United States for a long while, has been the largest foreign investor in Singapore. So for us, an ideal world is one in which America and China get along well, in which there is free trade between the two of them. We would sit very happily at the confluence of such a positive time. Now, there are significant questions; are they competitors, rivals or antagonists? Is the free trade system that has underpinned the formula for peace and prosperity over the last 40 years, is that falling apart?
HEAD: Do you think it is?
MINISTER: I think it is under severe stress. And if it does, then obviously countries like Singapore and our ASEAN partners, who have achieved significant progress and prosperity over the past few decades on this formula of free trade, it would be a significant dampener to our economies. And we are already seeing signs of that. But that is not all. The other point is that if the technological rivalry results in a bifurcation of both the technology stack, and global supply chains. That is another major complication. So that is what we are confronting right now. You know, from where we sit in ASEAN, we do not have a say. We do not have influence on the negotiations that are going on currently between China and the United States. What we need to do, however, is to prepare ourselves for all eventualities. Now what does that mean? It means internally within ASEAN, we are doubling down on free trade and on integration, integrating our economies. We are doubling down on investments, attracting as much investment in infrastructure, and in particular, on the digital side of the house, as possible. We are doubling down on training and educating our people, in order to prepare our people to get the jobs of the future, rather than squabbling about yesterday’s jobs and yesterday’s technology.
We are also trying to ensure that Southeast Asia remains open and inclusive. [That means that we are] friends with all, [we are] open for business with everyone, [and we] provide a stable and attractive environment for investments. So if you look at all those measures that we are undertaking and committing to right now, I think we are on the right track. Yes, it is probably going to be stormy weather, there will be big waves. But by rafting our countries and our economies together and preparing for the future, this is both a strategy for survival, as well as preparing ourselves for the next digital revolution that is unfolding all around us.
HEAD: We have just seen China essentially warn outside powers, non-regional powers, from interfering in, for example, the very difficult dispute in the South China Sea. Essentially, China is saying this is our neighbourhood. That kind of squeezes ASEAN � you are caught between your traditional security guarantor, the United States, and a resurgent China.
MINISTER: Well, let me again put it to you this way. The way ASEAN approaches this is that, in fact, this is our neighbourhood, Southeast Asia. Yes, we have Northeast Asia, we have South Asia, we have the Pacific, we have the Indian Ocean, all around us. ASEAN believes in the following: First, we remain united. Second, we stand for free trade. We believe in interdependence; we believe in open and inclusive architectures. So we are not into an imposition of unilateral tariffs, we are not into an exclusivist approach.
HEAD: But realistically, Foreign Minister, ASEAN is not united when it comes to dealing with China, are you?
MINISTER: No, I would say we are united on these principles and we are doing our best…
HEAD: In the South China Sea?
MINISTER: If you look, there is a Joint Communique. These are statements which are very carefully negotiated, and we have arrived at a consensus. You know that in ASEAN, every decision has to depend on consensus. It is a long laboured process. But when consensus occurs, you have unity, you have buy-in. And every ASEAN country knows that precisely because we are going through challenging times, we need to remain united. That is the only way to make sure ASEAN remains relevant. And we can protect our interests by being united, and by signalling to all the superpowers and the rising powers around us, that we want to the maximum extent possible, to do so on our terms; that we stand for peace and prosperity, openness, inclusion, the promotion of investments, inward flow of investments and stand for free trade. And I think we are entitled to take that view, even if from time to time it may mean it does not completely coincide with the stated interest of one or the other superpower. So I would say we are actually making good progress from an ASEAN perspective.
HEAD: Foreign Minister, thank you. Just bear with me for one moment, we will need to get a shot of you on our camera.
All these points being made to China, that the concerns that ASEAN has about your statements that say this is our neighbourhood. What China is saying is that the South China Sea is our land, and outsiders keep out.
MINISTER: No, I can assure you that certainly at the negotiations for all the series of discussions, which quite correctly are held behind closed doors, these points are being made. So do not worry about that. What we should be looking at is despite the fact that there are various push and pulls across ASEAN. To be fair, the forces both centrifugal and centripetal that apply are slightly different across the 10 of us, precisely because we are so diverse. Nevertheless, the fact that we have been able to get together, the fact that we remain a focal convening point � by tomorrow there will be nearly 30 Foreign Ministers in town � that is not bad for a bunch of 10 Southeast Asian countries. So I am realistically optimistic.
HEAD: Foreign Minister, thank you very much.
MINISTER: Take care.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Singapore