(Delivered in Parliament on 2 March 2017)
Staffing Levels: Preparing for a more Complex world – Pritam Singh
Mr Chairman, to say that the last year financial year was a public education in diplomacy for many younger Singaporeans, would be an understatement. The release of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s judgment in favour of the Philippines over territorial differences in the South China Sea was followed up almost overnight by an unexpected upswing in relations between China and the Philippines, even as Singapore and many like-minded countries affirmed the judgment and the rule of law. The Terrex episode which saw nine military vehicles temporarily confiscated by the Hong Kong authorities hit even closer to home. While the issue appears to have been resolved and relations with China back on the usual even keel, some observers continue to watch the signature of Singapore’s military activities in Taiwan even as others view the episode as a shrewd diplomatic ploy by China to make a point about the one-China policy and to signal dissatisfaction with Singapore’s position on the South China Sea.
I would imagine these incidents, amongst many others, to have taken up much time and energy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Government in general. It also is worthwhile to note that Singapore is into its second year as country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations, a challenging assignment made even more so by a new US administration determined – on the surface at least – to take a hard-headed and transactional approach in its relationship with China and with its domestic constituency more paramount in the conduct of foreign affairs than ever before. More recently, the last few weeks has also seen the Malaysian government reopen the Pedra Branca case by way of an appeals mechanism.
Closer to home, it was significant that strategy number one of seven strategies arising out of the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) was to deepen and diversify Singapore’s international connections and to press ahead with trade and investment cooperation. In view of this renewed strategy cast against a broader evolutionary geopolitical environment, does the Ministry plan to review its staffing requirements both locally and at overseas embassies and High Commissions with a view to raising manpower? Secondly, in view of ASEAN as a central economic region for Singapore and in step with the CFE report’s relevance to the ASEAN Economic Community, does the Ministry plan to open more consulates in ASEAN cities to further economic linkages and develop our international trade relationships
Foreign Policy in the New World Order – Low Thia Khiang
Madam, it was only half a year ago that the Prime Minister conducted a marathon of diplomatic visits to our closest partners in the region. In three months, he travelled to Laos to meet with ASEAN leaders and the United States, China, Japan, India and Australia to affirm longstanding ties.
Things were looking up for our relations with these key countries. Our principled foreign policy position has emphasized the international rule of law, commitment to an open economy and freedom of navigation, mutual respect for each other’s independence, and armed neutrality. This seems to have earned us a good deal of legroom as a small, sovereign city-state among large powers. Some even commented that we are punching above our weight in the international arena to influence outcomes for the common good.
Much of our foreign policy achievements are clearly due to our hardworking diplomatic corps, members of whom have been building on the foundation established by our premier statesman, the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. But it is also becoming apparent that the global order is changing. And it is changing rapidly. Even as the Prime Minister continued his diplomatic marathon, when he was visiting Japan in September, a Chinese state-owned newspaper stoked public anger by accusing Singapore for taking sides against China.
Madam, I am glad that the issue with the seizure of the Terrex vehicle by Hong Kong Customs were handled with great care by China and Singapore and have come to pass. Nevertheless, the public expressions and discussions resulting from the events do point to some critical challenges to Singapore in this changing global order. The critical challenges pertain to a rising China with the economic and military clout to impose its will on Asia. China may not do so in the near-future, but with the means and its strong position on the South China Sea claims, the potential is there.
Whether we like it or not, China is an important strategic partner. However, even as Singapore invests in new opportunities of bilateral cooperation, especially under China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, we need to be mindful of not becoming too dependent on the Chinese economy.
We have encouraged our businessmen, entrepreneurs and professionals to connect with their Chinese counterparts using deep historical and cultural links.
We saw the complications when Singaporeans doing business and working in China came under public pressure during the events last year. Some Singaporeans were even of the opinion that we should appease China. Singapore not only risks becoming economically vulnerable to any strategic foreign policy shift by China, the multiracial and multicultural character of our society will also come under pressure.
To compound this challenge, the new United State Administration pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership a month ago. The U.S. looks set to turn inwards to deal with domestic political conflicts. If the U.S. disengages from Southeast Asia, this will leave a gap, if not a vacuum.
If ASEAN continues to be divided on the collective response to the South China Sea issue, then the gap left by the U.S. will mean ASEAN will have to face a strong China by ourselves and divided. This is a grim prospect.
Madam, one of the tenets of our foreign policy is hard-nosed pragmatism to survive as a small city-state. I would like to ask the Foreign Minister whether our foreign policy principles need to be updated in view of the changing world order, and if not, how the existing principles would guide us in the volatile and uncertain waters.
ASEAN – Low Thia Khiang
Since the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favour of the Philippines against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea last year, media reports on the summits between leaders of Asean and China coming just before and after the ruling alleged that China’s interference in Asean’s affairs succeeded in dividing the organisation.
It would appear that Laos and Cambodia, which have strong overland economic ties with China, were weighing their national interests against the collective interests of Asean. Has this split healed since the events last year? What is the status of Asean integration, or has the South China Sea issue effectively blocked any progress for integration? Are the Philippines really embracing China? If so, what are the implications for Asean unity given the Philippines is the Asean Chair this year?
It has been said by an expert in the foreign policy field that a divided Asean is not in the interest of China. This is not obvious to me as a layperson, as it seems that it is in China’s interest to have a divided Asean. Historically, great powers will seek to divide and rule and advance their own interests in Southeast Asia. I am not sure China will be an exception, given its own imperial history. China continues to expand its economic influence in mainland Southeast Asia, and even with Malaysia, and will seek leverage with small states such as Brunei and Singapore.
We, of course, have our principled foreign policy and will never compromise our independence. However, are we in a position to help unite Asean and to block out any divisive forces? If we are not in that position, then are we able to facilitate processes or support another leading country, say, Indonesia, to help unite Asean?
Asean has long served as an anchor for Singapore in the region. If Asean is beginning to lose its viability, then what alternatives does Singapore have to try to achieve a semblance of stability in its surrounding waters?
 http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/china-sought-to-divide-asean-with-its-own-10-point-consensus-at-foreign-minister-meet; https://intpolicydigest.org/2016/07/18/china-s-maritime-diplomacy-leaves-asean-divided-on-the-south-china-sea/; https://www.ft.com/content/ee78dad2-75a6-11e6-b60a-de4532d5ea35