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Thursday, October 14, 2021
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”.