ANBOUND's Observation: Vivian Balakrishnan on Singapore-China Relations
On October 10, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian
Balakrishnan accepted an interview with Australian Sky News host Christopher Pyne.
When discussing Singapore’s relationship with China, he said, “our attitude to
China has been to demonstrate relevance”, “I would have to say our relations
are excellent". Christopher Pyne is the former Minister of Defence. and had
served as a Member of Parliament.
According to the interview transcript provided by the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, Pyne asked Balakrishnan about the
current tension between Australia and China, whether he was surprised by this.
In response, Balakrishnan emphasized that he is “not really in a position to
advise Australia”, and he could only share Singapore’s perspective.
He said that China is Singapore's largest trading partner,
and Singapore has also been China's largest source of foreign capital since
2013. “So, the point is that from a Singapore perspective, we have got skin in
the game. And our attitude to China has been to demonstrate relevance”. He
cited three Government-to-Government projects, namely Suzhou Industrial Park,
Tianjin Eco-city, and Chongqing Connectivity Initiative-New International
Land-Sea Trade Corridor that will connect Western China and Southeast Asia via
Singapore. “So, it has been about relevance, about being useful, but not being
made use of. This is a delicate balance which all of us need to find, and we
have been able to find that”, Balakrishnan said.
He emphasized that Singapore-China relations are excellent
and China’s state affairs Commissioner and Foreign Minister Wang Yi not only visited
Singapore last month, but the two have also met face-to-face about four times
in the past 12 months. Balakrishnan also mentioned that, “perhaps the
lesser-known fact is that even during this COVID pandemic, at critical moments,
quietly, both sides have helped each other at critical points in time”. He
noted that the relationship between Singapore and China is not based on
symmetry because Singapore is too small. It is not based on a completely
unanimous position, because it is impossible, but the two countries find ways
to cooperate and resolve their differences together when they arise. He
believes that differences are an inevitable part of any long-term relationship
and must be dealt with. “It is like a game in which the same players are going
to be at the table week after week. Even if you have differences, work it out
and understand that there is a much larger account and a much longer-term
horizon”, noted Balakrishnan.
Pyne asked that if such an approach is common in ASEAN
nations, and Balakrishnan responded that ASEAN has now overtaken the U.S. as
China’s largest trading partner. “This trade interdependence is real, and it is
growing”, Balakrishnan added. As far as China’s Belt and Road projects are
concerned, Southeast Asia’s main interest lies in investment, especially in
infrastructure and connectivity. It can be seen that the medium and long-term
interests of the two sides have obvious overlaps. Therefore, although China has
differences and disputes with Southeast Asian over South Sea issue, this is
only one aspect of the extensive relations between the two sides. “No one wants them to get out of hand or to disrupt the
long-term trajectory of relationships”, noted Balakrishnan. He said that
territorial claims may take years or even decades to resolve, and no country
will give up easily, but it is not an absolute obstacle to the continued
exchange and establishment of relations between countries. This is exactly the
current situation in Southeast Asia.
Balakrishnan also emphasized that ASEAN insists on
maintaining an inclusive and open regional structure. This of course involves
the United States. In fact, the U.S. investment in Southeast Asia has exceeds
its total investment in India, China, and South Korea, so it has vital
interests in the region. “I used to tell successive administrations: “You have
got a head start. You still remain – when I say “you” (I mean) America – the
biggest foreign investor in Southeast Asia. You are a welcome, constructive presence.
Do not lose the head start”, said Balakrishnan.
Pyne asked if Beijing is now formulating “a dignified exit
for both Australia and China out of the current imbroglio”, and to this
Balakrishnan replied, “China thinks long term and takes a wide view in
geo-strategy. I am sure there would be a paper somewhere in a drawer on what
happens when we press the green button and say, the sun is out and it is (a)
good day mate. When that will happen? I do not know. But I hope it happens soon”.
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