Parliament Debate on ministries’ budgets: Foreign Affairs

S'pore must make own decisions amid US-China rivalry: Vivian

It has to maintain a consistent, principled foreign policy with both superpowers

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 Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.

"It is normal for two superpowers to try to influence others into their way of thinking," he told Parliament. "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 that he would to US Secretary of State Antony 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."

Added Dr Balakrishnan: "That's how we maintain our relevance, and our strategic autonomy... 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, Mr Baey Yam Keng (Tampines GRC) and Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) had queried how Singapore would work with the two powers without getting drawn into any conflict. Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) asked if more could be done to further citizens' understanding of foreign policy positions.

Responding, the minister said that while Singapore is in a sweet spot in terms of its relationship with the US and China, it must also be able to anticipate that things can go downhill.

"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," he added.

"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."

Dr Balakrishnan highlighted that the cumulative stock of US foreign direct investment in South-east Asia was over US$338 billion (S$450 billion), more than what it has invested in India, Japan, South Korea and China combined. And of the US' total investments in the region, approximately 85 per cent are in Singapore, creating many good jobs here, he added.

He also described Mr Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan as old friends he had been familiar with prior to their taking up positions in the Biden administration.

The minister also noted that China remains Singapore's largest trading partner and Singapore, China's largest foreign investor. The three government-to-government projects - Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-city and Chongqing Connectivity Initiative - have also made commendable progress over the years, he added.

He highlighted how Singapore and China had sent each other medical supplies at crucial stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. "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.

He reminded the House of Politburo member Yang Jiechi's visit to Singapore last August, 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) asked how Singapore would strengthen Asean centrality and coordination, given issues like the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The US and China have clashed repeatedly over what Washington views as an illegal campaign by Beijing to assert maritime claims in the disputed waters.

Second Minister for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman noted that Asean still has a role in preserving peace and stability in the region.

He pointed to the Asean-led process to manage disputes over the territory via the Code of Conduct (COC), with good progress made in negotiations thus far and the second reading of the Single Draft Negotiating Text having commenced 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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2021, with the headline 'S'pore must make own decisions amid US-China rivalry: Vivian'. Subscribe