White House state dinner for PM Lee Hsien Loong a rare honour: Analysts

US President Barack Obama (right) meeting Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the White House on March 31.
US President Barack Obama (right) meeting Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the White House on March 31. PHOTO: WHITE HOUSE
Barack and Michelle Obama welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie to a state dinner at the White House, March 10, 2016.
Barack and Michelle Obama welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie to a state dinner at the White House, March 10, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Dinner during August visit a strong sign of Singapore's standing in US, say analysts

US President Barack Obama will host Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to a state dinner at the White House in August - a rare diplomatic honour that marks the strength of ties between the two countries.

Singapore will be only the fifth Asian country to have a leader honoured with a state dinner during the Obama administration and the only one from South-east Asia.

The others are China, India, Japan and South Korea.

The White House and PM Lee said the visit was a testament to how far ties have grown during the tenure of President Obama.

"I look forward to the visit," wrote PM Lee on his Facebook page. "It will mark the progress we have made, especially with this administration. It will also be a chance to see how we can build on our friendship beyond the November US elections."

 

A statement from the White House said the visit and dinner will mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations, and the two leaders will "highlight the enduring principles that have inspired the tremendous growth in our cooperation".

White House state dinners are grand affairs and are regarded as one of the highest diplomatic honours the US government can give.

Washington analysts told The Straits Times that the decision to hold a state dinner for PM Lee was a strong sign of the island nation's standing in the country.

Mr Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the South-east Asia programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the upcoming visit was a significant recognition of Singapore's part in the US rebalance to Asia.

"The visit will place another important brick in the foundation of the US rebalance to Asia in a year that President Obama has already visited Vietnam and Japan and will visit China and Laos in September," he said.

One of the key items on the agenda when the two leaders meet will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal, which faces an uncertain future if it is not ratified by Congress before Mr Obama's term is up at the end of the year.

Ms Wendy Cutler, a former high-ranking trade official who is now vice-president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said she expects PM Lee's visit to underscore how important the deal is to strengthening US ties in the region.

The state dinner in August will be the first time PM Lee has been honoured with such an event and the first one for a Singaporean leader for over three decades.

Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was guest of honour at four White House state dinners, under presidents Lyndon Johnson in 1967, Richard Nixon in 1973, Gerald Ford in 1975 and Ronald Reagan in 1985.

Dr Joseph Liow, the Lee Kuan Yew chair at the Brookings Institution, said the rarity of state dinners under President Obama adds to the significance of the event.

"Obama has hosted probably around a dozen over the course of his two terms - not a particularly high number compared to some of his predecessors," he said.

In comparison, then President Johnson held 54 state dinners in just over five years.

The elaborate black-tie dinners are attended by around 120 people - often including celebrities and business leaders - and can be pricey affairs. According to CBS news, the first five state dinners of the Obama administration cost between US$200,000 (S$275,000) and US$570,000 each.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2016, with the headline 'White House state dinner for PM Lee a rare honour'. Print Edition | Subscribe