A Conversation With Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan of Singapore

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Minister for Foreign Affairs, Singapore


White House and National Security Correspondent, New York Times; CFR Member

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan discusses Singapore-U.S. relations, the future of ASEAN and its geopolitical and economic significance, international trade and economic trends, the role of small states in the rules-based international order, and U.S.-China relations.

SANGER: Well, thank you all for coming. It’s a great pleasure to have the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Singapore Vivian Balakrishnan here visiting us. Seeing Secretary Blinken tomorrow, but also doing the usual rounds here in Washington. (Laughter.) And welcome here, and welcome back to the Council. It’s great to see a full room of people eager to ask questions. Today’s meeting is, I believe, on the record, which is good to know.

BALAKRISHNAN: Is there an alternative? (Laughs.)

SANGER: There are alternatives, but it’s too late. (Laughter.)

BALAKRISHNAN: That’s fine.

SANGER: And I’m David Sanger of the New York Times. I’ll be asking the questions for the first thirty minutes or so, and then we’re going to open this up to all of you. We’ll also have some questions coming in virtually, I believe. So we’ll be beaming a few folks in along the way.

So let me start, Mr. Minister, with the observation that your training was actually in ophthalmology, if I have this right.

BALAKRISHNAN: Yes. A long time ago.

SANGER: Which explains why Singapore we rely on to be so far-seeing in our relations with our—(laughter)—sorry about that—in our relations with Asia. But why don’t we just start off just with the purposes of your visit, how you sort of capture this moment not only in U.S.-Singapore relations, but in the U.S. relations more broadly in Asia. The president obviously just came back from the G-7 and Hiroshima and, what we had hoped to be but did not come to be, a visit down to the Pacific Islands and Australia.

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, first thing to notice is that Singapore’s incredibly small. Imagine Manhattan having to be independent. And I know some people—

SANGER: There are many people in the United States who think that would be a good idea. (Laughter.)

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, I would say it is a very challenging proposition to run. So I would say three reasons.

First, the United States has been an enduring and very close partner for Singapore in our almost six decades of independence. That’s first point.

The second point is that, at least in our view, the United States is a Pacific power. We much prefer and we hope that the United States remains engaged in the Asia-Pacific for the future going forward.

The third point is that we are also at the stage in world politics, the zeitgeist is against globalization free trade, supply chains that are extended. And you need to understand from a Singapore perspective, being small, being open, and trade is three times our GDP. This kind of political zeitgeist is a challenge to our existence and to our formula for relevance in the world in the last six decades.

So quite a lot of issues which are on our mind. And I’m here, first, because United States has been a very close partner. If you look in terms of trade, look in defense, you look in emerging areas—climate change, cybersecurity, outer space, artificial intelligence. These are all areas which we need to focus on, which we have had a really productive relationship with the United States on we want to continue. On defense, you know, for thirty-three years we’ve had a memorandum of understanding of the U.S. use of facilities in Singapore for its military. A lot of—

SANGER: Sad to say, I’m so old that I covered it when it was actually—

BALAKRISHNAN: Yes, in 1990. That’s right. And, you know, we are the second-largest alien force on continental United States land. And that’s a vote of confidence and trust in us that we do not take for granted. Clearly, we also have access to U.S. defense technologies. A case in point being the F-35s, which we bought a dozen of. So, you know, the economic, the defense ties are very, very close. And I would say, although we’re not a treaty ally of the United States, we are in a category of one called a major security cooperation partner. And I think the United States will find no more forward-leaning, reliable supporter and partner in Southeast Asia as Singapore. And that’s not just a matter—in the form of words, but in terms of proven actions over decades.

SANGER: Well, let me press on that. You know, if we had American officials here, I’m sure they would agree with everything that you have just said. And yet, a few weeks ago I was with one of your colleagues—another long-time diplomat, Singaporean diplomat—who said that their biggest concern right now is the way the world is going, Singapore is being increasingly asked to choose sides. And the warning that they gave was: Don’t make us choose sides between China and the United States. Now, if you ask U.S. officials, they would say we’re not asking you to choose sides. We’re perfectly happy to have Singapore and China to be huge trade relationships, including in high technology, except in the area of defense, of national security, where there’s no choice but to choose sides. So walk us through this a little bit.

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, let me take a step back. And, you know, I’ve been foreign minister since 2015. Obviously that means being a regular visitor both in Beijing and Washington. So this year alone been to Beijing twice. This is my first trip to Washington this year, and there will be other trips. And the first point I would make is both sides have taken great pains to keep telling me: We’re not asking you to choose sides. (Laughter.) So, take those statements for what they’re worth.

SANGER: I will. (Laughs.)

BALAKRISHNAN: But actually, if you take a step back and zoom out on a strategic scale, if you go back to 1965, when Singapore had independence thrust upon us, as luck or strategic choice would have it, we were non-communists. And this is a time—Korean War, Vietnam War—of communist insurgency in Southeast Asia. We happened to be on the non-communist side. And if you think about America’s role in Southeast Asia then, America gave non-communist Southeast Asia time and space to prove that open economies, the growth of multinationals, global supply chains, economic integration, globalization worked. And it’s no accident that Singapore was a major beneficiary of this, together with the other Asian tigers—Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, of course Japan ahead of us.

But really the ultimate and the biggest beneficiary of the post-World War II Pax America was actually China. In the last forty years of reform and opening up, China was able to uplift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Competing and operating basically in a multinational rules-based system, which to a large extent had been envisioned and underwritten by America. So that’s—you go back to the sixties. By the time the Berlin Wall came down and the fracture of the Soviet Union, I think there was a brief interlude of unipolarity. But actually, if you zoom out in terms of decades and centuries, the world has always been multipolar.

What has made the United States role unique was that in the last two and a half centuries of the industrial revolution, it was really the United States that was the ultimate beneficiary, the ultimate heir of the industrial revolution. And the story of Asia in the last two centuries was that Asia missed the industrial revolution. That’s what we’re all speaking English today. But as we emerge into the twenty-first century, everyone is now operating on the same technological application stack of science and technology. It’s transnational. And in that kind of world, multipolarity, emerging poles is to be expected.

So I see us now as basically reverting back to a more natural, historical trajectory of multiple poles. And in particular, Asia and India and China. Look, if you take a twenty-century look back in history, every time China was at peace, united, and had a coherent and integrated economy it could account for between 25 to 30 percent of global GDP. But when it missed the industrial revolution, and particularly after the end of the Second World War, China’s share of global GDP shrank to as small as 4 to 5 percent. Today it’s back up in the high teens. But in a sense, that’s just a reversion to the norm.

Anyway, the reason for putting this extended strategic and historical perspective is that we should not be trapped by binary, you know, forced choices, one or the other. Instead, we should understand what’s going on with the means of production. And we are, in fact, at another pivotal point in the industrial or the digital revolution. We are watching the emergence of actually a more naturally multilateral world. And everyone’s trying to feel their way to compete, cooperate, without confrontation.

SANGER: So let’s pick up on that a little bit. And I agree with your basic argument, that we are returning to a norm or, as a Chinese official put it to me so wonderfully during my last visit there—which was, sadly, before COVID times—so we had a crummy four (hundred) or five hundred years, but we’re back, OK? (Laughs.) And, again, as a big piece of the world economy, as you have suggested. But they’re back in a very different way. They’re back in a way where Xi Jinping has made it clear that there is an alternative way to organizing the world than the one that the United States and its closest allies have envisioned, that that post-1945 order that, as you said, the U.S. benefitted from, is in China’s mind designed to benefit the United States and its closest allies economically and militarily. And that they’re out to go try to create an alternative.

And what’s been interesting since the Ukraine War happened is that that process has sped up. So you’ve seen Russia and China actually develop a depth of relationship that has many here quite concerned. It’s exactly what Nixon and Kissinger were out to try to avoid having happen in the opening to China. So tell us a little bit about what worries you as you watch the U.S. and China, in particular, go do this. Because Secretary Blinken, who you’re seeing tomorrow, will be leaving for China, I think, tomorrow night, right after he sees you.

BALAKRISHNAN: Yes. Yes, he will. There are several—in fact, there are multiple ideas in the thesis you just put forward.

SANGER: Right, mmm hmm.

BALAKRISHNAN: Right. The first point is that if you look at—if you go back to 1945, I think the American share of global GDP would have been about 40 percent. And America envisioned and underwrote, in blood and treasure, the global rules-based multi-system as we know it since then. And at that point in time, you know, it’s worthwhile for the United States to underwrite it in blood and treasure, because every additional GDP generated in the world, forty cents would come to the United States. Well, today it’s not 40 percent. Not because America’s economy has not grown in absolute terms, but it’s the relative rebalancing of the global portfolio.

So two sub-ideas come up there. First, it is an entirely legitimate American domestic political question for the American voter to say, hang on a minute, if I’m only getting, say, 23 percent of that delta, why should I underwrite it unilaterally? So that’s, first, a domestic question. The international question is that the world has not stayed still since 1945. And in fact, that formula of rules-based multilateralism, open, inclusive economies, global supply chains, in our view—and I speak as a beneficiary—has been a great formula for peace and prosperity. In a sense, it allowed all boats to rise with the rising tide.

But the question now is are the multilateral institutions, rules, processes, the operating system, is it still fit for purpose? And does it reflect the realities of the current day and age? In our view, we still need multilateralism. We still need multilateral institutions. We still need rules. But I think the institutions, the rules, the processes, the operating system needs to be updated. So it’s not a rejection—you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But an understanding that you need to update. It needs to be patched.

SANGER: Well, I don’t think anybody would doubt that the operating system is in, you know, need of patching.


SANGER: What’s interesting is to watch, to my mind, particularly here in Washington, how the Biden administration has been going about that. So one of the things that I’m sure struck you, since you were digital minister and ran the Smart Cities program within Singapore, is the degree to which the Biden administration has focused on trying to regain technological edge. And in October, we saw very severe sanctions on China that attempted to deny them the equipment to make the most sophisticated semiconductors, just to give a breathing space to the United States to rebuild its own semiconductor industry. And you’ve seen the CHIPS Act, and so forth, in that direction. In the U.S., this is referred to, as you might put it, a modest change in the operating system. In China, it’s viewed as a form of containment. Tell us how you view it.

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, I don’t go to those extremes on both sides of the equation. So let’s—the first point I would make is that I do not believe America has ever lost the technological edge. I believe America is still ahead. It’s no accident even today, if you look at generative artificial intelligence, America’s ahead. So I think, you know, you sometimes have to take a realistic assessment of the situation, and say America was ahead, America remains ahead.

But the second point is that because we’ve been operating on the common technological stack, and it has been characterized, at least in the last seven or eight decades, by openness, by competition, by open standards, and by common rules, it has enabled other competitors to narrow their relative edge. And is that a design feature or a bug? I think it’s actually a design feature, that everyone works, innovates, improves, and elevates the performance of the global economy using the latest technologies.

And, as I have said, the real revolution now is in the digital and cyberspace. So I’m saying, that, in fact, is to be expected. And all continental-sized economies—and China is one example, India is another example—as long as you embark on catch-up, you can see considerable upside in the economy. And that’s what has happened in Asia and the Global South in the last few decades.

Now, having said that, are there national security concerns? Does America worry that this is another Sputnik moment? Again, if you go back into the history of the transistor and the digital age, in fact, it’s no accident that one big political and economic incentive for the transformation of the chip industry in America was the Sputnik moment, when they suddenly realized that there was a Russian moon circulating the globe. And that moment galvanized America. You know, regardless of your views on industrial policy, the fact is the government, the private sector, the research and academic sector all focused their minds. And the chip industry as we know it took off. And this is going back to the late fifties, mid-sixties, right?

SANGER: That all started as the space revival, but the space revival drove the semiconductor revival.

BALAKRISHNAN: Yes, it did. That’s a big part of the early impetus. But even if you go back to the sixties and seventies, and if you asked the companies then—the Texas Instruments, the, I think, Fairchild Semiconductors—

SANGER: Mmm hmm. That’s right.

BALAKRISHNAN: It didn’t take very long for the majority of their contracts to be civilian rather than military. And that led to the other transformation of the global economy. And we are watching the results of that transformation back then. So, fast-forward to today. If you have a new foundational technology, does it have military significance, national security? And the answer is yes. What the focus or the anxieties in the name of national security in fact spur the development of the ecosystem, including questions of resilience, questions of some element of self-sufficiency—although, that’s not possible to attain in the complete sense of the world.

And I would say, that’s to be expected. But having said that, do you think we’re going to stop there and that the real stimulus, the real imperative for development—say, in artificial intelligence—is going to be confined to military use? I don’t believe so. I believe the civilian and international dimensions, the demand for these foundational technologies, that’s going to far exceed the national security dimensions.

So, fast-forward to today, what is the public policy question? The public policy question is how do you take care of national security without completely gumming up the whole academic, technological, and economic system that works for the world as a whole? And if we can avoid those extremes, you will see another flowering—another big, rich harvest available for all of us.

SANGER: So do you believe that the U.S. so far, and the Biden administration in particular, has managed to avoid that? Or are the kind of export bans I referred to only accelerating this sense both in the United States and in China that each one is trying to starve the other?

BALAKRISHNAN: Let me put it to you this way. I understand the anxieties on both sides. And the ironic thing is that sometimes each side’s anxiety about being less vulnerable creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where you try to be self-sufficient, you try to create parallel or even rival systems. But I would say, as an outsider to this bilateral competition, I think bifurcation will not work. And in fact, I was just reminded of what Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, I think, two days ago. She said: We have—I’m quoting her. I think she said: “We have gained and China has gained from a system of trade and investments that is as open as possible. And that any attempt to decouple would be disastrous,” unquote.

I think her statement has great resonance in Southeast Asia. And in fact, to be fair, if you parse the comments of all global leaders in the last few months, everyone has retreated from the word “decoupling.” Of course, they talk about—now, I suppose, the new buzzword is “de-risking.” And let me give you my take on that. I think the experience of COVID-19 illustrated the importance of supply chain resilience. And that there is a premium to be paid for resilience, which means you will have to pay a little bit more. But I would also say the question of resilient supply chains applies across the value chain to both suppliers and purchasers.

And there is a premium to being reliable, predictable, transparent, and having a system in which everyone plays by the rules, there is sanctity of contract. And thereby, you create a system which is less inflationary, less disruptive and divisive, and one in which we all actually gain by working together. So the argument I’m making is that there is still space in the middle for an updated, multilateral rules-based system, with economic integration, open and inclusive, rules-based, and access to peaceful resolution of disputes—contractual or even military, for that matter.

SANGER: Let me use that opening to ask you one last before we hear questions here from all of our other CFR participants. President Biden likes to celebrate the fact that NATO, European countries, Japan, South Korea, others, have really drawn together in trying to help Ukraine push back on the Russians. They’ve been deeply suspicious of efforts by China, chiefly, to step in with some kind of armistice if not peace accord that would allow Russia perhaps to continue to occupy parts of Ukrainian territory.

And yet, we’ve probably seen about a hundred nations, many of them your nations, to some degree Singapore itself, not want to declare themselves very hard on condemning Russia or openly joining too heavily in many of the sanctions activity, arms activities, and so forth. So tell us a little bit about how you see how the Ukraine War has divided the world, and what we should make of the countries that are—have been largely on the fence so far.

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, let me answer that at two levels. First, because Singapore is small and we are only fifty-eight years old, for us when a big neighbor cites historical eras in crazy decisions as a pretext to launch an invasion, redraw boundaries, all alarm bells go off. So for us, the answer is very straightforward. We condemn the invasion. We voted—we voted in the majority of the U.N. General Assembly.

SANGER: And have continued to in the follow on—



BALAKRISHNAN: And I would also have to say that we are probably still the only Southeast Asian nation to have even imposed sanctions on Russia. That’s an expression of our national perspective on big neighbors trying to launch invasions and redraw boundaries, right? So that’s our position. And there’s not a question about where we stand. It’s not that we’re taking sides. We’re upholding a principle. The U.N. Charter, respect for sovereignty, independence, and especially territorial integrity. These are sacred, sacrosanct principles. And any breach of that by anyone we will oppose, we will condemn and, to the extent possible, we will take appropriate actions.

But actually, let me again try to zoom out. And now let me take an Asian perspective. When we look at Europe, two world wars, the Cold War, and it almost seems to me that the strategic question in Europe has been for decades, where is that line? The Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, the boundaries of NATO. Is Russia part of Europe? Where is that line? And at one level, you could say even the fight over Ukraine is still another example of that question, where is that line?

Now, shift your attention to Southeast Asia and both our historical experience as well as our strategic options. Having previously been an arena for the Cold War, we don’t want lines drawn in Southeast Asia. We don’t want to have to answer the question, where is that line and who is taking—you know, which side of that line you are. Our organizing principle in Southeast Asia is to have an open, inclusive, strategic architecture, to be friends with both the United States, which is a Pacific power, which is the largest—still the largest source of foreign investment in Southeast Asia.

You know, I often remind people, America has more invested in Southeast Asia than it has cumulatively invested in India, China, Korea, Japan combined. Most people don’t appreciate that, don’t even realize that. In the case of Singapore, when we look at American investments in Singapore, America has invested more in Singapore than it has invested in China, Japan, and Korea combined. So do we want America to continue? We do.

Having said that, you ask most of my neighbors who is your largest partner, the answer will be China. If you ask me, who is my largest trading partner for goods, it’s China. When you ask me who is your largest trading partner for services, it’s the United States of America. So what we want is overlapping circles of friends. We want to give both the United States, and China, and Europe, and other emerging poles, real stakes in the peace, prosperity, and development of Southeast Asia. And, by giving everyone an incentive to create peace and development in Southeast Asia, we also hope that a stable balance of power will emerge.

So we’re trying to really create quite a different strategic landscape in Southeast Asia, compared to the situation in Europe. So when I look at the different reactions—well, actually, in Southeast Asia, I think eight out of ten voted in favor of the resolution. If you looked on the Global South, particularly in Africa, you get more mixed views. But again, from my interactions there, the word which tends to float up quite often in those circles is hypocrisy. Because they say, well, you know, the world didn’t begin and end in Europe. What about all the unresolved questions in the Global South? And is the same strategic attention—

SANGER: So you hear that—you hear you that from India in particular very strongly.

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, with India it’s a—India is so big, it is a pole until itself. It has its own considerations for the positions it takes with respect to Russia—which, you have to remember, it has been a long historical partner of India. And even their arms depend on it. In Southeast Asia you look at Vietnam and Laos, they depend on Russian arms. And there has been decades of strategic support. You go to Africa, and many of them will tell you: We remember Apartheid and where the West and where Russia stood on this position. So the point is to understand that the world is complicated. There are historical memories. There are questions of philosophical consistency. And there are strategic interests.

SANGER: Well, let’s—I could keep doing this, but no reason I should have all the fun here. So we’re going to go to questions in the audience. And we’ll start back here and then, Dov, I’ll turn to you. And if each one of you would just tell us who you are and remember that when the conversation’s on the record, it’s not only on the record for him, it’s on the record for all of you. (Laughter.)

Q: Thank you for being here, Mr. Foreign Minister.

BALAKRISHNAN: That’s called mutual deterrence. (Laughter.)

Q: Indeed. (Laughs.) Maureen Farrell, U.S. Department of Defense.

Thank you for raising Global South issues. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about Singapore’s foreign policy with respect to the Global South outside of Southeast Asia. Thank you.

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, We identify with the Global South. We are a small nation, a young nation. You know, while it’s true that we’ve made, you know, significant progress in the last fifty-eight years but it wasn’t that long ago that we were a colony too. So I would say first, we understand their anxieties. Within the United Nations, we started what we call FOSS, the Forum of Small States. It started off with sixteen of us. It’s now 108. And I think this points about a focus on justice, a focus on consistency, on economic development and opportunities is something which we all make common cause with. So, you know, we understand, we support, and we stand with our brethren in the Global South.


Q: Thanks very much. Dov Zakheim CSIS and CNA. Thank you, Minister.

One word hasn’t come up yet. Surprised David didn’t raise it. It’s called Taiwan. (Laughter.)

SANGER: I was going to, Dov, but I know I could count on you. (Laughter.)

Q: Thanks, David.

I remember years ago, during the last Taiwan Strait crisis, you folks played an important role. I know about that because I was involved in that in some ways. There’s a lot of sense here in Washington that if it’s not 2027 it’ll be 2028—it’ll be sometime soon that China attacks Taiwan. On the Chinese side, they’re clearly buzzing our aircraft, you know, flying too close to our ships. What’s your sense of are we really that close to some kind of confrontation or is this more hysteria, maybe on both sides?

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was in Singapore two weeks—or, just a week ago. And I hope I’m not misquoting him, but I think he said, you know, it’s not inevitable. And that’s worth passing—(inaudible). The first point, are we worried about the situation there? Yes, we’re worried. You know, it’s a short fuse. And if something was to really explode in Northeast Asia, it would be somewhere in that point. But again, it’s not inevitable. And therefore, the question is what more can both China, Taiwan, and the U.S. do to head off the unthinkable? And that’s worth spending time figuring out.

Let me just give you a few perspectives from Singapore. First, let me just state for the record, we have our one China policy. We are opposed to Taiwanese independence, and we are also opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo. Or, the other way of putting it, is that we hope there will be peaceful resolution of their differences. How that will happen or when that will happen, we don’t know. But peace is the paramount objective. Is it possible for China, Taiwan, and the U.S. to maintain the peace, while dealing with all the strategic ambiguities and sometimes even contradictions? You know, I think as diplomats we all try to hold contrarian thoughts in our minds at any one time, and not to let that dissonance spill over into aggressive or precipitate action. So we’re all hoping and hoping for the best.

I am really glad that Tony is going to China shortly. Not because that will resolve all the differences, but because conversations, and honest to goodness looking into each other’s eyes, shaking hands, explaining each other’s perspectives and anxieties is essential. It is essential, but not sufficient, to resolving problems. But I do know that if that dialogue and those engagements do not take place, we’ll be in trouble. I should also say, from direct, upfront observations—because I’ve accompanied my prime minister over a few years and even more recently in his interactions with both President Biden and President Xi. I can actually state—at least from my view, for what it’s worth—that both presidents are not spoiling for a fight. But both presidents have domestic political considerations and international credibility to protect.

SANGER: Can I jump in on the international credibility? You saw President Biden four times say that the U.S. would actually intercede with its own forces if there was an effort to resolve this issue with military force, something he has not done in Ukraine. Been very careful not to do in Ukraine. How did you read those comments? Was that an effort to restore the strategic ambiguity you mentioned?

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, you know, it’s not for me to try to parse the individual comments of the President of the United States. But let me take a step back and above this. Which is, that it was the genius of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Mao, and Zhou Enlai fifty years ago to create sufficient ambiguity to deter both unilateral action and military action, and also deter a flight to independence on the part of Taiwan. And that actually should go down in the annals of diplomatic history as an incredible achievement.

Now, fifty years down the road, clearly the strategic balance, the military balance, and the zeitgeist of the times have changed. And what it really calls for is both sides again have to find the way to thread the needle so that you have enough deterrence against unilateral actions and also enough deterrence against independence. So I—you know, I try not to overreact and overread. But I try to assess what are the intentions behind the statements and the actions on both sides. And what I’m saying is I think both sides still do not want to go to war, but they are also trying to keep this balance between achieving dual deterrence.

Q: Nelson Cunningham, McLarty Associates. So good to see you again, Minister Balakrishnan. And, David, I could see you, I think, crafting the first chapters of your next book there on some of the questions, and his answers—

SANGER: I’m sorry it was that obvious. No. (Laughter.)

Q: Yeah. But of course.

BALAKRISHNAN: I’m not sure I gave him any joy.

Q: And the questions were—your questions, David, focused, as they should have, I think, on China, U.S.-China. Secretary Blinken is heading to China after he meets with you. But next week, Prime Minister Modi of India is coming to Washington for a state visit. One of the very few state visits that President Biden, in a time of COVID and post-COVID, has granted. Singapore is literally in the middle of China and India and the United States. You trade with everyone. You see everyone’s economic activity. How does Singapore view the—I’d call it the rise of India, but the attempt by India to be a replacement for China, a new heartland for investment, a new heartland for commerce? Does it seem—does it seem real to you all, being right next door there? Or is your read, not just on U.S.-China, but your read on India and the role it plays commercially also with China and the U.S.?

BALAKRISHNAN: That’s another excellent question. And, again, I am going to preface my comments by saying I’m reflecting the views of a tiny city-state. I mentioned just now America’s the largest foreign investor in Singapore. If you ask the Indians who is a major source of foreign investment into India, you’ll find Singapore on their short list. If you go to China and you ask, who is the major source of foreign investment into China, you will also find Singapore on that short list. If you ask American—if you ask the Commerce Department, they’ll say, well, in Asia after China, Korea, and Japan, Singapore is number four, the investor in the United States.

So I would say, you know, don’t judge by my words, but just follow the money trail. Obviously, we believe that—you know, we wouldn’t invest in these places unless we believed that there was a real potential. So, yes, India has now a population which already has, or will, overtake that of China. It has the most favorable demographics for a continental-sized economy. Its positions, or its ability—especially on the digital economy. I mean, we all know it’s got great potential there. So do we see India rising as one more pole in a multipolar world? Clearly.

Is it good that India is now exploring strategic and economic opportunities with America? It’s good. Because, in fact, if you go back to the sixties, you will know there was a time when India would, in fact, identify more closely with the Soviet Union rather than the United States of America. So we welcome these moves. But again, from a Singapore perspective, if there is peace, there’s no war between the United States and China, and India continues to grow and extends is own economic reach and engagement across the world, we are very happy because we are exquisitely placed to benefit from such a world.

SANGER: Does Prime Minister Modi’s increasing, I don’t want to say necessarily authoritarian tendencies, but certainly tendencies to crack down on a free press, on political opposition concern you? Because, you know, you’re going to hear a lot in the next week here about “world’s largest democracy.” But we also have a president who was talking about the conflict between democracy and autocracy. And they’re not going to necessarily be the greatest example.

BALAKRISHNAN: Well, here’s where I’ve got to choose my words carefully. (Laughter.) In Asia, we believe in diversity. And that diversity extends beyond race, language, and religion, but also in political diversity. To be honest with you, we get a bit uncomfortable when foreign policy is couched exclusively in terms of ideology or, you know, this juxtaposition between democracy and autocracy, good versus evil. But it’s a practical rather than a philosophical objection to pursuing foreign policy on that basis, because if you approach it this way there’s no room for a middle—there’s no room for a landing zone. Because it’s one or the other, good versus evil, black versus white.

We think this is a formula which, in fact, creates more tension and doesn’t solve things. So it’s better for us to be able to hold contrarian thoughts in the same mind, and for us to accept that there will be diversity, including diversity in political forms, in each country. And really, it is up to the people of each nation to decide what their political structures will be. I mean, there’s an ongoing debate even within the United States about your political system.

SANGER: We’ve noticed. (Laughter.)

BALAKRISHNAN: We’re all evolving, right? And I think we should not rush to judgement and we should all take a step back and understand what are the meta-forces applying, and find a landing zone.

SANGER: Right back here.

Q: Thank you for being with us, Mr. Foreign Minister. We appreciate your insights. I’m Tomicah Tillemann with Haun Ventures.

You spoke a little bit in your framing remarks at the outset about the importance of working off common stacks, technologically speaking. And it’s fascinating to see that India, China, and Singapore have all developed very sophisticated digital infrastructure platforms that bring together digital identity, data, and payments in a very sophisticated way. And you see efforts now to export that digital infrastructure across the region, and increasingly, in some cases, to other parts of the world as well, on the part of those countries.

The United States is not pursuing anything resembling this. We have had a big conversation in the U.S. about physical infrastructure. We haven’t really had a conversation about the digital rails on which the economy of the twenty-first century will run. And, as a trade-powered nation, I’d be interested in getting your take on this, and whether you think that’s a vulnerability for the United States going forward.

BALAKRISHNAN: I think that’s an opportunity for the United States. And let me explain why. I mean, number one, is I still believe America is the most technologically advanced, on the cutting edge of these technologies, and especially digital technology. But having said that, I think what we are focused on is to make sure that we have invested in the infrastructure—both the hard and the soft aspects of the infrastructure—so that we can be early adopters of these new technologies, we can achieve the efficiencies, the competitive advantages that these new technologies offer us. And so, in the case of Singapore, I mean, if you visit any home you will find two fibers in every home and every office. But of course, it’s easy because we’re a small country.

Yes, you’re right. We have rolled up digital identity. We have financial systems which are paperless, cashless, and presence-less. I can open a bank account without ever having to physically sign a piece of paper or go to a branch. But I don’t believe in the export model, because I think every country is going to develop its own identity and financial payment systems. But what is important is interoperability. So, in the case of Singapore, as long as I have the phone number of any of my colleagues here, I can send money instantly with close to zero transaction cost.

But we haven’t stopped there. We also have interconnects now with India’s UPI. So in theory, if I have the phone number of any one of the 1.4 billion people in India, I can send money or receive money from them instantly. Now, it’s not just about that, but think of the economic impact of that, that every expatriate worker can send money home to daddy or mommy as cheaply and efficiently as possible. Every small-time business hawker, artist, artisan can sell me a product and get paid. It is those downstream amplification of opportunities that we’re interested in.

Will America get there? I’m sure it will. But you need to—you need to get over the political humps and to create the public infrastructure which is needed for these systems to run. And then there’s the other part, which is about inclusion, which means your education system, your training systems, making sure no one gets left behind either because of age, education, race, language, or religion. These are political efforts. And you need just as much attention on this as it is on building the digital rails that you spoke about.

So I think a combination of focusing on infrastructure, education, skills, capacity-building, and then focusing—once you’ve got the domestic side settled—then focusing on interoperability. And then making sure we have, on a global scale, the rules of engagement, standards, precautions, which reflect the concerns—the political concerns that all of us have. So I still believe ultimately we need a United Nations convention, say on artificial intelligence, in the same way we’ve had a Convention on the Law of the Sea, a Framework Convention for Climate Change. I see these as emerging areas.

But again, the point is, yes, there’s competition, but beware of this attempt to split the poles part. Beware of binary solutions. Aim for multilateral solutions, which are fit for purpose, and which fit both the technological and political needs of the times. I remain hopeful that we will get there.

SANGER: We only have a few minutes left. Connor, do we have a question from one of our virtual participants?

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Joanna Weschler.

Q: Thank you.

I wanted to go back to the issue of Singapore not taking sides as a key goal of your foreign policy. And I have followed your country in the context of the U.N. since your 2001-2002 term on the Security Council and was repeatedly impressed by the political positions that Singapore has taken.

And the most recent example is the April debate that was chaired during the Russian presidency, by president—not president—Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on effective multilateralism through the defense of the principles of the U.N. Charter. And only some speakers cautiously alluded to the irony that Russia would be talking about this object, given to—given what it is up to in Ukraine.

And Singapore early on in its intervention suggested finally that everyone stop avoiding the elephant in the room, and then gave one of the most relevant speeches in this debate. So I would like to ask you whether not taking sides means that you have the freedom that those taking sides perhaps don’t have, or are afraid to use?

BALAKRISHNAN: (Laughs.) Because we are small and vulnerable, and yet friends with everyone, with equities across the world, we have to be very careful in what we say or do. But being careful doesn’t mean, you know, checking out your brain or your values at the door. So we have a habit of calling a spade a spade. But, of course, we say it diplomatically. When I say we don’t take sides, it’s actually a philosophical approach that we avoid issues in binary terms. You will find that we always go back to first principles. In the case of Ukraine, the first principle is the U.N. Charter, territorial integrity.

And that, you know, the irony is that the Security Council—and the Security Council, for better or for worse, has got five permanent members with the veto power. It’s supposed to be the paramount body providing peace and security for all of us, especially the little guys. So we express our views clearly, unambiguously, diplomatically. But I would also say, if you pass our diplomatic record over the past fifty-eight years, there have been times that we’ve said no, and we’ve even voted against the United States. We do say no to China from time to time. We clearly have said no to Russia this time around. And there will be others for whom depending on circumstances we will have to say no to.

But we do so in a way that is not personal, that is not ideological, but based on principle. In a sense, actually Singapore’s foreign policy on most issues is almost boringly predictable. We like being boring and being predictable. In fact, we think that’s a competitive advantage for us. Perhaps the only role that we can play.

SANGER: I can think of several. We have just a minute to get in one more question. I see we have one more from one of our virtual participants. We’ll ask for a quick question and a quick answer.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Daniel Mandell.

Q: Hey, no pressure on the last one. (Laughter.) I’m Daniel Mandell. I’m a Council on Foreign Relations term member, and just recently completed an international affairs fellowship in Japan through CFR.

And I’m wondering about Singapore’s role in the world going forward. You’ve mentioned the context of the changing world that you spoke of. You know, what is Singapore’s role on the world stage? Does it see itself as a leader or a first actor in any particular region or issue? And, as a small country, what do you think of Singapore’s unique or comparative advantages that it can bring to efforts to address the many issues that we’re facing, from great-power rivalry to climate change?

BALAKRISHNAN: No, we take a far more realistic and humble view of ourselves. There is no specific role that Singapore can claim to take a lead on, because for small nations—if you look at history, even if we disappeared, the world will carry on without us. So we never assume that we are naturally taking a leading position or necessarily salient for the world. In fact, we start from the basis of a constant anxiety whether we’re relevant, whether we’re useful, whether we’re competitive, and whether we can make a difference by making common cause, and whether we can support a world based on multilateralism, a rules-based system, a world in which there’s economic integration, global supply chains, a world in which we can share and work collectively on improving the technological stack.

So that’s how we see our role. That we have to be helpful, to be constructive, and to be relevant, not because we think we’re so smart but because only the paranoid survive. (Laughter.) And for small countries, this is what we have to do. So it is not a matter of trying to be in your face, but I’m just trying to be relevant and helpful.

SANGER: Well, Mr. Minister, I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing many people on this stage, but I think you’re the first representative of a significant power who’s come to the CFR and said: If we disappeared, the world would carry on without us. So an act of great national modesty.

I want to thank you for your comments. I want to thank all of you for your questions. And I want to really thank you for your candor along the way. I found, as a correspondent in Asia for many years before you came to office, that going to Singapore was refreshing, not only for the food and the atmosphere but for a really remarkable perspective on Asia and the world. So I thank you for sharing that with us today. And I wish you luck on the rest of your trip. And thank all of you for coming. If you’ll just give the minister a moment to leave, he’s got an appointment to zip off to, and then everybody else can make their way out. Thank you very much.

BALAKRISHNAN: Thank you. Thank you, all. (Applause.)


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