Dr Tim Huxley (Moderator): It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this Fullerton lecture event in the ballroom of the historic Fullerton Hotel in the heart of Singapore’s business district. We have with us this morning approximately 200 guests drawn from a broad spectrum of Singapore’s society and community, including the business, media, governmental, diplomatic, intellectual and educational communities. We organised around six IISS lectures every year. Previous speakers have included UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, then-President Calderon of Mexico and Cabinet Ministers from Australia, Germany, India, the Philippines and other countries. I’m delighted that this morning, IISS Fullerton lecture takes the form of a conversation with Mr K Shanmugam, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and also Minister for Law. It is a privilege for us to have with us this morning a senior member of Singapore’s government and I’m very grateful to you, Minister, for making the time in your very hectic schedule to join us this morning for this conversation. By way of introduction, I should say that Mr Shanmugam was educated in Raffles Institution and the National University of Singapore where he graduated at the top of his class with first class honours in 1984. He was admitted to the Singapore Bar in 1985 and had a highly successful practice as senior partner and Head of Litigation and Dispute Resolution in the local law firm Allen and Gledhill. He was widely recognized as one of the leading litigation, arbitration and insolvency counsel in Asia. In 1998, he became one of the youngest-ever lawyer to be appointed Senior Counsel of the Supreme Court of Singapore. Mr Shanmugam was elected as a MP in 1988 as a Member of the Sembawang GRC. In 2008, he joined the Cabinet as the Minister for Law and concurrently as the Second Minister for Home Affairs. He assumed the role of Minister for Home Affairs in 2010. After the 2011 General Election, Mr Shanmugam gave up his Home Affairs portfolio and became Minister for Foreign Affairs while continuing to serve as Minister for Law. He is now a MP in Yishun GRC. Given the scope of our remit in the International Institute for Strategic Studies, I suppose it is natural for our primary interest in Mr Shanmugam’ s role is in his capacity as Foreign Affairs. But his long standing role for Minister of Law is at least equally important and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is our audience this morning might like to discuss with Mr Shanmugam matters related to the law in Singapore’s domestic context. I like to organize this session if it is alright with you, Minister, in the following way, that first of all, I would ask several questions which maybe you and I could discuss and then in the second half of the session we will open up for broader discussion and involving members of the audience. I’m sure they will have a lot of questions to put to you. So perhaps I could start off with a fairly general question about Singapore’s foreign policy in quite wide terms. I think it is fair to say that Singapore has for decades had what you could describe as a remarkably successful foreign policy. It encompassed relations that underpin Singapore’s prosperity and Singapore’s security with many countries in the region and in the wider world. Singapore seems to be a friend to and an adversary of none, or at least very few. For example, Singapore manages to maintain close relations with both the United States and with Japan at the same time that it has very solid ties and expanding ties with the People’s Republic of China. And so I suppose my first question is how does Singapore manage this? How does Singapore manage to have positive relations with so many countries?
Minister: It is a very wide question. I suppose you could start off by talking about size. Now, size matters in the sense that because we are so small, our territorial and regional interests don’t come into conflict with so many countries. But I would say primarily it is due to the fact that our leadership took the world as it is, rather than taking an idealistic view of the world. So you start off with your region, where do you live? You take the region as it is and you learn to live with it. A very practical approach and a clear understanding that you need regional mechanisms to try and resolve, provide a platform to resolve disputes but fundamentally of course you need to be able to protect yourself. Absent that, to rely on others to protect you is not very sensible, doesn’t often work. But as long as you are able to protect yourself then you set up regional mechanisms or you take part in regional mechanisms to try and resolve disputes, provide platforms and ASEAN is obviously the prime example. Often, I hear criticisms and arguments about ASEAN but absent ASEAN, we would be in a far worse position. So we are one of the founding members together with four others and that has now grown into a much larger organization which is providing the platform for far bigger powers to come and speak about issues. So within Singapore, defence is key. Once you sort that out, you are able to talk to people without having to worry about where you stand. Then regional mechanisms and then internationally we play quite an active role, quite disproportionate to our size in international organizations particularly the United Nations. We have always emphasized the importance of international law. Again because in the context where size matters a lot, we emphasize law for obvious reasons. It’s very difficult to argue against that position philosophically. Now, that’s only of course one side of the coin. The other side is for people to take you seriously, you need to be successful. If we are a barren piece of rock or island 720 square km off the southern coast of peninsular Malaysia, you and I won’t be sitting here, and we won’t have 200 people in this room, and we won’t have as many Ambassadors. So the country has to be successful economically and politically. And we have been successful economically and politically. We started out with a GDP of $500 per capita in 1965, with most people writing off this place as an artificial country. Today, it is US$65,000. Each time people say we will fail, we proved them wrong. To be taken seriously outside, you need to be successful inside. Third, there was a certain practicality also in the approach of the leadership, in how it is structured, the relationship with US, with China, with Japan. We refused to be drawn into alliances with anyone. We made it clear that we are honest, straight, we say exactly what we mean to all and we can play a useful role because of the quality of leadership and how they are able to interact with international leaders. None of the factors that I have outlined are either constant or a given – they are dynamic and they can change.
Tim Huxley: Thank you very much, Minister. You mentioned the question of relations with the big powers. Looking at the big picture in the Asia-Pacific region, I think it’s fair to say that developments over the last two or three years have really not been encouraging. The major powers seem to be becoming more assertive in this region. We have seen that as China grows, China is becoming more assertive in relation to its territorial claims in the East China Sea but closer to Singapore, in the South China Sea. We’ve seen Japanese PM Abe over the last year or two adopting a more assertive foreign policy. We have seen the US rebalancing the Asia-Pacific region. Some would say the regional security environment has become more tense, and even deteriorating, and a regional arms race is on the way. How is Singapore trying to protect its interests in the increasingly difficult regional environment?
Minister: You know, I will make a couple of observations before I answer your question. Talk about the region becoming increasingly tense, if you go back to the late 60s, you had communist insurgencies across most of Southeast Asian countries. You had the Vietnam war. The Korean war ended 10, 15 years ago before that. If you look at countries in Southeast Asia, be it Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia or the others, both in terms of human development, in terms of basic abilities to deliver goods and services to people, we were in a very different stage. And you had the Cold War in full swing, late 60s, early 70s.
Are the circumstances today worse than at that time?
And secondly, which region in this world today does not have problems? The reason I’m saying this is, take Middle East, take Europe, different types of problems, but to be practical means to accept the world as it is, accept that conflict and tension is an essential part of human existence.
As long as you have nation states, you have conflicting interests, you have countries of different sizes and at different development stages, you are going to have conflict. So the idea of the end of history is premature then and premature now.
We start with the proposition that it will be a difficult and dangerous world in most parts, and then you deal with it.
On that basis, if you look at – the way to analyse this is to ask yourself, what are the interests of the different countries involved? You take the US, it is in alliance with Japan, Australia, South Korea. It has deep economic interests in many parts of Asia, its companies are all over. It is both a Pacific and Atlantic power. America recognises the growth in this region. Their own national intelligence agency estimates that 40% of the GDP in the world in the next 10-15 years is going to be weighted in the Asia Pacific region. So they recognise that. With so much interests in the region, is America going to walk away? Most unlikely. It will be here because its interests are here.
If you take China, with its $7 trillion economy growing very quickly, and on a PPP basis probably due to overtake the US within a period shorter than most people think, and a military that’s growing fast as well. China has huge amount of interests, obviously both in mainland Southeast Asia as well as in the broader Asian region. It has some issues vis-a-vis Japan going back to history, at least to the WWII which have not been fully settled. What are China’s interests? First, you have to look at the domestic issues China faces. It has got a rapidly ageing population – China will become old before it becomes rich, the number of people getting into the labour force is already declining. You have vast gaps in wealth, both between the coastal regions and in the internal regions and between the urban centres and the rural centres. You have a massive task of restructuring society to reduce some of the inequities, some of the practices which mean that not all resources are used in the way they should be used. The issue of corruption has been talked about by the President as a cancer that could destroy the Communist Party.
How do you do all of this while the Communist Party with its 80-90 million cadres is above a framework or rule of law? And China is trying to develop an idea of rule of law in the way that you and I will understand it. They recognise the need, it is a massive challenge, and the internal challenges are huge and China doesn’t really need, and Chinese leaders really don’t want, any trouble outside. Because the legitimacy of the leadership is going to depend on how they can deliver social and economic progress which is not going to be easy.
If you look at Japan, there is impetus, I think, to correct what the prime minister sees as accidents of history and make Japan a more “normal country”, coupled with the internal social issues that Japan faces, that most of us are aware of, including a falling birth rate, falling population, aging society, but with a huge amount of economic interests in the region.
So all three of these major powers have very substantive interests in the region. We start from that and therefore if they don’t sort it out, there will be trouble because no one is going to walk away.
China has talked about a new model of great power relationships. Not quite clear what it is but if you look – go back to the recent CICA conference – China talked about Asia for Asians which suggests that therefore non-Asians should be out of Asia. Not sure that is actually going to happen in very stark terms, but I think China and the US will not want trouble with each other because they are mutually dependent on each other. So they have to work out a modus vivendi.
The current norms of international law, rules were developed at a time when China was weak. China is developing its power, may not necessarily agree with all those norms. The question is, what norms would be changed? How would the changing of norms be done? How would China push the change? How would the US, Japan, other countries accommodate China?
I can’t give you answers but I think nobody wants serious trouble. But the politics and the nationalist sentiments in each of these countries – China, Japan, US, it’s everywhere, but I’m just mentioning these three – is such that what is rational in international terms to do a deal, to structure, to give and take, may not always be doable within the framework or context of local domestic political opinion.
Anything that any Chinese leader does would be questioned by 500 million people on the Net. So no Chinese leader can afford to be seen to be giving up on any claim. In fact he’s got to be seen to be assertive, likewise in the US, and likewise in Japan.
So that it is unfortunately a dynamic that can lead to some degree of irrationality on the part of any one or two or all three of the parties but within that framework, I think all three understand what is necessary. None of them wants trouble but international relations are not always dictated by logic and rationality.
Tim Huxley: Just to focus a little bit more on one specific aspect of the regional environment: on the South China Sea, we have seen over the last two or three years, China being much more assertive on its territorial claims and in terms of its activities in the South China Sea which has brought tensions with some of the other claimants, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines. The view of Southeast Asian states is that international law should be paramount in dealing with contending claims in the South China Sea. That doesn’t seem to be China’s view. I wonder how do you think it is possible to reconcile China’s view of the South China Sea where it emphasizes the historical significance and basis for its claims with the Southeast Asian states’ view and the ASEAN view which emphasize the importance of international law, and particularly UNCLOS?
Minister: I would say the assumptions behind your question are slightly biased against China, not quite fair or accurate.
Let me explain. I mean you are posing China’s position and contrasting it with an ASEAN position which you say supports international law. By implication, China is not following international law. I think that is perhaps not the most accurate, even on the facts, and unfortunately the international media tends to be slightly anti-China, and you don’t get the full facts.
I don’t hold a brief for China, neither do I hold a brief for any of the others. We are completely neutral.
But these are the facts: China claims various islands. UNCLOS doesn’t deal with ownership of islands – that depends on a variety of factors under international law, including historical title. Whether you have a good historical claim is a separate matter.
What UNCLOS does is: if you own a piece of territory, either a coastline or an island, what territorial waters, economic zone are you entitled to based on the claim on the terra firma. So China claims various islands, in fact a very large number of islands. The various other claimant states also make claims to islands, so there are conflicting claims.
And obviously those conflicting claims lead to conflicting claims over the waters. China has taken a number of steps to assert its claims over the waters. And China, if you ask the Chinese, they will say, for all these years others have been drilling in areas which are clearly disputed, in waters which are associated with islands which are themselves disputed. But when China does it, there is a big hue and cry. And that will be the Chinese position. If you ask the others, they will say, these are indisputably ours. And if you ask China, China will say these are indisputably ours. So the reality is there is a dispute. And none of the countries can walk away and give up a claim on the dispute.
Let’s look at the latest one where China put in this huge oil rig, a billion-dollar oil rig, near Triton island, part of the Paracels. You don’t get all the facts from the international media. In the international media, there is a big bully which has come in, which has put its oil rig and is doing all these things.
If you go back in history, in 1958, China made a declaration that these islands belong to it and…the waters associated to the islands that it claims. The reason China did that is because, in the context of the Vietnam war, it wanted to let the Americans know what waters China was claiming. Leave aside whether China is entitled to make a claim, they made the declaration.
The North Vietnamese Prime Minister, made an announcement where he said, “you know, we accept China’s claim”. China says, “you see, North Vietnam has agreed”.
Vietnam’s position today is a little bit more nuanced. It says, “well, first of all, North Vietnam did not control those islands, so it can’t have given away what it did not own”. Second, “at that stage, the Vietnam war was going on, we were dependent on China, do you really expect us to argue”. Third, they say, “well if you look more carefully – what my Prime Minister said was not that we accepted China’s claims, but we accepted certain parts of the statement”.
I think those are matters of argument. I’m not saying Vietnam is right or China is right, but if you look carefully, the dispute is a little bit more nuanced than the way it is being portrayed in the international media, and which then gives the background to the way you have phrased your questions.
On the other hand, China has not helped itself in a couple of ways. First, there is a lot of doubt as to exactly what is the nature of China’s claim. If it is the islands and the waters associated with the islands in accordance with international law, I think very few people will have an argument, philosophically, with the type of claim being made – ie., that the law recognizes that you could make such a claim, whether you indeed are entitled to it, is a separate matter. Where China hasn’t helped itself is that the claims have not been very clear. It’s not clear whether by drawing these nine lines, it’s claiming all the waters within the nine lines which means a claim to the high seas, or is it only claiming all the islands within those nine-dashed lines and the waters associated with those islands.
And as long as there is a lack of clarity there, I think China opens itself up for a lot of questions.
Second, and this is where ASEAN comes in, from the Singapore’s perspective or a non-claimant perspective, it doesn’t matter who owns which islands, but where there are disputes, we want it to be dealt with in a way that doesn’t lead to ships confronting each other, shots being fired, increasing kinetic conflict. The actions on all sides have increased rather than decreased tension.
No one party I think is solely responsible, and in terms of looking at international law, my sense is, there are a number of parties whose actions are not in strict conformity with international law.
So really, everyone should obey international law, but that sounds more like an expression of hope and I started out by saying that we are very practical people.
But, second, we need to move to a situation where people start clarifying their claims. But here again, the Chinese leadership is in a difficult position as well as the leadership in Vietnam and Malaysia and the Philippines because none of the countries will give up any part of their claims. That is part of the problem today. We managed all these issues very successfully by leaving them aside. Now, you know, all the stuff is out there and is a potential for tension.
Tim Huxley: Given what you say, Minister, it seems that it’s very important for a foreseeable future to find a way of managing these tensions in the South China Sea…
Minister: That is the best that can be hoped.
Tim Huxley: Yup and there has been, I think, there is a pretty strong consensus within ASEAN that a code of conduct governing the behaviour of the various parties in the South China Sea would be extremely desirable and there has been a lot of impetus over the last year or so to push agreement on a code of conduct. I think the ball is in China’s court at the moment. Some have said that China is not that keen on a code of conduct and this is tending to delay the formulation of a workable code of conduct and has been talking about the DOC rather than the COC. Do you see much sign of real interest on China’s part in a workable code of conduct?
Minister: Again, the presumption in your question – there is one party – which is clearly wrong. You know, I am a lawyer so I’m used to these sorts of questions and analysing the factual assumption behind questions which are usually inaccurate. But, sorry I don’t agree with that assumption. The reality is, as I said, China is coming out, becoming a big boy at a time when the international rules and norms have been set. A larger philosophical question is really, which I alluded to earlier, to the extent to which China would be prepared to accept the current rules of international law and international norms which, in their view, were developed by states – primarily Western states – Europe and the United States – at a time when China was weak. Inevitably, there will be a challenge to those norms because they will say “We were not party to the development of these norms. We don’t accept some of these norms or we don’t accept all of them”. I think the extent to which they want to change the norms, which norms do they want to change, the extent to which others will agree to it, these are areas that are going to be quite interesting.
From our perspective, many of these norms – if you take UNCLOS for example – was developed really with the interests of the large coastal states. So it is actually in China’s interest. That’s the point we have made to China.
Coming back to the COC, the best that I think we can hope for, I don’t see these disputes being resolved in our lifetimes. The best that I think we can hope for is to try and manage conflict and make sure that some common sense prevails. That is why you have the DOC and we are trying to work on the COC.
Both China as well as ASEAN have publicly professed that they are keen on the COC. Rationality would suggest that we should proceed with it. There are going to be difficulties because China says the COC has got to keep to the spirit of the DOC and the DOC requires, you know, various types of conduct, and some countries are in breach of the DOC. And if you can’t even keep to what you already agreed, why should I agree to something new when I don’t know that you will keep to the spirit of the DOC? Other countries accuse China of breaching the DOC.
So if we get into these accusations and counter-accusations, we’ll never get to the COC. We have made some progress in getting the COC on an official track. I’ve never thought it’s going to be easy, partly because if you take all the complexities and if you take the fact that China is growing…, the power balance within China and the rest of the world – certainly rest of Southeast Asia – it will keep changing and it will keep changing to the benefit of China and large countries, and China is not unique in this context, generally do not like to be bound by rules because they are large.
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