Singapore has to stay nimble and seize opportunities while maintaining its balance in a volatile external environment, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.
It must keep promoting a rules-based international order, remain a credible and consistent partner, stay relevant to the world to be successful and vibrant, and seek to be a friend to all and enemy of none.
Dr Balakrishnan outlined these principles of the Republic's foreign policy, saying they remain key amid a number of major challenges: tense Sino-US ties, digital disruption, rising protectionism and a multilateral system under threat.
As the relationship between the United States and China shifts from one of engagement to strategic rivalry and competition, countries - including Singapore - will come under intense pressure to choose sides. "We can expect this major power rivalry to sharpen, especially in the technological arena," Dr Balakrishnan said.
Globally, workers who feel squeezed or are displaced by technology have become angry at immigration and free trade, and are backing populist politicians.
Protectionism has risen, and created a geopolitical order dominated by a short-term transactional ethos and a zero-sum mindset. Multilateral agreements are increasingly viewed as shackles on sovereignty and a burden on economic growth.
Dr Balakrishnan said a free, open, rules-based trading system has benefited Singapore and Asean for many decades, and if countries turn away from multilateralism and trade connectivity shrinks, the outcome will be negative-sum for everyone.
Turning to Singapore's approach to deal with these challenges, the minister said that as a small country where trade is over three times the gross domestic product, Singapore must stand up for the multilateral, rules-based global trading system.
"This is not a debating point, this is our lifeblood," the minister said, adding that Singapore continues to play an active role at the World Trade Organisation and tries to negotiate a web of free-trade pacts.
The Republic ratified the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, signed a free-trade pact with the European Union last year, and is committed to conclude the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership this year.
It is also in talks with South American blocs Mercosur and the Pacific Alliance, and with the Eurasian Economic Union, on free-trade pacts.
Several MPs asked how Singapore would manage a situation where others force it to choose sides. Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore's neutrality is critical.
"Singapore cannot be bought, nor can we be bullied. We are not 'for' or 'against' anyone - we are 'pro-Singapore'," he said. "We will be nobody's stooge. We will not act on behalf of any other power. We act consistently and purely in the long-term interests of Singaporeans."
This sense of strategic predictability has enabled Singapore to build trust and goodwill with all the major powers, and play a constructive role in international affairs, he added. Its credibility has consistently won it a seat at the Group of 20 table.
And, at a time of increasing tensions, it has maintained relations with the US and China in a way that is robust and constructive. It is also anchored in the region. "Asean has always been a cornerstone of Singapore's foreign policy and for our engagement with the region and the rest of the world."
On staying relevant, Dr Balakrishnan noted that Singapore was asked to host last year's US-North Korea summit, reaffirming its reputation as an impartial, reliable and safe country, and a trusted partner.
As for being a friend to all, he said peace and stability are essential. "Our closest neighbours will always be Malaysia and Indonesia. This is a geographical fact... they will always be of special importance to us...
"We must continue to strengthen our bilateral and multilateral partnerships with our neighbours and the major powers," he said. "And it is important to manage our key accounts adroitly in order to preserve our strategic space and options."
The minister also reminded MPs that diplomacy begins at home. "We need to continue to strengthen the resilience and the unity of our citizens, and to build a deeper appreciation of the fundamental principles of Singapore's foreign policy and of our vulnerabilities as a small country."