PM: S'pore's position will become tougher if US-China tensions rise

PM Lee was also asked by Mr Sackur about Singapore-China ties, in the light of Hong Kong's seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carriers on their way back from a military exercise in Taiwan last December. PM Lee said he would not sa
PM Lee was also asked by Mr Sackur about Singapore-China ties, in the light of Hong Kong's seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carriers on their way back from a military exercise in Taiwan last December. PM Lee said he would not say there were major problems.PHOTO: COURTESY OF BBC HARDTALK

He fields range of questions in interview with BBC's HARDtalk

As a friend to both America and China, Singapore can be put in a difficult situation if there is friction between the two giants, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with British broadcaster BBC.

He made the point when presenter Stephen Sackur asked about rising tensions in the region and perceived Chinese unhappiness over Singapore's ties with America.

Mr Lee said: "If America-China relations become very difficult, our position becomes tougher. Because then we will be coerced to choose between being friends with America, and friends with China.

"That is the real worry."

He was on the BBC's HARDtalk interview programme aired yesterday, during which he was also asked about the international climate and freedom of expression as well as the law criminalising gay sex.

On US-China ties, he added: "Right now, we are friends with both. Not that we do not have issues with either, but we are generally friends with both, and the relationships are in good working order."

PM LEE ON PRESS FREEDOM

I would not presume to tell you how your press council should operate. Why should you presume to tell me how my country should run?

We are completely open.

ON CRITICISMS ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS

If Singapore were such a miserable place, you would not be interviewing me. You would be going down the streets and getting "vox pops" (interviews with members of the public), and all sorts of people would be saying terrible things about the Government and some of them would have emigrated.

But the fact is, Singaporeans are happy, they have chosen this Government, we are governing the country and the people to the best of our ability. Millions more would like to come if we allowed it. 

ON HAVING ONE-PARTY RULE

I would not say it is one-party rule. The Government has only belonged to one party but there are many parties in Singapore. The elections are fiercely contested.

ON LINKING HUMAN RIGHTS TO TRADE

The world is a diverse place. Nobody has a monopoly of virtue or wisdom. Unless we can accept that, and we prosper together and cooperate together, accepting our differences - differences in values, differences in outlook, differences even in what we see the goals of life to be - it becomes difficult. 

ON SECTION 377A OF THE PENAL CODE WHICH CRIMINALISES GAY SEX

We are not British. We are not Victorian. But this is a society which is not that liberal on these matters. Attitudes have changed, but I believe if you have a referendum on the issue today, 377A would stand.

Mr Sackur, however, noted that with the US, there are problems, including President Donald Trump's antipathy towards global trade.

He asked Mr Lee if the US' move to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact had caused Singapore to review whether the US "has its back".

Mr Lee replied that everyone in the region, Singapore included, was watching the US very carefully.

"We have a very deep relationship with the United States. They are our biggest investor. They are one of our major export markets," he said.

Both countries cooperate in defence, security and counter-terrorism, and Americans are very welcome here and Singaporeans feel very comfortable in America.

But Singapore would have to watch America's direction and political tone, as well as what its government does, Mr Lee added.

Turning to Singapore-China ties, Mr Sackur brought up Hong Kong's seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carriers on their way back from a military exercise in Taiwan last December.

Said Mr Lee: "I would not say we have major problems. We have had some issues and some incidents. The military vehicles were an incident which happened to both of us and we had to handle it."

Asked if it suggested a lack of trust between them, Mr Lee said: "It was a delicate matter for both sides and I think both sides handled it carefully and there has been a satisfactory outcome."

Mr Lee also clarified Singapore's position on an international arbitral tribunal ruling last July that China's claims in the South China Sea are illegal. He said the court had made a strong statement, but stressed that Singapore does not judge specific claims, and respects the interest of the court.

Mr Sackur suggested Singapore's stance on the case could be viewed by Beijing as a betrayal of friendship. Further, it had in October 2015 let America deploy Poseidon surveillance planes on its territory.

Mr Lee said Singapore has had this relationship with the US for a long time. It buys military equipment from the superpower and its air force trains on US soil.

Singapore has also hosted US aircraft and ships which pass through and stop here.

Singapore does all this because it believes America's presence in the region has brought about stability and enabled countries to prosper, Mr Lee said. But Beijing-Washington ties require close and sustained attention on both sides, he noted.

While China is paying attention to the relationship, he said, the US has many other issues to worry about.

"It is not just a matter of making strong statements. You have to... communicate convincingly and to a certain degree, openly with the other side, and develop that strategic understanding so that there is no miscalculation," he added.

Mr Lee, asked about a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, said Singapore would be happy to negotiate one when Britain is ready.

He also said Singapore would sign a new TPP trade pact minus the US if there was consensus from the other countries. "I would not rule it out but I think it is not so easy to achieve," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'PM: S'pore's position will become tougher if US-China tensions rise'. Print Edition | Subscribe