A dialogue session with S’pore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan

|     Lyna Mohamad in Singapore     |

AFTER days of arrivals of ASEAN media representatives comprising editors, deputy editors and senior reporters including myself and fellow colleague from Brunei Henrietta; our week-long ASEAN Media Visit Programme began in earnest with a dialogue session with Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan.

Upon arrival at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) premise, we were given a warm welcome by MFA officials and ushered into the Heritage Room for the dialogue session.

Despite, a tiring and long marathon week on ASEAN, chairing meetings and having an intensive course of ASEAN diplomacy just the week before our programme, the minister still took time to meet and share with us news about the recent ASEAN and external partners meetings.

The overall tone was positive, warm and constructive, stressing that unlike in the past few years, where there have been times when negotiations sometimes can be a bit heated.

This time around it was positive, constructive and actually, in his view, an excellent meeting.

The writer and other media with Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan. – LYNA MOHAMAD

“It doesn’t mean that there were no issues or challenges. This meeting last week took place in the midst of continuing evolution of the global geo-strategic architecture. Basically, we are moving from a unipolar world into a multipolar world. We all know that there’s a lot of anxiety about trade, unilateral sanctions, and what the prospects are for global free trade,” he said.

A digital revolution, artificial intelligence, robotics and big data which are completely transforming jobs, economies and comparative advantages of individual states including ASEAN, are the trends that everyone is aware of, said the minister.

“These three big trends that are occurring outside our region have profound impact within our region. Therefore, a lot of attention was spent on how ASEAN should respond. “

On this note, the minister highlighted the need of unity before centrality adding that if ASEAN is disunited, centrality can still be asked for but it would have a very limited traction.

Balakrishnan also stressed on the need to double down on economic integration, on free trade and the big deal that they are trying to work on and trying to push the next few months is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which, if it is done, will be the largest free trade agreement in the world, comprising 45 per cent of the world’s population and about 30 per cent of global GDP.

“The unique feature about it is that it has ASEAN at the centre, and then six spokes which are our external partners whom we have existing free trade arrangements with.”

He further pointed out that of those six radiating spokes of ASEAN – China, India, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand – and everyone who was present recognised that precisely because of these challenges to free trade at a global level and in a midst of a trade war, it’s all the more important if they can make progress on it, settle it, and in a sense raise the flag for free trade.

Other issues at the meetings were regional and topical issues such as the South China Sea where ASEAN and China agreed to single text which will form the basis for negotiations for the Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea.

It is very important to look at this context as this is not a solution for overlapping territorial claims said the minister adding that the CoC, by agreeing on norms of behaviour and conduct, is intended to reduce tensions, increase confidence, and allow peace and stability to prevail in the South China Sea whilst in the long run, the claimant states will have to sort out, through negotiation and in keeping with international law without resorting to force or even the threat of use of force, in order to resolve their territorial disputes.

“So, South China Sea – calmer and a positive step forward but still a long journey. There was obviously discussion on the DPRK and Korean Peninsula. But even that, to a significant extent, the tone was much better this year compared to previous years, clearly because the summit that was held in Singapore between President Trump and Chairman Kim had just occurred. So even that was an improvement.”

Countering violent extremism, terrorism, the need to work together, was other issues discussed stating that this is a transboundary problem.

All in all it was a good meeting and the fact that all the external partners showed up at Secretary of State level or State Councilor level, is another affirmation of ASEAN’s relevance.

“The fact that people do want to talk to us, and that ASEAN meetings form a good, relevant, safe, constructive platform where people can actually engage. Both America and China during the East Asia Summit meeting actually were quite frank with one another so it wasn’t all just roses and syrup. But they could be frank and yet still maintain a positive tone to the conversation.”

I raised a question to the minister on his take on the years to come as ASEAN have celebrated more than 50 years. I also asked on how he sees the contributions made by the smaller nations such as Brunei towards ASEAN.

“Well, I always imagine the scene in 1967 when the five foreign ministers met in Bangkok and signed the Bangkok Declaration. If you stop to think about 1967, there were major quarrels amongst the five countries then.”

Although Brunei was not yet part of ASEAN , there were many things happening in Brunei then, making his point that he always find it amazing that the five of them made this leap of faith to create ASEAN, despite some very fundamental differences amongst the five.

He also finds its amazing that even today, when we fast forward to today, they have issues between Singapore-Malaysia, Malaysia-Indonesia but in his mind, none of those issues of today are exactly as hot as they were in 1967.

“I’m not trying to trivialise it, but you think about the circumstances then. So if our founding leaders were prepared to overcome major fights because they realised the importance of creating ASEAN, we should humbly recognise that actually we’ve made enormous progress since then.”

Enormous progress means for the founding members of ASEAN, there were never a war with each other including Brunei apart from the Vietnamese-Cambodian conflict in 1979, but that was before they joined ASEAN.

There are still territorial disputes, but just making sure there’s peace in Southeast Asia, and that differences are resolve– whether it’s through the ICJ or through arbitration it is a wonderful thing, said the minister.

“Because over 50 years it has created this habit that yes, there’s a problem, we’ll try to talk about it, if we talk about it and we still can’t solve it, we will look for a legal route – whether that’s arbitration or ICJ – to solve it. That is very valuable. My dream is that we must hopefully reach a stage where war is unthinkable in Southeast Asia. Unthinkable. That will be one big, big harvest.”

The second thing is to look at the economies over the last 51 years where every one of them has grown and there may be differences, but there’s no question about the direction of travel and their progress is better together than separately.

“So much of what we do for free trade – customs, Single Window for trade declarations, e-commerce – is about enhancing our negotiating position, strengthening our voice, and protecting our national interests because we band together. That’s why they said you know, we have to hang together or we’ll hang separately. By hanging together we’re stronger.”

Looking at peace, economy and then ASEAN voice on stage, they are in a much, much stronger position where during the recent meeting there are 30 countries represented with 23 at the Foreign Ministers level – including the Secretary of State of the US, the State Councilor of China, and of course, Australia, New Zealand all coming to the meeting.

If ASEAN was irrelevant and disunited, they would not bother and while in the UN there are about 200, for 30 countries to get together every year in ASEAN, it’s not bad, he added.

It means people find ASEAN relevant and useful to engage and that ASEAN is a platform where they all find that they can have frank conversations but constructive conversations.

“So I am very grateful to the founding leaders who overcame such fundamental differences together, and I always therefore keep it in perspective – whatever we argue about today actually is less than what they had to deal with in 1967,” said the minister.