US 'has key role in ensuring Asia's peace and stability'

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the dialogue at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Wednesday, which was moderated by New Yorker magazine's staff writer Evan Osnos.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the dialogue at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on Wednesday, which was moderated by New Yorker magazine's staff writer Evan Osnos.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

WASHINGTON • The United States cannot disengage itself from Asia, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, as it has a key role in ensuring the region's peace and stability.

He added that how America responds to the changing strategic landscape will affect the global balance of power and international order. "The Chinese are influential, growing more so, and need to be accommodated in a stable and constructive way into the regional and global system," he said.

PM Lee was speaking at a dialogue at the Council on Foreign Relations on Wednesday, where he spoke about Singapore's hopes for the new administration and his thoughts on Sino-US ties.

He also noted that even as the US should stay involved in the region, it has to work on its relationship with China and ensure that it remains constructive and not tense.

Citing North Korea, he said of the US' role: "It is not going to be easily solved, but certainly it will never be solved if you are not there and actively a participant."

He noted the US had opened its markets and provided peace and security in Asia over the past 75 years. And as it faces internal pressures to turn inward, it must be conscious of its role and responsibilities.

  • PM on TPP-11, maritime tensions

  • At a Council on Foreign Relations dialogue, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked questions on issues ranging from trade deals and conflicts, to politics. Here are excerpts of his replies.

    On the way forward for the remaining 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal after the United States withdrew from it: We hope we will be able to work something out, but it is not easy. When you came in, that totally changed the picture - because you brought with you first, your markets, second, your considerable influence on what you wanted. And what you wanted isn't just access to our markets, but also rules and intellectual property and human rights and so many other things.

    And having worked out a document, the basis of which is that you are the anchor participant, and now you are out, which part of the document do I keep? And if I undo some part of it, will I unravel the whole scheme? And that is what our trade ministers are working very hard on.

    On how the maritime disputes in the East and South China seas could play out: They are different. The East China Sea issue is between China and Japan - two countries which have not really come to terms with history. Neither is going to give way. You could have a mishap, and then you could have an escalation. It has already nearly happened more than once.

    You could have a mishap in the South China Sea too. But it is different in one very important way - the other claimant states in South-east Asia, none of them wants to collide with China.

    All have got major relationships with China over many fronts - on trade, on aid, on human resources, on direct financing of all kinds of projects.

    They will not go to war (over the South China Sea issue). Therefore, it sets a limit to how far things can boil over, but at the same time it means that, well, a different balance of outcomes can be expected.

    On whether the saying that no political party remains in power forever applies to Singapore: I am sure it does. I don't know when it will happen, but I will not make it happen sooner than it needs to.

He said: "With a rising set of players on the West Coast of the Pacific, where does America want to go? Do you want to be engaged, do you want to participate more, do you want to deepen your economic relations? Or do you want to find some other balance, which really will leave the determination of affairs to other participants in the region?"

PM Lee said the region can take comfort that US Cabinet members who have visited the region "have stated positions which have given us a lot of comfort and reassurance", and know what the US needs to do.

Still,President Donald Trump's coming visit was important in signalling his administration's commitment, he said, adding: "We look forward to receiving your President soon and hearing similar messages from him - he is the Commander in Chief, and he sets the tone."

The dialogue, PM Lee's second at the think-tank in four years, was led by New Yorker magazine's staff writer Evan Osnos, who writes on foreign affairs.

Asked about his meetings with officials this week, Mr Lee said no one is talking about disengaging. "They are talking about engaging in a different way, they feel... somehow America hasn't quite got as long an end of the stick as it ought to, and they would like to rebalance."

PM Lee was also reassured they know America's fate depends on what happens in the rest of the world.

For countries in the region, the US-China relationship matters, he said. "If you are able to work with them on a stable, gradually evolving relationship which gives them the space to grow their influence, but in a benign way, then we are fine. We remain friends with both.

"If you have a tense relationship, and one or both (sides) say, 'You are either with me or you are against me,' then we are in a difficult spot.

"It could happen."

But China's Belt and Road Initiative to strengthen connectivity is positive for the region, which stands to benefit from investments and infrastructure that will facilitate trade, and hopefully ensure the region stays open, he added.

Asked about China's recent 19th party congress, PM Lee noted that President Xi Jinping had consolidated his position and signalled this is the start of a new era for China.

Mr Xi envisaged this extending to 2050, taking China to 100 years after the 1949 revolution.

"The Chinese say that with Mao, China stands up (zhan qi lai); with Deng, (fu qi lai), they have gotten wealthy; and now with Xi, (qiang qi lai), they are strong," he said. "What does strong mean? That is what everybody will be watching carefully."

PM Lee noted Mr Xi had set out several significant essentials - the party must be fully in charge, economic growth and international strength, including a strong armed forces - what "any normal great power would have to pay attention to".

"What we don't know is the balance, the tone and the wisdom with which these elements will unfold, and we have to wait and see," he said.

As for the Chinese economy, PM Lee said it has "a lot of energy and vibrance". While it may not have companies such as Google or Facebook, there is Tencent, Alibaba and Huawei.

The question is whether the top political leaders can make the trade-offs "to stage and manage very delicate transformations which economically are critical but politically very hard to do".

When asked for his near-term expectations of Sino-US ties, he said he hoped both sides would begin to establish a mutual understanding that would enable them to work things out over time.

He noted that when Mr Xi met Mr Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida in April, naysayers thought it was unwise. But it has given both leaders a basis on which to talk about other issues.

"I understand they ring up each other quite frequently. There is a line, you need that line," he said.

Zakir Hussain

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'US 'has key role in ensuring Asia's peace and stability''. Print Edition | Subscribe