Amid inevitable 'tug' of US-China competition, S'pore must be able to act independently, says Vivian

In navigating the two superpowers, Singapore must continue to maintain a consistent and principled foreign policy, said Dr Balakrishnan. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Given Singapore's deep friendships with both the United States and China, it is inevitable that the Republic will feel the tug of great power competition from time to time, said Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Monday (March 1).

He noted: "It is normal for two superpowers to try to influence others into their way of thinking... But I want to stress that it is normal - in fact, it is imperative - for Singapore, or for any other countries for that matter, to want to be able to choose for ourselves, instead of being forced into making decisions by other people."

In navigating the two superpowers, Singapore must continue to maintain a consistent and principled foreign policy, said Dr Balakrishnan, adding that put simply, this would be about saying the same thing to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as he would to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

"Next, we exercise our sovereign rights, but with full respect for a rules-based multilateral world order and international law, and regardless of inducements or threats," he said.

"What that means is from time to time, we'll have to say no to one or the other, or both. And when that happens... we depend on the confidence and cohesion and unity of the Singaporean public and of members of this House across party lines to stick together."

Said Dr Balakrishnan: "That's how we maintain our relevance, and our strategic autonomy. And that is how we preserve our independence and our unique identity as a multiracial, multicultural city-state in the heart of South-east Asia - by being relevant to both and at the same time, making it very clear to both of them that we will never be a stalking horse or a Trojan horse for the other."

During the debate on the budget for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MPs Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Dennis Tan (Hougang) had queried how Singapore would work with the two majors without getting drawn into any conflict.

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) also asked how Singapore could do more to further its citizens' understanding of foreign policy positions.

Dr Balakrishnan said that while Singapore was in a sweet spot in terms of its relationship with US and China, it must also be able to anticipate that things can only go downhill from there.

Agreeing with Mr Yam that "foreign policy begins at home", he said: "I hope that the people of Singapore will understand and take it in our stride when relations become a bit prickly, a bit uncomfortable, and we go through the inevitable episodes from time to time, and it can come from either or from both sides.

"Our unique selling point is not to be a vassal state or to be bought or intimidated or to be a pale imitation of a larger power, but to be ourselves - authentic, reliable, trustworthy, relevant, and useful," added Dr Balakrishnan.

He noted that with the US, Singapore's cooperation covers vital areas of defence, security and the economy, among others.

He highlighted that cumulative stock of US foreign direct investment in Southeast Asia was more than US$338 billion (S$450 billion) - and more than what it has invested in India, Japan, South Korea, and China combined.

And of the US' total investments in the region, about 85 per cent are in Singapore, creating many good jobs here, added Dr Balakrishnan.

He also described Mr Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan as old friends with whom he had been familiar before they took their current positions in the Biden administration.

Dr Balakrishnan also noted that Singapore shares a deep, historical, cultural and linguistic legacy with China.

China is Singapore's largest trading partner and Singapore, China's largest foreign investor. And the three Singapore-China government-to-government projects - Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco City, and Chongqing Connectivity Initiative - have made commendable progress over the years, said Dr Balakrishnan.

He noted how Singapore kept up its pace of cooperation and engagement with China during the Covid-19 pandemic, by sending medical equipment and supplies to each other at crucial stages.

"When the chips were down on either side... we stepped up and we helped (each other) and that's how you build trust (and) prove you are a reliable partner," said the minister.

"Therefore you should not be surprised that China was the first country with which we established a reciprocal green lane - because we had both been able to control the pandemic domestically, and also because of this large reservoir of trust."

He reminded the House of politburo member Yang Jiechi's visit to Singapore in August 2020, and that he had met Mr Wang during his transit in Singapore in October as well as engaged him on the phone several times in the past year.

Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) also asked how Singapore would strengthen Asean centrality and coordination in the face of issues such as the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The US and China have clashed repeatedly over what Washington views as an illegal campaign and use of force in those disputed waters.

Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman noted that Asean remains a cornerstone of Singapore's foreign policy, with a role in preserving peace and stability in the region - including the South China Sea.

He pointed to the Asean-led process to manage disputes over the territory via the code of conduct (COC) in South China Sea negotiations, with good progress made thus far and the second reading of the single draft negotiating text begun in 2019.

"Dialogue between Asean and China is ongoing," said Dr Maliki.

"Singapore will continue to defend our right to freedom of navigation and overflight, and work through Asean towards an effective and substantive COC that is in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," he said.

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