Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s Press Conference at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat

Moderator (Director/Strategic Communications Directorate, MFA, Teo Lay Cheng): Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for coming, and welcome to the Press Conference of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat by Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan. My name is Lay Cheng and I will be your moderator today. Earlier on, we circulated copies of the Chairman’s Press Statement. I understand that you have read it. As such, we will now proceed directly to Q&A. For media wishing to ask questions, please indicate your interest by raising your hand so that I can see you. I have colleagues standing by at each side of the room, and one of them will come to you with a wireless mic. Before we begin, I would like to seek your understanding to keep your questions short and very focused. At the same time, I wish to remind the media that before asking questions, please state your name and organisation very clearly. The Minister will now take his first question. Could I have the first question? Okay, the gentleman in grey.

Minister: Okay, who is going to begin?

Moderator: Dylan?

CNA (Senior Journalist, Dylan Loh): Hi, Dr Balakrishnan. I am Dylan from Channel News Asia here. During your discussions with the Foreign Ministers, were there any specific issues where there were disagreements or tensions during your discussions? Perhaps issues like the South China Sea, or were there frictions among you? And what were these? And under Singapore’s stewardship, how will you tackle these issues?

Minister: Okay short answer to that question is no. There were no tensions, no major points of disagreement. So, it is a simple answer to that question. In fact, this was a meeting that was characterized by frank, sincere, open exchange of views. I think we reviewed the overall context in which we are operating. This is a very busy time; this is a time when the world is undergoing a transition into a multipolar world. It is a time when there’s a digital revolution that is occurring. It’s a time where there is anxiety about jobs, and therefore even the global consensus on free trade is being frayed; and it is also a time when we are all collectively confronting unconventional trans-boundary threats, including terrorism, cybercrime, and climate change. So, on this appreciation of the situation all of us share a common understanding. As to the plans of what we are going to do, I think you all know that our themes for this year are ‘Resilience’ and ‘Innovation’; and the specific details of what we intend to do is contained in the press release that we have issued to all of you in the interest of time. Next?

Moderator: Do I have another question? The second question. A show of hands?

Moderator: Okay, Jack? Jack will have the second question, from Reuters.

Minister: Jack is it?

Moderator: Yes, Jack.

Reuters (Singapore Bureau Chief, Jack Kim): Jack from Reuters News Agency. Hello, Mr Minister. My question is about what you have talked about – Singapore’s efforts to address the challenges regarding religious militancy. Could I ask what you wish for ASEAN to conclude this year, under Singapore’s Chairmanship? Any specific steps or initiatives that you will like to see concluded? Thank you.

Minister: You are asking this question with specific reference to religious?

Reuters: Religious militancy, extremist threats, terrorism threats, from the region, specifically.

Minister: Well the first thing I would say, is to avoid mis-characterising this as a religious conflict. In fact, what is happening, is that political aims are being pursued by certain extremist groups, using and abusing religion, as a vehicle. So the first thing is that we all recognise, that it is not religion that is the problem, but it is in fact the political abuse of religion.

The second fact is to recognize that this is a trans-boundary threat which is a clear and present danger to all of us in ASEAN. And that’s why greater cooperation, intelligence cooperation For instance the joint patrols in the Sulu Sea � our concern with what is happening in Rakhine State, our concern with what was happening in Marawi � are all examples of this.

The key point here is that ASEAN Member States need to recognize that there is potential, or major problems and that these major problems could threaten all of us. Secondly, that there is common political commitment to work together to deal with this. As an example, I think it’s contained in our press release. We had a briefing on the situation in Rakhine State. We are glad that an agreement was reached between Myanmar and Bangladesh in November. The next step is for safe, dignified and voluntary repatriation of refugees. In the meantime, ASEAN is fully committed to assisting the Myanmar government in its humanitarian response. But ultimately, what you need is a long term political solution. That’s the only way you can rebuild lives, communities, trust � and then you can look forward to the future. So these are not issues on which there is going to be a quick fix, but it is very important to make the right diagnosis and then to work together to address this. So that’s just one example. In Marawi, you saw again that the Philippines fortunately has been able to deal with it; all of us in ASEAN did what we could to assist in terms of resources and support. But this is a clear and present threat that will continue, unfortunately, to occupy headlines and operational attention in the years to come.

Moderator: We will now take the third question. Charissa from ST?

ST (Correspondent, Charissa Yong): Hi Minister, I am Charissa from The Straits Times. I would stand up except that my laptop is in the way.

Minister: It’s okay, don’t worry.

ST: My questions are: what progress has been made on the ASEAN Extradition Treaty and also we’ve heard that the official negotiations on the COC are going to begin on 1-2 March in Vietnam. Can you confirm this? Thank you.

Minister: Well � first, you know we’ve been discussing this issue of a Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty for some time. I am not yet ready to give you a specific deadline, except to say that we are making good progress for that, and once that is settled, we can then begin the process of actually negotiating an ASEAN Extradition Treaty. These are complicated legal agreements and documents that will have to be formulated so I don’t want to rush the process. The point is that there is alignment, and what we’re doing actually is collectively signalling our commitment to enhancing legal cooperation within ASEAN as a region.

Your second question was on the COC. All I would say is I think you’ve got good sources, but I don’t want to confirm or deny your suggestions. But it’s no secret that last year we settled the framework for the COC. The next step is to begin actual negotiations on the text for the COC. Now, having said that, again, it’s very important to put things in perspective, and to realise that it’s going to be a very complicated negotiation. First of all, territorial claims are not resolved just because you have a COC. Second, there will be no shortage of very sensitive issues that will take a lot of innovation and imagination on the part of the diplomats, and ultimately an exercise of political will. But I believe that the situation in South China Sea is calmer now. I believe there is shared good faith and goodwill on both sides to try to advance, to make a significant advance this year. And that’s why we should be able to start negotiations soon. But I’m not going to give you a timeline.

Moderator: Okay we’re running a bit late and the Minister has another appointment, but we have time for one last question. Do I have a show of hands? The gentleman?

People’s Daily (Correspondent, Zhang Zhiwen): Hello, Minister. I’m Zhang from the People’s Daily, China. We have read your interview with The Straits Times in the last week, and you mentioned you personally do not want to set any deadline for the COC negotiations.

Minister: Yes.

People’s Daily: But we just found in this press statement is that you want to have the negotiations towards the conclusion of the effective COC on a mutually agreed timeline.

Minister: Yes.

People’s Daily: So could you help me to understand what is the meaning of this timeline? Thank you.

Minister: Mutually agreed timeline, first, means that it has to be agreed to by China and all the ten Member States of ASEAN, and a timeline as in a sequence of negotiations. That does not mean that at this point in time, I can give you a specific deadline. So there’s a difference between timeline and deadline.

I think what is far more important is the building up of trust between all the parties so that we can actually engage in what would be very difficult negotiations. So building up trust, getting the sequence right and doing it step by step is more important than doing it in a hasty way because there is some artificial deadline. So that’s where we at, so the press release is very accurately formulated.

Moderator: Thank you for your thoughtful questions. The press conference will now end. The Minister will now take his leave.

Minister: Thank you all very much. I got to rush back to Parliament. Parliament is sitting right now. Thank you.

Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore

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