Singapore must be valuable, reliable partner, realistic about its place in the world: Vivian Balakrishnan

Singapore must be valuable, reliable partner, realistic about its place in the world: Vivian Balakrishnan

“Our fundamental realities remain. We are still a tiny island in an uncertain neighbourhood, we still have to build a wide network of friends,” says the Foreign Minister.

Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (File photo: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun)

SINGAPORE: Singapore has to anticipate more external challenges that will test its resolve, unity and agility, but its key foreign policy principles have not changed, said Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

“First, we conduct an independent, sovereign foreign policy in order to safeguard our independence and the interests of all Singaporeans. Second, we promote ASEAN unity and centrality. Third, we have to remain committed to a rules-based international system,” he said.

Speaking in Parliament on Thursday (Mar 2) during his ministry’s Committee of Supply debate, Dr Balakrishnan noted that Singapore has to “double down” on globalisation. “As a small city-state, Singapore has no option. Isolation, protectionism and building walls is not an option for us,” he said.

External economic headwinds and global protectionist sentiments are also not going to go away soon and will have serious implications on Singapore’s trade-dependent economy, he added. “Add to that the fact that major power interactions and rivalry will impact the region, and will impact us and we’ve seen evidence of that.”

How then, he asked, will Singapore navigate these challenges?

“Our fundamental realities remain,” he said. “We are still a tiny island in an uncertain neighbourhood, we still have to build a wide network of friends.”

“We have to be a relevant, valuable and reliable partner, and at the same time, be realistic about our place in the world.”

"STEADFAST AND LONGSTANDING PARTNER AND FRIEND OF CHINA"

Elaborating on the country's key relationships, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore has been a steadfast and longstanding partner and friend of China. “Over the decades, Singapore has supported and encouraged China’s peaceful development and engagement of the regional and international community,” he said. “And we do so because we believe that China’s success is good for the region and is good for us.”

He pointed out that since 2013, Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor, and China is Singapore’s largest trading partner. And besides the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) meeting, Singapore also has had candid exchanges and sharing of experiences through established platforms like the China-Singapore Forum on Leadership, and the Singapore-China Social Governance Forum.

“The high frequency of interactions at senior-leadership level have conferred a very high degree of resilience – and I would add, strategic trust – in our relationship,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

“Therefore, even when we have differences over some issues … we should not overreact, and we should, in a sense, anticipate that these incidents are not unusual even amongst close friends and neighbours, and we must recognise that our shared interests far exceed these differences,” he added.

FUNDAMENTALS OF SINGAPORE-US RELATIONSHIP UNCHANGED

As for Singapore's relations with the US, Dr Balakrishnan noted that there is always “a period of uncertainty, a period of adjustment” that goes on domestically, when a new administration takes over and at the international level.

But he said he believes Singapore’s many decades of consistent policies and interactions with the US have created trust and that the US considers Singapore a “reliable partner.”

“These mutually-beneficial ties have spanned five Republican and four Democratic Administrations,” he said, adding that the fundamentals of Singapore’s relationship with the US “remain unchanged.”

“I am confident that we will be creative and adaptable in developing win-win partnerships with the US even as President Trump pursues a new set of policies,” he said.

ASEAN A "CORNERSTONE" OF SINGAPORE’S FOREIGN POLICY

Dr Balakrishnan noted that in an often turbulent world, ASEAN is Singapore’s “anchor” and a "cornerstone" of its foreign policy.

Despite questions over ASEAN's relevance - it has a strong value proposition, he said. If it were a country, it would be the seventh largest economy in the world, and barring any mishaps, it is projected to become the fourth largest economy by 2050, he pointed out.

“What’s important also is that we will have the third largest labour force in the world, and more importantly, more than half of its population under 30 years of age,” he said of the regional bloc.

“We have a demographic dividend not yet harvested.”

Looking ahead, Dr Balakrishnan said ASEAN will become more critical to Singapore’s foreign policy.

But he said more must be done to help Singaporeans better understand and identify with ASEAN. “We must also explore ways for ASEAN to ride the technological wave of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he added.

And as the dialogue relations coordinator between ASEAN and China, Singapore has to be an “honest broker” that does its best to manage this “strategic partnership based on mutual benefit and respect.”

POSITION ON THE MIDDLE EAST

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman touched on Singapore's position on the Middle East, and said despite Singapore’s close relations with Israel, it has taken a “principled, consistent and longstanding position” on the Israel-Palestine issue.

Singapore has good relations with both Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), he said. “Although the situation is complex and progress is difficult, Singapore has always urged Israel and Palestine to resume direct negotiations and work towards a just and durable solution to this long-standing conflict,” he said, speaking in Malay.

“This is because we are convinced that a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, however hard to achieve, is the only way to bring peace and security to both peoples.”

Dr Maliki spoke about his visit to Ramallah, as well as Israel and Jordan in November last year. “During the visit, I informed the PNA leaders about the Government’s appointment of Mr Hawazi Daipi as Singapore’s representative to the PNA to help coordinate our assistance to the PNA,” he said. “They welcomed the appointment.”

Dr Maliki noted that Mr Hawazi made his first visit to the West Bank as representative in January.

BIPARTISAN SUPPORT ON FOREIGN POLICY

After addressing MPs' questions on how Singapore could maintain an independent foreign policy in a climate where pressures are exerted by major powers such as China, Dr Balakrishnan stressed that Singapore’s foreign policy begins at home. “The effectiveness of our foreign policy depends on us being a successful nation-state, and on the continued support of a united citizenry,” he said.

“One point which I want to commend today … I’ve listened to the very thoughtful speeches from Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Pritam Singh (from the Workers' Party), and I’m grateful for the bipartisan support that we have in this House. This unity of purpose is essential for us to pursue our foreign policy goals in this uncertain and volatile environment."

Dr Balakrishnan added that the past year might have been a tumultuous year internationally, but it has also provided lessons on how to overcome challenges that come Singapore's way.

Source: CNA/lc