Singapore must never be seen to be "playing multiple sides" on an issue, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday, as he outlined the principled foreign policy position the Republic has always taken.
Singapore's foreign policy approach is to be friends with all countries who want to befriend Singapore, he told reporters at the end of a four-day official visit to Japan.
So, "you cannot have different messages for different people because you will soon run into very serious trouble". He added: "We must have a stand, our own position, and we stick to that position whomever we are talking to, whichever country or capital we are in. When we make a speech, the gist has to be the same."
Ties among Singapore's friends might be complicated from time to time, as evident in recent issues such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
But in such situations, he said, "we will have to decide where we are going to stand, and how we can try our best to preserve our friendship with both sides of the issue".
On Asean's part, it wants an open region and welcomes countries, including China and Japan, to invest and work with the 10-nation bloc.
"We don't see a conflict. The Asean countries will have to work out where they stand and whose interests they take," he said.
Earlier yesterday, PM Lee made a wide-ranging speech on shifting regional dynamics at a special session of the Nikkei conference.
Singapore, which is the dialogue coordinator for Asean-China relations, has been consistent in what it stands for, he said at the session.
"But in this role, it is not possible for us to command Asean and corral everybody into one position, nor are we in the position to negotiate with China on behalf of Asean.
"What is possible for us to do, is to be an honest broker, to deal straight with all parties, and try to bring about a consensus where possible."
But even when countries disagree, it does not mean they do not work together at all, he added.
"No single issue defines the whole relationship with another country," he added, noting the multi-faceted nature of diplomatic ties, which range from trade to tourism.
"You have to try and contain the issues where there may be difficulties, and not let it sour the whole gamut of ties," he said, adding that Asean, too, does not want the South China Sea dispute to "poison the overall relationship" with China.
Even so, small nations like Singapore must follow principles like international norms as otherwise, "it's just the law of the jungle and the powerful do what they will".
Still, Singapore also recognises the reality that "big powers don't always abide by this", he said.
PM Lee also noted that Sino-Japan ties are "simultaneously competitive and cooperative". He welcomed the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Hangzhou this month, saying: "Direct communication is the first step towards mutual understanding and resolution of differences."
He also said that the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership pact which involves the United States, Japan and Singapore, should not be seen as a move to exclude China.
"It's a scheme to promote free trade in the whole Asia Pacific. That includes China and so we must leave the door open," he added. "And if it can happen it is a plus for China and the other parties."