Joint press conference with Singapore Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan

  • Joint transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Australia-Singapore relations, Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, global supply chains, green energy, G20 meetings, Australia-China relations, Australia-Singapore Green Economy Agreement.

Speaker: Good afternoon. Welcome to the joint conference between Singapore’s Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Australia’s Foreign Minister Penny Wong. May I now invite Minister Balakrishnan to deliver his remarks, please.

Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore: Thank you. Good afternoon, everyone, and a warm welcome to an old friend, Minister Penny Wong. I’ve lost count of how many times you’ve been in Singapore, how many times we have met in your various incarnations, but you know you’re always welcome in Singapore.

Singapore and Australia are longstanding natural partners and partners with what I would describe as a huge reservoir of strategic trust. We tend to see the world through similar perspectives: for instance, on the need to maintain an open and inclusive regional order; our mutual belief in the constructive value and importance of free trade; and, of course, the rule of law. Our relations encompass the whole spectrum of interactions and have, in more recent years, been anchored especially by the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

Some of the key elements of that partnership, of course, were the upgrade of the free trade agreement; secondly, the military training facilities that Australia has so graciously provided for Singapore; and just as an aside, in fact, later in this year there will be the resumption of full training, both unilateral and bilateral components, with the Australian Defence Force. Again, another illustration of the deep wells of strategic trust.

Looking forward, we have had some good discussions with the Prime Minister as well, as just recently concluded. There are a couple of areas which we want to explore and take further. The first is the green economy partnership or green economy agreement. This is something which is obviously of crucial importance to Singapore because we are a small, tiny island state and climate change is an existential threat for us. I suggested to Minister Wong that we can make this an ambitious, practical, pathfinding agreement, one which will make a difference to our economy, one which will fulfil the climate ambition of our people, one that makes sense to the business sector as well. So, our officials have met so far about 10 times, but I think we have agreed that we will press on the accelerator and get them to really arrive at a highly ambitious pathfinding agreement which will make a difference both to Australia and to Singapore, but also help us in our further negotiations with other partners on the green economy.

We also have reflected on the fact that during the crisis, Australia and Singapore were stalwart partners. And again, the way you behave in a crisis reveals a lot about national character and the levels of trust, and I can say with absolute confidence that Australia and Singapore stood by each other in a crisis. As we look forward, we believe there is value in exploring how we can make our supply chains even more resilient for the future, so we agreed to convene a working group amongst our officials to explore how we can construct supply chains which will withstand the tests of future crisis and which will draw on these wells of strategic trust between our two countries.

So, indeed, there is a lot to celebrate on the past. And I should add that I forgot to congratulate you on your election victory, but I should also add that Singapore is very grateful, and I stand ready to be corrected, but I believe the relations between Singapore and Australia have been an example of bipartisan consensus in Australian politics.

Penny Wong, Minister for Foreign Affairs: Absolutely.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs: On that note, again, let me welcome you and I look forward to your comments.

Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, thank you very much, Minister Balakrishnan, for those very, very generous comments, and I did thank the Minister also personally. You remember when you are in Government how people dealt with you before you were in Government and the Minister did make the effort to meet me when I was last here on a previous visit whilst in Opposition, and we thank you for that. I thank you for that. It is a demonstration that, I think, the Singaporean Government understands the truth of our bipartisanship in relation to the relationship. So, I’m delighted to be here. Singapore is a place I know well. I came here a great deal as a child. I’m old enough to remember the old airport, you know, when you went out onto the – 

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs: You don’t need to give away your age!

Minister for Foreign Affairs: It’s all right. It’s all on the internet so it’s fine!

It is a real honour to be here as Australia’s Foreign Minister and I want to thank, first, Prime Minister Lee for his generous engagement at the Istana today and, as always, his insights into the circumstances both our nations face. I will be seeing the Deputy Prime Minister later. And I thank again Minister Balakrishnan both for his hospitality but his generosity with his time and insights. He has been a leader in this region for some years. I’m also not going to talk about your age, Minister, but we really value his experience and his insights. We’ve had, I think, very good discussions.

I reiterate what my colleague has said. That is this: Australia’s relationship with Singapore is one of our closest, and it is a relationship that is anchored in shared strategic interests and shared economic interests. We have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The Minister described the fact that we are negotiating – I think it’s a world‑first – the green economy agreement and we have agreed and encouraged our officials to ensure this is the case: that we want an ambitious agreement. I would just make the point here that the new Australian Government has been elected with a much greater level of ambition on climate change. We are serious about it. Importantly – and this is where there is convergence with Singapore again – we see this as an enormous economic opportunity for our countries as well.

Our relationship, of course, is more than official links. As the Minister said, we trust each other. We like each other. We visit often. We study together. We’re there for each other in good times and in tough times, and I want to acknowledge your Armed Forces working alongside the Australian Defence Force during some tough times for us, the Operation Bushfire Assist in 2020 and Flood Assist in 2022. And I also publicly thank you for the vaccine swap that was arranged under our previous Government, which was critical at the time for Australians in the momentum of our national rollout.

On supply chains, I am grateful for the acknowledgement, and it goes both ways, of the reliability and the trust we have in each other as suppliers in terms of both supply chains and logistics more broadly. One of the insights many nations, I think, have had as a consequence of the pandemic and what happened to the global economy is the importance of resilience in our supply chains, and I think you described it, Minister, as we have to move from just in time to just in case, as well. And I’m very pleased that Minister Balakrishnan has suggested more work on resilient supply chains between us. We have complementary economies in many ways, and I think we can do good work there in the interests of both our nations.

Finally, I just make this point: the new Australian Government has made very clear: we see our future in this region. We see our security in this region. That is why we will bring deep engagement to our relationship with this region, and it is a shared vision or shared interests about the nature of the region we want. One which is governed by rules and norms so that behaviour is predictable and one that is peaceful, prosperous and stable and one in which sovereignty is respected. We look forward to continuing to work with Singapore to that end.

Speaker: We’ll take the first question from The Straits Times, please.

Journalist: Good afternoon. Min Zhang from The Straits Times. My question is for Minister Vivian. You mentioned just now about strengthening supply chains. Australia has long been a reliable source of food and commodities for Southeast Asia, especially for Singapore as well. Could I ask for some elaboration on this plan that you mentioned earlier to strengthen this resilience given the supply chains constraints we are facing and, of course, inflationary pressures?  Thank you.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, as I illustrated earlier, just cast your mind back to the darkest times of COVID‑19. When Australians were trying to get home from Europe, we maintained our transit facilities, always available and open. Even when Singaporeans needed to return from other places, we have – if we ever needed to get consular assistance or even evacuation from Australia, you’ve been there. If you think about even the delivery of vaccines to Australia, it came via Singapore.

Minister for Foreign Affairs: Correct.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs: Both the Australian Health Minister and I were tracking the transponder on the plane as it made its way to Australia. Food, if you again recall the past when we had disruptions even with pork, two decades ago, Australia was there. You look at chicken, Australia is – in fact, I think I suspect we just ate Australian meat upstairs just now.

And further, when there were essential pharmaceutical supplies, again either passing through us or from Australia to us and to the rest of the world, Changi Airport and our port remained open and available and at each moment neither Government ever panicked, ever sought to requisition supplies or restrict the flow, and we just emphasise the sanctity of contract. So this is the foundation on which we think we should now be preparing for the next crisis, because there will be more, whether it be in energy or in food, and we think we can make these arrangements in advance, and that’s why our officials will get together and make these contingency plans, because we know that we have a reliable partner. So, I don’t want to jump the gun, but I think this is an area in which we are working on a very strong foundation.

I should also mention on energy. Australia intends to be, I believe, a hydrogen hub as well because you clearly have potential, great potential, for renewable energy and to produce green hydrogen. And as Singapore is a bunkering port and if we can look forward to further transformation in maritime and other transport infrastructure, this again is another very fertile area where we can work closely together. So, there’s much to be done. Maybe you’d like to add.

Minister for Foreign Affairs: The only thing I’d add to that is to expand on the point I made earlier, which Minister Vivian – is that how they address you here? I like that. I could be Minister Penny, yes – illustrated in his answer, which is the economic opportunity to both our economies and peoples of the net zero emissions by 2050 objective. And it will transform, and it is already transforming the global economy, and part of what forward‑leaning and far‑seeing governments need to do is to identify the opportunities in that new global economy, which is actually not that far away if you think about this in terms of economic transformation. What are those new economic opportunities? We in Australia think there are great opportunities for us, and I think the discussion today demonstrates there are great opportunities for both our countries to work together.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs: So, watch this space. A lot more is going to happen.

Speaker: The next question will be from Sydney Morning Herald.

Journalist: Question for Minister Wong: just looking ahead to Bali this week, there’s been suggestions you’re going to meet with your Chinese counterpart there on the sidelines of the G20. Can you confirm whether those arrangements are in place? Also, if so, can you say what message you’ll have for your Chinese counterparts? Also, if invited, are you ready and willing to go to Beijing to meet with officials in China?

Minister for Foreign Affairs: You see, the tradition in Australia is three‑pronged questions! Congratulations on being very efficient. Well, look, in relation to the first and the third, I would simply say this: that Australian Ministers remain open to engagement, and that extends to the G20 also. Obviously, these arrangements are very fluid, but that stance of being open to engagement, that willingness to engage remains our position, including at the G20. That extends to your third question, I think, which is the hypothetical invitation.

In relation to the message: one of the things we said prior to the election is that we obviously were going to remain calm, considered and disciplined in terms of how we spoke about our engagement with and our relationship with China. We were up‑front that there are obviously challenges in that relationship. It’s a complex and consequential relationship. Interestingly, I think that’s the same phrase Prime Minister Lee used a few years ago – “complex and consequential”. We believe that both countries have an interest in stabilising the relationship. We do maintain the concern which we have raised publicly about the existence and continuation of what we regard as coercive trade and economic measures against Australia.

Speaker: The next question will be from Bloomberg.

Journalist: Phil Heijmans from Bloomberg News. I’d just like to ask, quite broadly, if you could describe the direction that you see the China relationship heading in between China and Australia and particularly in regard to the Cheng Lei case and the trade barriers.

Minister for Foreign Affairs: Cheng Lei and trade barriers, was it? First in relation to Cheng Lei and also Dr Yang: we have maintained our public position calling for both their treatment to reflect the appropriate standards and their release. And that is a bipartisan position. In relation to – I’m sorry what was the – 

Journalist: Trade barriers.

Minister for Foreign Affairs: Trade barriers. I think in my response to Chris I identified that. We do have a view about the importance of those coercive measures being removed, and I‘d make this point, and this is a principle that is shared by many countries in the region, even if they may have different views on other issues: why do we want international rules around trade or other issues?

It’s because there’s a number of reasons – one is because power and size ought not resolve differences. Otherwise people’s sovereignty’s impinged on. Secondly, it goes to predictability. If you want to continue to have a region and a nation prosper, you want a certain degree of predictability around things like your trading arrangements. That is the position we have taken for decades. Australia has been a proponent under governments of both political persuasion for open, transparent and fair trading arrangements, and we will continue to assert that, and we think that is in the interests of all parties.

Speaker: Thank you, Minister Wong. The last question will be from CNA, please.

Journalist: Thank you very much for your remarks, ministers. I’m Clara from Channel NewsAsia. So, this question is directed to Minister Vivian. I was just wondering with regards to the green economy agreement, do we have – is there a time line we can expect or any challenges you can foresee you need to overcome in order to get it running? Thank you.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs: Well, I think we issued a joint vision statement back in October 2021 and, as I said earlier, there’s been 10 rounds so far of negotiations. I think both Penny and I are more interested in ambition than in a rushed agreement, because, as I said, I view this agreement as being a pathfinder, a template for future agreements. So, whilst we both want to put pressure on our officials, I don’t think we want to – do you want to put an absolute deadline on it?

Minister for Foreign Affairs: No, we should just put a qualitative standard on it.

Singaporean Minister for Foreign Affairs: I think quality, ambition, is more important than doing things in a hurry, but we’ll get there; I’m confident of this.

Speaker: Thank you, Minister Wong and Minister Balakrishnan.

Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you.

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