SAF vehicle seizure: On old friends and keeping up with the times

Responding to questions on the seizure of the Singapore Armed Forces' Terrex armoured vehicles by Hong Kong customs, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Singapore will not allow any single issue to hijack its relationship with China.
At The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan said single incidents or even longstanding differences in perspective should not get in the way of the Singapore-China relationship.
At The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan said single incidents or even longstanding differences in perspective should not get in the way of the Singapore-China relationship. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

At The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was asked for his response to the seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces infantry carrier vehicles in Hong Kong that were in transit from Taiwan back to Singapore; and China's subsequent comments on the "one China" policy, expressing its opposition to countries having any form of official exchanges with Taiwan.

This is an edited excerpt from his response.

We believe in a "one China" policy. That has been so since we established diplomatic relations more than 25 years ago.

Everyone, including China, knows that we have had special arrangements with Taiwan for a long time. What we're doing there is no longer a secret. Everybody knows that. So many of us, the males in this room, have trained there. And that hasn't changed. Do you expect China to be happy with that? In fact, if they didn't say anything about it, I would have been surprised.

But the Chinese diplomats in the audience also know my standard lines so I don't need to go through it.


At The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Tuesday, Dr Balakrishnan said single incidents or even longstanding differences in perspective should not get in the way of the Singapore-China relationship. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Maybe I can share with you an anecdote. Just treat this and take it at face value. So when I meet the Foreign Minister, he says: "Well you know, your relationship has to keep up with the times."

So I know what he is getting at. He wants some changes.

So I also then tell him, you know, even I am half Chinese and the majority of my population is Chinese and one thing in Chinese culture is, you never forget your old friends. People who were there with you at the beginning, who were there with you through thick and thin. And surely, in Chinese culture, you appreciate this concept of loyalty to old friends. But at the same time, you know full well where I stand and I believe in one China. We will not deviate from that and we have not changed.

So the larger picture in our relationship with China, and therefore people need to appreciate this a bit better, is that on the one hand, we are just being perfectly consistent and we are not actually changing anything.

On the other hand, there will be differences in perspective, almost by definition - because of the way Singapore is, that I don't say one thing to you and say one thing to the diplomat and say a different thing to the minister. I say the same thing in all fora.

It means, from time to time, it may draw attention or it may draw comment but actually nothing has changed. The more fundamental point is this.

Let me cite to you as an example. Why do you think the meeting between (China's) President Xi (Jinping) and the leader across the Strait, Ma (Ying-jeou), took place in Singapore last year?

So the point I'm trying to make is: Try to avoid looking at things in a zero-sum game, try to appreciate history, try to recognise the value of human relationships, try to use our own unique cultural and multi-cultural status and position.

I think we can be honest brokers. We can be good friends. We can be constructive collaborators and, when you take this kind of attitude, you don't overreact and you don't get too defensive - you should not be defensive - about differences and incidents that arise from time to time.

So I can tell you quite honestly that I am looking forward to and am going to China. I was just in China two weeks ago and, in fact, I have already made four trips this year. There's a lot of work to do, a lot of things.

Don't let single incidents or even longstanding differences in perspective get in the way of a very important, fundamental account which is what the relationship between China and Singapore is.

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2016, with the headline 'On old friends and keeping up with the times'. Print Edition | Subscribe