S'pore has 'broad, wide-ranging ties with China, US'

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg, Germany, on 6 July, 2017.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg, Germany, on 6 July, 2017. PHOTO: MCI

MUNICH • Singapore has a broad, wide-ranging relationship with both China and the United States, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He was giving his assessment of ties with both powers in an interview with Singapore reporters at the end of a six-day work visit to Germany, where he attended the Group of 20 (G-20) Leaders' Summit.

Mr Lee also met President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the summit.

On Singapore's cooperation with China, Mr Lee said it includes the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, the third joint project, and exchanges with China's Central Organisation Department.

The man in charge of the department is Politburo member Zhao Leji. He called on Mr Lee in May.

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam visited China, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has accepted an invitation to visit Singapore, PM Lee noted.

"We have a broad relationship - there are issues that come out from time to time; we deal with them in a mature way and we move ahead.

"We are not at odds with China, and I think China finds it useful also to be friendly with Singapore, so that is a good basis on which to work," he said. Observers had, in recent months, noted that ties were under strain, even as officials note the overall relationship is broad, seen in meetings and high-level visits this year.

Mr Lee met President Xi in Hamburg last Thursday, a day before the summit. Two days later, he met President Trump for the first time.

"I went in with an open mind," Mr Lee said of the meeting with Mr Trump. "We had a good discussion. I focused on understanding how he looked at the relationship and on the broad issues... He was focused."

Also at the meeting were key Cabinet members: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

"They understand, and we certainly understand, that our relationship with America is a very broad and substantial one," Mr Lee said.

Both countries cooperate in many different fields, from defence to the economy to security issues.

Regardless of president or administration, these are interests Singapore wants to push ahead with, Mr Lee said, adding: "They would like to push ahead too."

On the US withdrawing from the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, Mr Lee said the US had its considerations, and Singapore understood that.

Going forward, Singapore has to see how it can make the best of the situation, both with the other 10 TPP participants as well as with the US, he added.

Asked whether the US was ceding its leadership position on global issues and if countries like China would step in to fill the void, Mr Lee said the US played a unique role. It not only upheld its national interests, but also the global system that affords it maximum opportunity to exert its influence and prosper.

The US sees itself "as a unique society, as a city upon the hill and a light unto nations", he said.

Mr Trump's administration is different. It puts the US first, and places less weight on America's responsibilities for "global public goods", such as security, being the world's policeman and upholding free trade.

Also, other countries do not have the same history, self-image or tradition of realpolitik, he said.

"It is not so clear that if the US decides to play a different role, somebody else can step into what the US' role used to be," he said. "We will have to see how things develop."

Mr Lee also met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Both have asked their ministers to review their partnership and identify new opportunities for cooperation.

Mr Lee, who has invited Dr Merkel to Singapore, said when she does come, "we can jointly announce the document, to set a new direction for cooperation between Singapore and Germany".

Royston Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 12, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore has 'broad, wide-ranging ties with China, US''. Print Edition | Subscribe