Look at South-east Asia on our own merits, not through a US vs China lens: Vivian Balakrishnan

Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan delivering an address at Asia Society in New York on Sept 23, 2022. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

WASHINGTON - South-east Asia has great potential and the region holds positive views of the United States, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Friday at the Asia Society in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

"The future of South-east Asia is bright," he added.

"But the point I am trying to make is this: Look at us, South-east Asia, on our own merits and not simply through a US versus China lens.

"You (America) have a head start, you are welcome, you are wanted." 

South-east Asia expects its combined gross domestic product, which currently stands at US$3 trillion (S$4.3 trillion), to double - if not quadruple - over the next two decades, he said.

"If that happens, that would make Asean the fourth-largest economy in the world," the minister added.

"Therefore, if you believe that we are moving into a multipolar world, South-east Asia will be one of those... poles."

He noted that the region's population is still young, with 60 per cent of its people below the age of 35.

"This means there is a demographic dividend to be harvested and tremendous economic potential if - and this is a big 'if' - things go right."

The US has invested more in South-east Asia than China, Japan and India combined, he said, adding that US trade with South-east Asia supports more than half a million American jobs.

"In 2021 alone, in the depths of Covid-19, US investment flows into South-east Asia totalled US$40 billion," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"That is a 41 per cent year-on-year increase, and more than mainland China, which I think came in at about US$14 billion, or Japan at US$12 billion."

He pointed out that human society was at an inflection point, in which fundamental breakthroughs in basic research and applied science have led to an era of digital revolution and interlocking revolutions in energy transformation, artificial intelligence, robotics and synthetic biology.

This would have profound political and social impacts on all societies, he said.

"If we can avoid war and if we can continue to work together... we have the potential to reach a new golden age," he added.

"America, China, Europe, Asia, South-east Asia, Africa and Latin America can all partake in a new age of prosperity."

But "it will require domestic reform. It will require investments in domestic infrastructure, education, training, people, building social capital and equity", he said. 

"By building domestic confidence, I believe it will also help defuse some of the tensions, as far as foreign policy is concerned."

He emphasised: "If we can get through the next two years, not lose our heads and not lose hope, and continue to invest in our own people, we in fact have the prospect of many great decades ahead of us."

Citing the US' 2017 withdrawal from the erstwhile Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Dr Balakrishnan said: "I have been speaking to a multitude of administration officials, congressmen and senators. When I meet them one on one, nobody makes a strategic argument against the TPP, but everybody tells me somewhat ruefully that it cannot be done for domestic political reasons."

But foreign policy and trade policy begin at home, he said.

"You have got to embark on the necessary reform and investment in your domestic capacity. You need to build up social and political capital and then engage and re-engage the world with confidence. That is my pitch. We will see what happens next."

He added: "We at least have the latest game in town, the IPEF - the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework - which very studiously avoids any mention of market access.

"But... to the extent that it reflects American acknowledgement that there are opportunities out across the Pacific and continued engagement - that is a positive."

He said: "Singapore will stand fully shoulder to shoulder (with the US) on this endeavour. But you need to do more - that is the message."

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