Singapore’s Lee and Australia’s Albanese Meet, Sign Green Economy Agreement – The Diplomat

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met his Australian counterpart Anthony Albanese in Canberra today. The two leaders signed a landmark deal on a green economy that is punctuated with paeans to the depth and breadth of their nations’ bilateral ties.

Lee was in Australia this week for the seventh annual Australia-Singapore Leaders’ Meeting, meeting Albanese for the first time since the Labor leader became prime minister in May. He was accompanied by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong and other government officials.

In a joint statement released at the end of the leaders’ meeting, the two leaders hailed “the strength and depth of the bilateral relationship between the two countries, anchored in common strategic and economic interests.”

During a subsequent joint press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Lee said that the two leaders “reaffirmed our comprehensive strategic partnership” and that bilateral cooperation “has advanced apace even during COVID-19.” He added that in a “troubled world” it was “important that like-minded countries work together”.

A key part of Lee’s trip was the signing of the Green Economy Agreement between Singapore and Australia, which Albanese said signaled a “collective resolve to face the challenges as we move our economies to net zero.” Lee called it “the first such deal of its kind” and said it would “support our countries’ transition to net-zero emissions while spurring growth and creating jobs in the green sectors.” Albanese hailed the agreement between “two great friends” as an “important example for the world” and a “new chapter” in the comprehensive strategic partnership formed in 2015.

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The agreement will ensure closer collaboration between Australia’s government research agency, CSIRO, and Singapore’s agency for science, technology and research, and will strengthen supply chains of critical resources between the two countries.

As the paragraphs above suggest, Lee’s journey was rich in warm words about the past, present and future of the bilateral relationship. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott once described Singapore and Australia as “natural partners”, and it is logical that the Lion City would lie at the heart of the current Australian government’s pledge to deepen and broaden its ties with the nations of Southeast Asia. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan echoed Abbott’s phrase when he hosted his Australian counterpart Penny Wong in July, when he also noted the “huge reservoir of strategic trust” between the two nations.

Albanese, the eighth Australian Prime Minister Lee has met since taking office in 2004, said yesterday that Singapore-Australia ties are “underpinned by deep trust, mutual respect and the ability to speak frankly with one another”.

The reasons for this closeness are not difficult to see. Since Singapore’s birth as an independent state in 1965, the two nations have shared broadly congruent interests, from a common opposition to Communism to strong support for a continued robust US security presence in Asia. From an Australian perspective, it would be naïve to deny that Singapore’s relative cultural familiarity as an economically advanced, English-speaking country has also facilitated the development of closer ties.

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The two nations also have strong defense ties, and Singapore is one of the few countries that regularly sends its armed forces to Australian soil for training. During today’s joint press conference, Lee said Singapore Armed Forces would support Australian Armed Forces in their efforts to provide relief to communities devastated by the recent floods. In addition to these cultural and strategic alignments, Singapore is Australia’s largest trading partner in Southeast Asia and its fifth largest trading partner overall.

However, as Gatra Priyandita wrote this week for The Strategist, the in-house journal of the hawkish Australian Strategic Policy Institute, the language of the survey hides issues on which the two nations differ, if not openly disagree. While Australia has generally signaled its support for the US government’s goal of containing and containing the influence of a rising China (due at least in part to its own attempted pressure from China), Lee, he noted, leaned on Singapore’s distinct brand of small -state realism, has urged both China and the US (and by extension Australia) to make mutual adjustments.

There were glimpses of that in today’s press conference. When asked about the US government’s recent restrictions on the sale of semiconductors and chip-making equipment to China, Lee expressed ambivalence. He said that while “national security concerns are real,” he said Singapore is concerned that these considerations “could trigger wider consequences and lead to less economic cooperation, less interdependence, less trust and potentially a less stable world eventually.”

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Another difference concerns China’s (possibly quixotic) bid to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which Singapore supports but is more skeptical about Australia. “I think Australia knows what it’s doing and we understand each other’s point of view,” Lee said. When asked for his opinion on the Albanian government’s China policy, he said: “We never give each other testimonies, let alone our friends.”

At the same time, compared to the perceptual differences Australia has with the remaining nations of Southeast Asia – think of its perpetually strained relationship with Indonesia, forever exposed to Australian promises of renewal and recommitment that never quite materialize – Canberra and Singapore are in relatively aligned with most of the key issues. Regardless of their differences on the China issue, they are in fact a good deal closer than any other nation in the region, with the possible exception of the Philippines.

If Australia is looking for a ‘like-minded’ partner in Southeast Asia, it is unlikely to find one that meets those requirements better than Singapore.

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