The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, and his Singaporean counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, have confirmed students will be the first group to travel under a bubble arrangement to be established by the two countries, with Morrison stating it will happen “sooner rather than later”.
Lee confirmed students would be the first priority following talks between the two leaders in Singapore on Thursday.
The Singaporean prime minister said he had discussed with Morrison “how two-way travel can eventually resume in a safe and calibrated manner when both sides are ready.”
“Before Covid-19 many Singaporeans travelled to Australia for business, holidays and to pursue their education,” Lee said.
“We need to resume these people-to-people flows to maintain our close and excellent bilateral relationship.
“We need to prepare the infrastructure and the processes to get ready to do this, and this starts with mutual recognition of vaccination certificates, possibly in a digital form – very likely – and when all the preparations are ready we can start small with an air travel bubble to build confidence on both sides.”
Morrison said Australia had sought to learn from Singapore’s successful management of Covid and “that’s why I welcome the fact that we will now work together to put the infrastructure in place and the systems in place to enable us to open up in a similar way that we’ve been able to open up to New Zealand from Australia when we are both in a position to do so.”
The Australian prime minister said there was “still some time before we reach that milestone, but there is nothing impeding us, as we discussed today, from getting on with the job, of putting systems in place that will enable such a bubble to emerge between Singapore and Australia.”
Morrison said students would be the first cohort of Singaporeans to come to Australia and he said that should “occur sooner rather than later”.
Lee noted the starting date for the bubble would be informed by vaccination and transmission rates in the two countries. “I think once the majority of the population is vaccinated, it becomes much easier for us to contemplate these openings up”.
He said student travel would be a pilot program, allowing systems to be tested. “So, there’s no timetable, but we hope it can be done as soon as possible”.
A travel bubble was first proposed by Singapore in October but talks have been on the backburner while Australia finalised quarantine-free travel with New Zealand and the commonwealth sought the opening of interstate travel.
Australian universities are desperate for international students to return in person.
The higher education sector is estimated to have shed more than 17,000 jobs during the pandemic, according to data from Universities Australia, which also estimates $1.8bn in lost revenue in 2020. The sector is projected to lose a further $2bn in 2021.
Morrison flew to Singapore on Thursday for the first leg of his journey to the UK to attend the G7 meeting of wealthy developed nations in Cornwall, England, where the recovery from the pandemic, security issues and additional action to tackle the climate crisis are top of the agenda.
In addition to the preliminary steps on the travel bubble, Australia and Singapore signed an MOU on Thursday night to collaborate on health technologies.
The two leaders also agreed on a “fin-tech bridge” and technology partnerships for reducing emissions in shipping and port operations. Lee said Singapore was exploring a broader partnership with Australia on a “green economy agreement”.
Morrison said Australia and Singapore would continue to work together “to ensure the stability of our region on which all of our safety depends”. He said Singapore was “very central” to Australia’s view of the region and the world.
In a joint statement issued after the talks, the two leaders agreed that “in an increasingly uncertain and complex strategic environment, Australia and Singapore are like-minded partners with a high degree of strategic trust.”
The leaders welcomed joint military training arrangements between the two countries and Morrison “affirmed Australia’s commitment to expanding its defence presence in the region”.
The joint communique also referenced “Australia and Singapore’s strong support for freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded trade in the South China Sea” and “the importance of non-militarisation of disputed features and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.”
Australia and Singapore “urged all claimants to take meaningful steps to ease tensions and build trust, including through dialogue”.
Lee was asked by a reporter what advice he would give Australia about managing its fraught relationship with China. The Singaporean prime minister replied: “I would say that the relationship with China is one of the biggest foreign policy questions for every major power in the world”.
“You need to work with the country, it is going to be there, it is going to be a substantial presence and you can cooperate with it, you can engage it, you can negotiate with it – but it has to be a long and mutually constructive process”.
“You don’t have to become like them, neither can you hope to make them become like you. And you have to be able to work on that basis”.
Amidst the intensifying focus on the security implications of China’s rise, Australia’s prime minister will have his first face-to-face meeting with the US president, Joe Biden, at the G7.
Morrison sees the G7 as an important opportunity for Australia to keep the focus of the great powers on the escalating pressures in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia’s defence minister, Peter Dutton, has backed increasing the number of American military personnel rotating through the Northern Territory and having US navy vessels operate from a base near Perth.
The defence minister on Thursday also suggested the prospect of conflict in the Indo-Pacific region was “less remote” than it had been in the past.