Debate on ministries’ budgets

S'pore has no wish to choose sides: Vivian

FOREIGN MINISTER VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN
FOREIGN MINISTER VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN

Republic has good ties with key powers and wants to be able to act in its own interests

Singapore aims to be a friend to all and does not wish to be forced to choose sides, or to be caught in proxy battles, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said yesterday.

The country must preserve its ability to make independent decisions based on its national interests and not become a vassal state, he told the House during the debate on his ministry's budget.

"We're not for sale, and we're not going to be easily intimidated," he added, outlining key principles that guide Singapore's foreign policy.

The country also has to be successful, help promote a global order governed by the rule of law, and be a reliable, credible and consistent partner, he added.

MPs sought updates on Singapore's ties with major powers and others, and its plans to strengthen Asean as the group's chair this year.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore enjoys good relations with both China and the United States and hopes for a stable relationship between the two powers.

"We must anticipate there will be an element of competition between the US and China, but... we hope both sides will see there's too much to lose by confrontation and conflict," he said. He pointed to tariffs the US had slapped on imported washing machines and solar panels in late January, which hit countries such as China and South Korea, as "some early signs of a trade war".

DEVELOPING A NATIONAL INSTINCT

Diplomacy begins at home. Our foreign policy rests on a domestic consensus and I will continue to work with all Members in this House to reach out to Singaporeans to build a deeper appreciation of the fundamental truths - the hard truths - that underpin our foreign policy, and to develop a shared national instinct against external attempts to pressure, influence or divide us.

FOREIGN MINISTER VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN

Singapore, which also makes solar panels, saw "collateral damage". This illustrates the dangers of a full-blown trade war, he added.

In contrast, constructive engagement between the US and China benefits both of them, the region and the rest of the world, he said.

Singapore has deep cooperation with China which is multifaceted and evolving, and a major area is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to spur trade, investment and infrastructure across Asia and Europe. About 85 per cent of inbound investments for BRI countries make their way to China through Singapore.

Nonetheless, it is natural that issues between China and Singapore will arise "occasionally" as the two are sovereign countries with very different national circumstances.

"We must expect some differences in perspectives, and not get flustered," said the minister.

Singapore also has longstanding ties with the US, underpinned by close defence ties and deep trade and business links. President Donald Trump has accepted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's invitation to visit Singapore later this year, he noted. Mr Trump is expected to attend the US-Asean and East Asia summits in November.

Asean, the minister said, has been a cornerstone for the region's peace and prosperity, and Asean unity enlarges the space members have. As Asean chair, Singapore will work with partners to strengthen the Asean-led regional architecture.

Above all, foreign policy needs domestic support to succeed, he said.

Singaporeans must be well-informed about various viewpoints and trade-offs, and not let themselves be distracted and divided, for instance by fake news, he added.

To this end, the Foreign Ministry has been reaching out to Singaporeans to explain the country's foreign policy. It also wants to develop a "national instinct against external attempts to pressure, influence or divide us", said Dr Balakrishnan.

Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman added that Singaporeans abroad must be conscious theirs is an independent, sovereign and multiracial country.

"We should stand firm against external pressures and influences that undermine our national identity, interests and values," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore has no wish to choose sides: Vivian'. Print Edition | Subscribe