Last Thursday (Mar 2), Parliament debated on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ budget for 2017.

Workers’ Party (WP) Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang rose to speak about a rising China’s implications to Singapore’s place in the world.

He then posed a question to Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on whether “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.”

The speech drew praises from both the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on their Facebook accounts.

Here’s what they said:

Some opposition MPs made good speeches too. Mr Low Thia Kiang set out succinctly how the strategic landscape is changing, and how this challenges our foreign policy. He asked: how can we protect and advance the national interest of our multi-racial country?

Lee Hsien Loong

Sharing Mr Low Thia Khiang’s thoughtful question, which reflects the level of bipartisan support for our foreign policy efforts in this period of global uncertainty.

Vivian Balakrishnan

Here’s a video of Low’s speech:

Here’s his speech:

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.

After Low’s question, Minister Balakrishnan gave a speech on Singapore’s foreign policy position and also responded to Low’s question. Here’s an excerpt of the speech pertaining to the question:

And one point which I want to commend today – I’ve listened to the very thoughtful speeches from Mr Low Thia Khiang, Mr Pritam Singh, and I am grateful for the bipartisan support that we have in this House. This unity of purpose is essential for us to pursue our foreign policy goals in this uncertain and volatile environment.

Mr (Vikram) Nair and Mr Low also asked some searching questions about how the relationship between China and the US will impact Singapore. And indeed, this is the key bilateral relationship that will affect peace, security and prosperity in our region and, indeed, in the world.

Whilst competition between the US and China is inevitable, what is different in historical terms is that never before have two powers been so interdependent, so intertwined economically. Even in the depths of the Cold War, remember that the American and Russian economies were never intertwined to the same degree that the US and Chinese economies are. So we hope that both sides, after they have measured these imperatives, will come back to the same conclusion that constructive engagement and win-win cooperation are the right formula. If they can achieve this, this will provide space for countries in the region, including Singapore, to be part of a common circle of friends, and achieve win-win outcomes for all.

This is, in fact, a key reason why for the last 51 years, South-east Asia, in particular the founding members of Asean, have enjoyed peace, security, prosperity.

So we hope that they would arrive at this conclusion. But we should also bear in mind that we have no say. We cannot determine the dynamics of that relationship.

Mr Low asked “what do we do, if they don’t get along”. And the answer is that, number one, we have no say. Number two, we should avoid being forced to choose sides for as long as possible.

The third point is that we must always remain an honest broker.

What that means is, whatever I tell the Secretary of State of the US, I must also be prepared to take the same consistent position with the Foreign Minister of China. I don’t say two different things and hope that they never compare notes.

We have to be clear, consistent and transparent in our communications. And then, the other point is to try to do as much as possible on a bilateral basis with both China and the US and, if possible, in third-party projects in other parts of the world.

So again, it is a matter of maintaining strategic consistency while having tactical agility. And I don’t want to trivialise and say that this will be very easy. It won’t be but, watch this space, we will come back to you and update you as things progress, and I hope all members of the House, including the opposition, will continue to support MFA.

Here’s the video of the Foreign Minister’s full speech:

 

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