‘It may be a long winter’: Singapore envoy amid India-China tension at LAC
It is imperative for India and China to find an amicable solution to their border standoff as any flare-up of tensions could have far-reaching implications for post-Covid-19 recovery efforts across the region, Singapore’s new high commissioner Simon Wong Wie Kuen said on Thursday.
Expressing concern at the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in his first interview to the Indian media after presenting his credentials last week, Wong acknowledged the two sides could be in for a “long winter” and that efforts to find a solution may not be easy, though there is no alternative to dialogue.
The envoy also spoke on Singapore’s priorities in its economic relations with India, participation in New Delhi’s plans to forge resilient supply and value chains, and collaboration in the Indo-Pacific.
Asked about the implications of the India-China standoff, Wong said there is a “stalemate and a stare-down situation”. He said, “It may be a long winter, it will not have an easy solution but I think the messages coming out from both sides are very calm and the operating principle is still trying to figure out something of a resolution through diplomatic means.”
He added, “We are good friends of both India and China. The last thing we want is to have skirmishes grow bigger and bigger because now both sides are in a stare-down position and the troop levels of both sides are very high. We don’t want any untoward incidents happening because from the Covid-19 recovery point of view, if we have two big economic engines suffer as a result, the whole Asian economy will suffer for a prolonged period of time.
“We don’t want to see that happen, we have been urging both sides to stay calm and find an amicable solution to it…But we are concerned about what’s happening in Ladakh in particular, in Pangong Tso. We hope calmer heads prevail.”
Responding to a question on whether resolving the border issue will be a protracted process even if current tensions dissipate, the envoy said it is “always problematic [in] relations between…two humongous neighbours to resolve [things]”. He suggested “harsh negotiations” would be better than an exacerbation of tensions.
“If you were to have harsh negotiations and you cross with words, I think it’s easier because it’s common practice, even in FTA negotiations – harsh, tough negotiation postures, but thereafter, when the deal is done, you shake hands and that’s it,” he said.
“But the memory of 1962 is very, very strong because it was a military conflict…My humble advice is that both sides should think very carefully how they want to move forward and to be sure, both sides understand this very clearly...in the operating principle, both sides should sit down and talk and resolve this diplomatically,” he added.
Amid the Covid-19 crisis, the world being at an “inflection point” and a very “acrimonious US-China relationship”, Singapore’s priorities for the relationship with India include enhanced trade and investments and collaboration in areas such as healthcare for developing vaccines, Wong said.
Even during the Covid-19 crisis, Singapore committed around $2 billion of new investments into India, and it is also keen to work with India on moves to forge new supply and value chains, he said.
“Because we came in early to India, that conversation of plugging India into our part of the world is continuing non-stop…Cumulatively, Singapore has $85 billion committed to India. On your side, you have close to $60 billion. It is an equal partnership and we have about 650 Singapore companies set up in India and about 8,500 Indian companies are set up in Singapore. That notion of supply chain security and supply chain rework is always in play,” Wong said.
Wong said there will be “a competition of ideas” in the Indo-Pacific and Singapore endorses the Asean vision for the region – “which is to say we keep the waters around our region peaceful, the organisation should be inclusive and not exclusive, it should not be targeted at one or two particular countries, and the focus should be on economics, and less military”.
The Indian preference, he noted, is to “have Quad, Quad-plus or trilaterals”. He added, “India is free to have conversations with like-minded parties which share the same interests...I feel that down the road, India should also have a conversation with Asean on the configuration of your ideas and the Asean ideas.”
Wong also spoke on Singapore’s efforts to help foreign workers, including some 100,000 Indians, affected by the pandemic. Besides free medical facilities and testing, Singapore has provided grants to companies so that salaries are paid even when workers don’t go to work. However, as many businesses that hire foreign workers have closed down, they may be sent home and the “next step is for us to make sure that they are fairly compensated and if they intend to stay on, we will have to look for jobs for them”, he said.