SINGAPORE: Southeast Asia wants to be taken seriously based on its own merits, instead of becoming an arena of competition between the United States and China, said Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in Washington on Wednesday (Sep 29).
Dr Balakrishnan was speaking to the media at the end of his four-day working visit to the US capital, where he met US members of Congress and officials from President Joe Biden's administration.
The minister noted that there is bipartisan concern and anxiety in Washington over the rise of China, but there is also a clear signal of wanting to avoid a collision.
“I think everyone is painfully aware of the enormous consequences if a collision, either by design or unwittingly by accident, occurs.”
Dr Balakrishnan said Southeast Asia recognises that the dynamics between US and China have enormous consequences on the region, but it “does not want to become a token or a lever or an arena for proxy contest between the two superpowers”.
“Southeast Asia and Singapore want to be taken on our own right,” he said, pointing to how the region has a population of 650 million and a combined gross domestic product of US$2.8 trillion that is set to double and subsequently quadruple in the next two decades.
The US “has skin in the game” given how it is the largest investor in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, Southeast Asia has also become the biggest trading partner of China, added the minister.
“So the point I was trying to make was that there’s a lot going on in Southeast Asia. There are great opportunities emerging in the next two decades. Take Southeast Asia seriously on our own merits and not just look at us in terms of the great big power competition,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
On opportunities that the US can look at, the minister said he reiterated that “trade and investment are strategy” for Southeast Asia.
“Who’s going to trade with us? Who’s going to invest in us? How can we get mutually beneficial economic relationships? And it is economics that drives the strategy.”
Dr Balakrishnan said one “interesting missing piece of the jigsaw” is the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
The multilateral trade pact was signed by 11 countries, including Singapore, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, in 2018. It was the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which was championed by the US until former president Donald Trump withdrew in 2017.
Two weeks ago, China filed an application to join the CPTPP.
“In fact, Foreign Minister Wang Yi told me just a couple of days before the formal announcement that China felt that this was an avenue worth pursuing, indicated that they would pursue it and actually applied to become part of the CPTPP,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
“Of course, China was not the first. The UK has already put up its hand even earlier on and then of course later on, Taiwan as well.”
The US will have to decide its role in this “big piece of the jigsaw which is an icon of economic integration, trade, investment across the Pacific”, said the minister.
“It’s ironic – having been there at the creation and having substantially negotiated a very ambitious free trade agreement – for the United States to subsequently not have any role at all in the emerging economic architecture in Southeast Asia.
“I don’t think the political zeitgeist in America is ripe for it yet but nevertheless, this is a strategic point that needs further debate and discussion down here.”
Another emerging opportunity is in the digital field, said Dr Balakrishnan.
China had noticed that Singapore negotiated a digital economy partnership with Chile and New Zealand, he added. Singapore is also in the midst of discussing it with the UK and others.
“Again, this is something which America ought to be interested in,” said the minister.
Meanwhile, green agreements that facilitate investments in renewable energy, conservation, energy efficiency and the technologies of the future will also be another area for the US to explore.
During his meetings with US lawmakers and officials, Dr Balakrishnan said there were also discussions on the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the need to produce and distribute vaccines across Southeast Asia through resilient and reliable supply chains.
“As you can see, there was quite a lot of substantive issues that we were able to discuss on a strategic scale,” he added.
“The short summary of it is they are concerned about China but we pointed out that Southeast Asia is worth investing and looking at in our own right, and there are many areas involving trade, investment, digital economy, green economy, pandemic preparation and supply chains. Much work lies ahead of all of us.”
“WE ARE IN UNPRECEDENTED TERRITORY”
Dr Balakrishnan was asked about his recent comments that Singapore is in “uncharted territory” with the rise of China, even as the US remains a leading superpower. He was also asked if Singaporeans can understand the geostrategic forces that are playing out and rise up to the challenges.
“The short answer is yes,” the minister replied. “I think Singaporeans do appreciate the delicacy of the moment and the enormity of the stakes.”
He went on to say that apart from the US-China rivalry, there is also the digital revolution at play which has been disrupting jobs and causing anxiety in societies.
“Therefore, you see this pushback, in fact all over the world, including in Singapore, that some people feel maybe if you erect walls, you erect tariff barriers, you keep foreigners out, somehow you will be shielded from competition.
“I do not believe this. Singapore cannot afford to believe this,” he said.
Singapore will need to double down to prepare for the jobs of the future, while re-skilling its workforce to help Singaporeans go after these jobs and opportunities of the future, said Dr Balakrishnan.
Meanwhile, there is the looming threat of climate change, with the pandemic being another “acute reminder” that “if the world is unable to work collectively together, it will be a dangerous, difficult world for all of us”.
“That is what I mean by the fact that we are in unprecedented territory. We have both great dangers and great opportunities.”
“DEEPLY CONCERNED” ABOUT MYANMAR
On his discussions with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about Myanmar, Dr Balakrishnan said both Singapore and the United States are "deeply concerned and anxious” about the plight of the people in Myanmar.
“They were already challenged economically. The pandemic pushed the economy down even further (and) the levels of poverty have risen. Then, the political instability came about because of the coup and the violence that it has generated,” he said in response to questions from reporters.
But “the solution lies within Myanmar itself”.
“The people, the leaders and the leaders across the entire political spectrum, need to … sit down, negotiate and discuss in good faith for the sake of the future,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
“We can’t force this but we can try to encourage, we can try to cajole, we can try in our own ways to nudge them in that direction. So far, I must say, unfortunately, I do not see any sign of that. I hope I am wrong, and I hope that they are actually having discussions.”
ASEAN is trying to help, the minister added, and it is waiting for its special envoy Erywan Yusof, Brunei’s second foreign minister, to be given access to all parties and help facilitate these discussions.
“I am afraid there are no quick and easy solutions but to the maximum extent possible, where we can help, we can help.”
For instance, in response to the humanitarian crisis, Singapore has sent medical supplies through the Myanmar Red Cross.
“We will also see whether there are other channels and other avenues through which we can deliver assistance effectively to our brothers and sisters in Myanmar,” the minister said.
Apart from Mr Blinken, Dr Balakrishnan also met with several senior officials from the Biden administration and US members of Congress during his time in Washington.
Prior to this, he was in New York for the 76th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) where he delivered Singapore’s statement at the General Debate of the UNGA and participated in other meetings.