Covid-19, climate to be discussed when US V-P Kamala Harris visits next week: Vivian Balakrishnan

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan outlined the key areas both sides intend to work on together when US Vice-President Kamala Harris visits Singapore next week.

SINGAPORE - Covid-19, the digital economy, green economy and security will be top of the agenda when United States Vice-President Kamala Harris visits Singapore next week.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, in an interview on Monday (Aug 16), outlined the key areas both sides intend to work on together.

He said Singapore and the Biden administration have the view that climate change is a pressing problem, and hope to explore opportunities for global agreements on building a more sustainable economy.

Also up for discussion: helping neighbouring countries with their pandemic response, how the US can be part of the emerging architecture of the digital economy, and defence and security.

"As we become more dependent on the digital economy, we are also at greater risk (in terms of cyber security), and this is an area we hope to collaborate on more intensively with the US," said Dr Balakrishnan.

Ms Harris' visit, at the invitation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will be her first official one here. She will arrive next Sunday and will leave for Vietnam next Tuesday.

Describing the US' historically important role, Dr Balakrishnan noted that it is a key founding member of international organisations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organisation, and World Health Organisation.

The US essentially envisioned and underwrote the free trade and rules-based world order that many countries across the world are familiar with today, he said.

"In a sense, that was the formula for global peace and prosperity. One of the big beneficiaries of this form of political economy on a global scale has been South-east Asia, and in particular, Singapore."

Last year, the US overtook Europe as the Republic's largest investor, with 53.4 per cent of Singapore's fixed asset commitments. The US has more investments in Asean than it has in China, India, Japan and South Korea combined.

Singapore's trade and digital economy agreements with its major partners - the US, China and European Union - are pathfinders, or a "first step" in a longer journey to engage the region, Dr Balakrishnan said. "Our major partners look at Singapore as a portal, an interface."

Asked whether the US can achieve strategic consistency in spite of its leadership changes, the minister said Singapore has always had excellent relations with successive US administrations, regardless of which party was in power.

It is in this spirit that Singapore welcomes Ms Harris' visit, he said. He recalled US President and then Vice-President Joe Biden's trip to Singapore in 2013, when Mr Biden spoke to founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and visited Adam Road Food Centre.

"We've always had excellent engagements at a fairly high intensity, which reflects the strength and the depth of the relationship."

He also stressed that Singapore does not take the relationship for granted. "We continue to look for new avenues and opportunities to collaborate and be relevant, and to engage and integrate with our neighbours in South-east Asia."

On the US' internal politics, he said foreign policy begins at home, and foreign policy consistency is a function of domestic politics. Noting the questioning of fundamental political presumptions in the US in the past decade, he said it is not surprising that some of this will leak into its foreign engagements.

But on the economic front, especially in the private sector, the US has been consistent in its engagements with Singapore and South-east Asia, he said.

US multinationals and tech firms continue to make significant investments in the region. A recent example is US semiconductor giant GlobalFoundries' decision to invest more than US$4 billion (S$5.4 billion) in its Singapore plant.

"It is a pity that America was not able to follow through on the TPP, but trade with the US continues to be healthy and have prospects for growth," said the minister, referring to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact that former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of in his first week in office.

What about the US having re-joined the Paris Agreement, after leaving it just two years ago?

Ultimately, Americans must decide for themselves if they believe climate change is real, and recognise a whole new green economy beckoning, said Dr Balakrishnan.

He said the US should play a leading role in the green economy, in areas including technology, standards and norms, and international agreements.

"We hope that as it settles the (domestic) question, there will also be more consistency in its foreign policy pronouncements," he said.

Asked about US-China tensions, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore is in a "delicate" position.

The US is Singapore's largest foreign investor and remains a vital source of technology, ideas and talent. On the other hand, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China, and China is Singapore's largest trading partner.

Thus, Singapore has "real skin in the game" in hoping that both countries can work out a new modus vivendi and learn to live with each other, he said.

"We hope their economies will continue to engage rather than bifurcate. If there is a lack of strategic trust at the highest level on both sides, that will cause problems - not only for them, but for the rest of the world and certainly for a place like Singapore."

Singapore seeks to be a trusted friend to both, and to express its views in a constructive yet transparent way, he said.

On the larger issue of globalisation, the minister said that countries cannot effectively globalise unless they have invested in their people and given them confidence that they have the right skills, tools and infrastructure to compete.

"All over the world, there is a need for good governance, upgrades to infrastructure that are fit for the digital age, and educational reform - so that people can seize opportunities in this new digital, globalised and green world that is emerging," he said.

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