Press conference, Parliament House

  • Joint transcript with:
  • The Hon Richard Marles MP, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister for Defence
  • Senator the Hon Penny Wong, Leader of the Government in the Senate, Minister for Foreign Affairs
  • Senator the Hon Don Farrell, Minister for Trade and Tourism, Special Minister of State
Subjects: 13th Singapore Australia Joint Ministerial Committee; defence cooperation; energy into the Singapore market; UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; research and development; China’s bid to join the CPTPP; AUKUS.

Richard Marles, Deputy Prime Minister: Today we've had a really productive meeting of the Singapore‑Australia Joint Ministerial Committee, and at its heart what is completely clear is the deep affection which is felt between our two countries, and that's really been embodied in the rapport which exists between the six ministers who have been participating in the meeting today, and we really welcome the involvement of our Singapore counterparts and welcome you to Australia today, and thank you for the participation in today's meeting.

As we've discussed many topics, what's become really clear is that we do live in a world with great strategic complexity, and significant strategic threat. We want to play our parts as two nations in creating pathways for peace within that world.

But as we look forward and we look at the uncertainty of the future, one matter becomes manifestly clear, that is the importance of the friendship that we have between our two countries, and the importance of making sure that we make this relationship even deeper into the future.

The relationship is unique. From a defence point of view, Singapore and Australia have a very specific and close and unique relationship embodied in the way in which Singapore does so much of its training in Australia. Singapore has as much presence in respect of defence in our country as any other nation in the world, and that’s something that we really welcome.

We understand the significance of that to Singapore, but we really appreciate it from the perspective of Australia, and we love having members of the Singaporean Forces coming to our country to do their training, and we have looked at ways in which we can expand that into the future, and where there are issues in respect of facilitating that, we're working really closely in terms of trying to resolve those.

We've also looked at other issues within the context of our relationship, and there has been a conversation around Australia's supply of energy to Singapore, including the supply of gas. We want to make clear that we regard Singapore's energy security as profoundly important in terms of Australia's national interest, and we made very clear to our Singaporean counterparts that Australia will continue to be a completely reliable partner in terms of the provision of energy into the Singaporean market, and that includes the provision of gas.

This is really important in terms of our bilateral relationship; it's obviously important, therefore, in terms of our broader interests within the region and the significance of our relationship with Singapore in terms of our broader interests within the region, and we were very pleased to be able to have that conversation today.

As we approach the 10th anniversary in 2025 of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, we look forward over the course of the next month to when our two leaders will be having their own leaders meeting, and that very much formed part of the backdrop of the discussions today, and as we enter into the next leaders meeting between Australia and Singapore we do so with a lot of optimism about the future of our bilateral relationship.

Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs: Thank you, and let me thank Richard, Penny and Don for that very warm welcome for En Hen and Kim Yong. This is the 13th Singapore‑Australia Joint Ministerial Committee, and I was just reflecting, I think I've attended almost half of all those meetings. So when I stand here and say that this has been a long‑term consistent relationship based on mutual trust and a proven track record of cooperation, I mean it, and I have, you know, I have the years in service to say that with utmost conviction.

You are right in by 2025 we would have had 10 years of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and you know the word "strategic" is bandied around a lot nowadays, but when Singapore and Australia agrees on something, we have complied with it both the spirit and the letter, and it has come along wonderfully over the years.

But we will also be celebrating 60 years of diplomatic ties in 2025. And I think at a time like this where the world is in an unsettled, volatile and uncertain phase, it becomes even more critical for two countries, obviously a difference in size and in location, but we are complementary; we trust each other, we are absolutely reliable, we fulfil our commitments to one another, and the level of trust which Australia has demonstrated to us, and I believe on a mutual basis means all the more reason we need to double down on this. So thank you once again for this session, and we'll hear from Penny and Don.

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister: Thanks very much to Minister Vivian, as he's always known, to En Hen and Kim Yong, thank you very much for the spirit of our discussion today. As we discussed, you are one of our closest partners. It has been a great pleasure to host you here in Canberra. The committee has reaffirmed, the discussion today has reaffirmed an ambitious agenda, and as Minister Vivian said, we have a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership; we have done a lot of work in the context of that partnership, but we envisage on the Australian side, as we go forward, an even closer and deeper strategic relationship, given the circumstances. And we're very pleased to have the discussions we had today.

Obviously we're linked to Singapore for many reasons, historically, I've spent a fair bit of time there when I was younger, obviously. So we're linked by geography, we're linked by our people, and by choice. We share a region and we share a future, and our friendship is underpinned by a great deal of strategic consistency by similar and complementary shared economic interests, and a shared vision for an open, stable and inclusive region.

I just wanted to add one point, because I think Richard's covered a lot of what I wanted to say in the opening, we have the 10th anniversary, obviously, of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2025. So what we do want to do is to ensure that we work towards the next iteration in a way that enables us in 2025 to have an even closer relationship and a more ambitious and dynamic next iteration of the partnership. But thank you all for making the journey to Australia. We hope we can reciprocate in the near future.

Ng Eng Hen, Singapore Minister for Defence: I'll make some comments on Defence Deputy Prime Minister Marles. First, let me thank him for his kind words. We had a very productive meeting, we're very thankful for the progress we made in the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership 10 years ago.

We want to thank the Labor Government and Prime Minister Albanese and his Ministers here and Deputy Prime Minister Marles, Minister Penny Wong and Minister Don Farrell for supporting our training here; we have a big footprint, and every year thousands of Singaporean young men doing their national service experience your wonderful bushlands and your weather, and they go back with very fond memories, and it's only possible, I think, because of that affection that the Deputy Prime Minister talked about, the affection of the officials, the affection of the people who put up with our military training, whether it's in Shoalwater Bay, Pearce or Oakey. So thank you for that.

It was also very productive, because we were looking forward with more training opportunities bilaterally as well as for us, if you allow us to train here. We understand your processes, there are some developments in CSP that are delayed, but we respect your processes and we try to be helpful when we can.

I want to end off by saying that another aspect that we talked about during this Ministerial Committee was of the way forward and the complex environment, and for that, we believe that Australia can play a bigger role in our region, for Australia's vested interests is in Asia, it’s an Asian country, not only just an Indo‑Pacific country, but an Asian country, and we believe that we would welcome Australian ships and planes to our bases, and ultimately when your submarines are ready, we would welcome them to call on our ports, we'll facilitate.

We believe that Australia adds the regional security in ASEAN and beyond. So we look forward to these very, very positive aspects, and thank you once again for your friendship and your confidence in each other.

Don Farrell, Trade and Tourism Minister: Thank you everyone. Thank for our Ministers from Singapore coming to join us today. I first met Minister Vivian when we both had responsibility for water, 10 or 11 years ago, and we've had a very good relationship.

I first went to Singapore in the 1970s as a student, and continued to go there and enjoy it. But thank you for coming to Australia today.

One of the things that happens this year is that we celebrate 20 years of our Free Trade Agreement with Singapore. Singapore is our closest friend in Southeast Asia and we see great opportunities to build upon the past and, and build upon those can complementary features of our economy, whether it be in the digital space, and we've got a very progressive agreement with Singapore in the digital space; whether it be in the green space. Australia intends to be a renewable superpower and we believe we can be great partners with Singapore.

On this year of the 20th anniversary, we think that there are even more ambitious things that we can do together, and at the World Trade Organization we have no better friend than Singapore in terms of building a sensible rules-based order for trade. We both share an ambition to make trade fair in the world, and I look forward to continuing to work with my colleague, Minister Gan to build on that wonderful relationship that we've had over that 20 years. Thank you.

Gan Kim Yong, Singapore Minister for Trade and Industry: Thank you. Firstly, let me thank my Australian hosts, Minister Don Farrell, Deputy Prime Minister Marles and Foreign Minister Wong.

It has been a great opportunity for me to be here to discuss various issues of concern within our two countries. As Don pointed out we celebrated our 20th anniversary of our Singapore-Australia FTA, we even cut a cake, but I'm still waiting for the cake to be delivered.

But I think it is an important milestone, and in fact this Free Trade Agreement has formed a foundation for many of our collaboration that have emerged over the years. As Don pointed out, we had a Digital Economy Agreement, and last October we signed our, I think the world's first Green Economy Agreement. And these agreements have now become the path finders for many bilateral as well as regional collaboration in both digital and green areas.

So I think there's great scope for us to continue to work together, and as the world economic landscape becomes more challenging going forward it is even more important for like‑minded partners like Australia and Singapore to work together to see how we can strengthen bilateral collaboration and regional cooperation.

These will include areas not just green and digital economy, but also supply chain resilience, and particularly in the energy security area, and I'm very happy to note DPM's comment about Australia committing to be a reliable partner in our energy security considerations, and it is important for us to continue to work together, and I look forward to working with our team, both teams, to see how we can iron out the details.

I think there are a lot of opportunities for us, whether it's in a digital or in a green economy, as well as supply chain resilience arrangements. At the same time in the regional arena, whether it is IPF, World Trade Organization or CPTPP, we have always worked very closely with one another to ensure that we discuss with one another, and to have consultation with one another to ensure that we are able to bring forward and to strengthen regional cooperation, and I certainly look forward to meeting Don in future in time to come to discuss further our areas of bilateral cooperation. Thank you.

Journalist: Minister Gan, on the trade front, Singapore was one of the countries that signed up as a third party to the World Trade Organization disputes that Australia initiated against China's actions on Australian barley and on Australian wine. Does Singapore believe that those trade measures were coercive in nature, and should that be a reason for China not to be accepted into the CPTPP?

Minister Gan: Thank you very much. Singapore's interest in as a third party is really to better understand how the process is being conducted. As a member of the World Trade Organization, it is also in our interests to see how we can strengthen the dispute resolution mechanism, and that is a reason, a primary reason why we are involved in the World Trade Organization's dispute settlement as a third party observer.

Journalist: And on CPTPP?

Minister Gan: On the CPTPP, as we aforementioned, it is a consensus‑based approach for essential processes, and Singapore welcomes economies who are able to meet the high standard that's required under CPTPP and have demonstrated the ability to comply with rules that are set down in the CPTPP.

Journalist: A question for Minister Gan and Minister Farrell. I note that Singapore introduced the Enterprise Innovation Scheme which has a lot of generous incentives for research and development, and Australia as well has very big expenses in supporting and encouraging R and D expenditure. Given all the collaboration ongoing in the green and digital space, what opportunities do you see for closer integration and collaboration between the two start‑up ecosystems?

Trade and Tourism Minister: Well, I might start, Minister Gan. Look, Australia, as I said earlier at our meeting, of course continues to be the lucky country. One of the things that we have an ample supply of is all of the critical minerals, and for that matter rare earths that are going to decarbonise not only Australia's economy, not only Singapore's economy, but the world's economy.

Australia has either the largest or the second‑largest reserves of all of those resources that are going to allow us to make that transition from a fossil fuel economy to the decarbonised renewable economy.

One of the ways in which we can get the maximum benefit from the agreements that you're talking about is to ensure that we're working together as two countries committed to decarbonising our economy.

The thing about critical minerals is that, well, if you look at say an iron ore mine, if you go up to Northern Western Australia, you can see an iron ore for as far as the eye can see, that red dust. Critical minerals are actually quite different. They're much smaller deposits; they're much deeper down; they're going to be more expensive to extract, and they're not going to last as long as an iron ore mine will.

So that's just one example, I think, of the opportunities that we both have in that green space.

Minister Gan: Maybe I just give a few comments on innovation that you asked about. In fact Singapore and Australia have several programs ongoing on the innovation on the research and development, and Singapore, our enterprise Singapore has set up several global innovation alliance around the world, including Australia, to encourage small and medium enterprises to embark on innovation as well as collaboration with one another to better understand the market needs and to do a product development.

So it is an area that we are very keen to explore with Australia. In fact tomorrow I'm going to visit ‑ sorry, this afternoon I'm going to visit a hydrogen testing facility to look at how we can better manage hydrogen as an alternative energy source. These are areas that we will continue to explore how we can collaborate both on a digital side as well as on the green economy to bring benefit to our both countries.

Journalist: On the gas supply, why did you feel it necessary to reassure Singapore that Australia would be able to attend to their energy security? Was our reputation harmed by the quiet quitting comments that come out of Japan, and just if I might, Senator Wong, can I please ask ‑ yeah ‑ can I just ask for an update on the PNG Defence agreement? I know it's not this, but the negotiations were scheduled to be concluded this month?

Deputy Prime Minister: Well, simply in relation to the first question, we spoke about Australia's role as an energy supplier to Singapore, because it's a really central part of the bilateral relationship. Australia supplies a significant proportion of Singapore's energy, and it's unremarkable for us to say that that is a relationship which is beneficial to both countries, that we value it, we value that part of it which provides the energy security to Singapore, and we value being a reliable supplier of gas going forward. So that's the context in which those remarks were made.

Foreign Minister: First, as you know, we are appreciative of Prime Minister Marape's strong support for this negotiation, and we will continue to work with PNG on the detail of those negotiations and I'm sure we will talk to you when we're able to about that.

Journalist: Thank you. A question to the Singaporean Ministers. There was a comment about allowing Australian submarines through Singapore, and I wonder if that would extend to nuclear‑powered submarines under the AUKUS agreement, and just generally what the view from Singapore is on knows nuclear‑powered submarine acquisition?

Minister Ng: Would you repeat the second part, on nuclear submarines?

Journalist: What's your general view on Australia acquiring them?

Minister Ng: Well, it won't be the first. We have US nuclear‑powered submarines that call on Changi Naval Base.

Journalist: Just a question for Singaporean delegation. You've recently seen a ramping up of tensions around the Philippines with the announcement of new US bases in the region, and recently a clash between a US ‑ sorry, not a US ‑ a Chinese Naval Coast Guard vessel and a Filipino vessel. Are you concerned about tensions in the South China Sea?

Minister Balakrishnan: For both Australia and Singapore, the relationship between the United States and China is absolutely vital. If you look at our strategic position, we look at our economic interests. For both Australia and Singapore the ideal world is one in which a modus vivendi is achieved between Washington and Beijing, and our vital relationships with each of them are based on a stable, rules‑based regime, and open and inclusive Southeast Asia and to create a balance of power which maximises the options for all of us much smaller countries, and that both the United States and China have a stake in our success and prosperity, and that will be the ideal world.

So I think it's worth making that as the general starting line. Having said that, we also recognise that we do not control the agenda in Washington and Beijing. I think it's going to take some time before a sufficient level of strategic trust is built up between the two of them, and for relations to be on an even keel, and that would give all of us much relief and a sense of stability.

Now, having said that, from a Southeast Asian perspective, I think all of us want to ensure that Southeast Asia does not become an arena for proxy wars. We all want to ensure the sea lanes freedom of navigation is achieved as a right under UNCLOS and not by permission or by grace of any power.

We want all powers, not just the superpowers but all middle powers, which, and I would include Australia in that, to have free access and opportunities in Southeast Asia and in the sea lanes and in the air lines of communication. So obviously we do view any altercations, collisions or incidents at sea with grave concern.

The point here is that we want to head off these situations, and speaking from the point of view of ASEAN, that's why we're continuing our negotiations on our code of conduct. It will not resolve the disputes over sovereignty, but it can help build confidence by lowering the thresholds for conflict or for escalatory actions.

So that's what we hope for, and I think certainly in the case of Australia and Singapore ‑ and Penny can add to that ‑ we wall want a rules‑based regime. We want an open and inclusive regional architecture. We want to ensure that individually and collectively we are able to secure our national interests, and I think what's special about the relationship between Australia and Singapore is that we both see the critical need for rules‑based regime, for compliance with international law, for compliance with the principles of the UN Charter, and we see this in exactly the same way.

There was some questions just now related to defence and economy. It's worth remembering that the defence relationship between Australia and Singapore goes back many decades; in our case even before independence, and we have a Five Power Defence Agreement, and you know, I've lost count of how many Singaporean youth has spent time training down here.

This is a unique arrangement. But when we say that we believe Australia is a constructive partner, it's absolutely sincere. So even on AUKUS, if I could speak, not from a military perspective, but from a strategic perspective, insofar as it contributes constructively to regional security, we're in support of it. We are comfortable with all the three partners within AUKUS, because with each of them, we've had long‑term relationships, and that's why I think we're able to work together, and I want to make the point about that complementarity and that trust is unique, and long may we nurture and double down on it.

Foreign Minister: Hear hear. When we speak about our closeness and the strategic trust, these are not matters only of history, of affection, of geography; they are also a perspective, a shared perspective, or very similar perspectives about our interests and what matters to our interests, and Minister Vivian more eloquently than I has outlined those, and I just want to make three points.

Our interests are very aligned because we understand, given who we are, the importance of the multilateral system and rules, and we acknowledge in particular that Singapore has been clear about its position on Ukraine, and has articulated its understanding of why all states need to push back on the breach of the UN Charter.

Secondly, we, as Minister Vivian has said, understand the importance of rules to our national interests and to stability, and in that context, particularly given our location, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea matters. It matters to Singapore, and it matters to us, and it matters to the region, and it matters to the stability of the region.

And the third point is where the Minister started. We have spoken about the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the region in which we live, and whether it's AUKUS, our commitment to ASEAN centrality, our economic engagement with the region, all of our work that we do, that is the focus Australia has.

We have also spoken about the importance of guard rails in the relationship as between the US and China. Minister Vivian uses a different formulation, a modus vivendi, but they are essentially seeking the same thing, and that is we all want those powers to ensure that they operate in a way that lessons the chance of miscalculation or escalation and enhances the possibility of continued stability and peace.

Journalist: Just to follow up on AUKUS, you spoke then about the trust between Australia, and between Singapore and AUKUS nations and those reservoirs is something you've talked about before. Can I say, 18 months in, what is your current assessment of the regional response to AUKUS and what is your message to countries like Indonesia that have publicly expressed concerns about the way that AUKUS might undermine norms of non‑proliferation or regional stability more broadly?

Minister Balakrishnan: Well, let me say I cannot speak on behalf of my neighbours, and I don't want, you know, to overstate the case. So I speak on behalf of Singapore and how Singapore relates to Australia, and I chose my words carefully. As long as AUKUS contributes constructively to regional peace and stability, it's a good thing. Do we trust the individual partners of AUKUS? Well, in the case of Singapore, we've got long‑standing relationships with each of them, and that's why we have in a sense, you know, not expressed any reservations, and you would also notice, and Penny took the trouble to call me, and I think Richard called Eng Hen as well before the second round of announcements, to underline Australia's commitment to the Treaty for the Non‑Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and the rule of the International Atomic Energy Agency. I have absolutely no reason to doubt Australia's commitment on this front.

Foreign Minister: Thank you.


Media enquiries

  • Minister's office: 02 6277 7420
  • DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555