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Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Media Doorstop in Washington D.C., 5 June 2018

06 June 2018

Harry Horton, Feature Story News (FSN): Thanks very much speaking with us Foreign Minister.


Minister: Most welcome.


FSN: Just to kick off. You met Secretary Pompeo at the State Department and you have had some meetings at the White House as well. Can you just brief us on who you met and what was discussed?


Minister: Well this has been a real whirlwind tour. I just arrived this morning. Started off with lunch with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo followed by a meeting with National Security Advisor John Bolton. We had a good set of discussions. Open, frank, candid as usual. I’ve spoken to both of them on the phone but this was the first time I got to meet them face to face. It’s still necessary even in this modern day and age. Covered a whole range of issues – bilateral issues specific between US and Singapore, regional, and of course the Summit next week. A lot of our discussions actually focused on the economic dimension; our anxieties about the trade war. Clearly from Singapore’s perspective we hope that there will not be a full blown trade war because it will inevitably affect us. Singapore is a place where our trade is three times our GDP. So any disruption to world trade will be a problem for us. So I made that point as strongly as I could.


Secondly, how to increase investments both ways – American investments in Southeast Asia as well as our investments into the United States. To keep this going, and that it will create jobs and opportunities across the Pacific. We also looked at regional issues, how Southeast Asia is developing its relations with China, with India, across the Indo-Pacific. So it was good, frank, exchange of views.


As for next week, well, all preparations are in order. Both of them thanked Singapore and Singaporeans for all the efforts that have been made so far. We will have to wait and see next week how the actual substance of the discussions proceeds. But I can say with quite confidence that all the preparations, logistics and security, the diplomatic arrangements, are all well in hand.


Nirmal Ghosh, Straits Times (ST): Minister, no one knows quite exactly what will emerge from the Summit next week. But potentially what are the shifts in the region that you were looking at in the course of next year or so. What is ASEAN’s view of the developments?


Minister: Well, first of all, I think it will be premature to speculate the outcome of next week’s Summit. Second, the fact that the Summit is even occurring is significant in its own way. For the President of the United States to sit with the leader of North Korea across the table, and to have all their issues laid out for them to have a frank discussion, I think it is a significant step in its own way. Obviously what all of us are hoping for is that it will lead to a de-escalation of tension, raise the prospects for peace and for the sake of the North Koreans themselves, we want to improve the prospects for economic development. For North Korea, they only need to look at China and they look at Southeast Asia to see that peace is an essential pre-requisite to prosperity. So let’s hope for the best but not have undue expectations.


FSN: Can I ask a little about how Singapore came to be chosen as the venue for the Summit? Was it Singapore who approached the US and North Korea?


Minister: No we did not put our hand up but we were asked. And in this case both the North Koreans and the United States felt that we were an appropriate venue. I think Singaporeans can be proud. Proud that we’ve been chosen because they know that we are neutral, reliable, trustworthy and secure. And there has been enormous interest in this Summit because if they achieve a breakthrough…. This is a problem that has been there for 70 years so let’s wait and see. But I am confident that we will be able to do our best as host. Although you know, to use an analogy I tell both the North Koreans and the Americans, we are there to serve tea and coffee.


FSN: Were you asked by the Americans or by the North Koreans?


Minister: The Americans approached us first. The North Koreans subsequently came to us. In fact, there’s been a team in Singapore for quite some time now and we’ve been able to have good discussions separately with both teams. I think it is very important that we be even-handed, that we enjoy the trust and confidence of both parties. So you know, this ability to be an honest, neutral host is absolutely crucial.


FSN: Can I get a few more details on what exactly the final preparations are that Singapore is carrying out now. And what are the priorities for Singapore to be a good host for this Summit?


Minister: Well the first pre-requisite that both sides are concerned with obviously is security. You have two leaders for whom there is no shortage of security considerations. So knowing that all that is in hand is absolutely crucial. Second, that the venues are available and that the settings for the venue will convey the appropriate diplomatic signals. In this case, all the hotels have been booked, arrangements have been made, security arrangements are in place. So I am confident that Singapore and Singaporeans will do our part, in a sense, our contribution to world peace. And the fact that we have the attention of the world, I think right now in excess of 3,000 journalists will be descending in Singapore in the next few days. I am sure apart from reporting on the Summit, they will roam the entire island of Singapore and I am sure there will be many opportunities for Singapore to be profiled.


FSN: What is the significance of the Summit in terms of how it affects the relationship between Singapore and North Korea?


Minister: Well, first of all, we have had diplomatic relations for a long time with North Korea. There is a North Korean Embassy in Singapore. And I am sure that is one of the key considerations when the North Koreans decided to have this Summit in Singapore as well. Having said that, Singapore has scrupulously observed the United Nations Security Council Resolutions so our trade with North Korea obviously has had to be constrained for all these years. But they know that we take a principled, neutral, fair-minded approach to foreign policy. And we will wait and see. Depending on the outcome of next week, maybe there’ll be a good possibilities for the future. But this expression of confidence and trust in us is important and valuable.


FSN: Can I ask you a few more questions on your meeting with John Bolton?


Minister: Yes.


FSN: He comes with a fairly hawkish reputation obviously. As ASEAN Chair, specifically, is Singapore concerned about what impact he might have on regional issues in Asia?


Minister: Well, I’m very reluctant to label people as hawks or doves. Ambassador Bolton is a very seasoned hand in foreign policy and national security issues. He’s well known in Singapore. Although this was my first direct meeting with him. He knows his stuff, he’s candid, he doesn’t sugar coat things, but we get along well. And we respect his views and I look forward to working with him and with Mike Pompeo to keep America engaged in our region, and to keep our trade, defence, economic links vibrant and strong. And even now as we have a digital revolution, with jobs and economies being transformed. I think this linkage with America is all the more important. And we’ve got to keep the people to people links, the academic links, the industrial links, the business links, that’s how you get an economy firing on all cylinders. And the fact that the American economy is doing well, unemployment is very low - I think all this speaks to great potential for further economic fruits to be harvested in the years to come. So I’m positive. I’m positive about this relationship. Don’t stick labels on people.


FSN: Just one last question on trade. President Trump has made no secret of the fact that he said that in his view, trade wars are easy to win. He’s angered many of his allies in recent weeks by imposing steep tariffs on many products around the world. How concerned is Singapore about the possibility of the trade war and about the seeming desire of this US President to have a trade war with many countries around the world.


Minister: Well, that’s one area where we have…I would say a difference of views. I understand why America is taking this positon and taking this line. On the other side, what we have advanced is that this recipe of free trade and closer economic integration has been a formula for peace and prosperity across the world, and particularly in South East Asia for the last 70 years. We think that even when there are disputes, we would prefer that they be resolved through multilateral institutions and multilateral processes. We are not in favor of unilateral measures. We certainly do not want trade wars. And this is a view we have expressed quite candidly to the Americans as well. But we’ll wait and see. I think there’s a lot unfolding in the world right now. So we’ll watch this carefully. And because of the strength of our relationship, we believe that also allows us to speak candidly amongst friends.


ST: You alluded to economic issues in your discussions with Secretary Pompeo and so forth. In this sort of rosy scenario, optimistic scenario for North Korea, if something emerges in North Korea and it’s sort of normalized. There’s been a lot of talk about investments in North Korea. How much scope is there for North Korea to be brought into the community of nations and for vigorous investment and trade ties with North Korea. Would it be something possible?


Minister: Well, first of all, I think that’s purely speculative, you know. I don’t think one meeting next week in Singapore can certainly unlock the entire situation on the Korean Peninsula. If you can make a positive step, it’d be significant in its own right. But if you look in the long term, surely the people in North Korea deserve to have economic development. They only need to see, as I said, at what’s happened in China and what’s happened in South Korea to know that they are capable of great things too. They are the same people. So, let’s, let’s hope for the best for their sake, as well as for world peace.


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