Singapore in 'a position to benefit' from Belt and Road push

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaking at the 2017 Asia Economic Forum at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy yesterday.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam speaking at the 2017 Asia Economic Forum at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy yesterday.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Its edge includes good governance, educated workforce, financial centre and port, says Shanmugam

Having recognised early the benefits of China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) push, Singapore has actively supported it and is well-positioned to make gains from it, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in a lecture yesterday.

Singapore's edge lies in its good governance, the rule of law, its educated workforce and its respected financial centre and port, he said.

Singapore has also been an "active proponent" of China's growth since its opening-up, and was an early supporter of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which funds Belt and Road projects.

One Belt, One Road - unveiled by President Xi Jinping in 2013 - seeks to enhance links between Asia, Europe and Africa by building roads, railway and other infrastructure in a network of projects covering more than 60 countries.

Describing it as a "game changer" that is bold, innovative and ambitious, Mr Shanmugam said: "If connectivity improves, people travel, investment flows increase; we will benefit if we are ready and smart."

He cited figures that showed Singapore is already benefiting: 30 per cent of China's Belt and Road investments in all countries are in Singapore. In return, Singapore's investments in China account for 85 per cent of total Belt and Road investments there by all countries.

Mr Shanmugam's speech, at an Asia Competitiveness Institute forum, was the latest in a series of remarks by Singapore's leaders in support of China's bid to recreate the Silk Road.

The Republic was one of three South-east Asian countries whose heads of government did not attend the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May, causing some to raise questions about bilateral ties.

But observers say relations are on an even keel, with a June announcement that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will be visiting Singapore.

In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Shanmugam also placed the Belt and Road Initiative in the context of shifting geopolitics. China, said the former foreign minister, was likely to continue its rise as a superpower, despite domestic problems like corruption and an ageing population. And while the United States has not gone into actual decline, the relative positions of the two countries will change.

One Belt, One Road, a result of China's rise, may well accelerate that rise, he said, noting that China is already the largest trading nation in the world. China is also able to translate plans into reality, given its resources, its ability to muster the nation's will towards a clear goal, and its great leap forward in technology and science, he added.

China's strategic investments abroad have at times created tensions, but they have also helped forge strong ties and are likely to "predispose many countries towards the Belt and Road Initiative".

In contrast, the US has in recent times defined its interests more narrowly, wavering on once fundamental issues like free trade, he noted.

Mr Shanmugam said the shift is understandable, since the US has hitherto been bearing a disproportionate share of security costs. But if it continues, "more countries may find the Belt and Road Initiative to be more attractive".

For China, the initiative is not without risks, he said, as the Silk Road passes through Central Asia, a very "tough" region where other powers - Russia, India, Turkey and Iran - have their own interests.

A key to China's success is to convey benign intentions and to foster trust by working within the international framework, he added.

In this unfolding situation, Singapore's interest is in developing good relations with as many countries as possible and in latching on to One Belt, One Road and other growth opportunities, he said.

"The world can pass us by in an instant... We need to keep... finding new ways to add value," he said.

Singapore has to work hard to meet competition that will arise, such as from neighbouring ports built to challenge Singapore's ports, he said.

As a small state, Singapore is a price-taker. But if it gives in to bigger states, it will lose its sovereignty.

Said Mr Shanmugam: "If we allow ourselves to be bullied or seduced by bigger powers, that can break or severely stress our own domestic social compact, which is built on multiracialism. Once broken, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to put together this compact again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore in 'a position to benefit' from Belt and Road push'. Print Edition | Subscribe