In full: The Straits Times' interview with US President Barack Obama

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and US president Barack Obama (right) at the US-Asean summit at Sunnylands Estate in California on February 15.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and US president Barack Obama (right) at the US-Asean summit at Sunnylands Estate in California on February 15.PHOTO: ST FILE

WASHINGTON - In an e-mail interview with The Straits Times ahead of an official visit by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - the first by a Singapore prime minister since 1985 - US President Barack Obama stressed the importance of the US-Singapore relationship in his administration’s rebalance to Asia.

Mr Obama, who will step down in January 2017 after eight years at the helm, also expressed confidence that Washington's emphasis on the region will outlive his presidency.

Here is the full interview:

SINGAPORE AN 'ANCHOR' FOR US IN REGION

Q:  You've had a relatively small number of state dinners during your presidency and none for any country in South-east Asia. Can you elaborate on your approach to state dinners and your decision to hold one in honour of PM Lee and Singapore?

A:  State visits are often an opportunity for the United States to reaffirm our ties and friendship with our closest partners around the world. This visit is an occasion to mark the 50th anniversary our bilateral relationship with Singapore, which is one of our strongest and most reliable partners in South-east Asia.  

I look forward to hosting Prime Minister Lee, whose friendship and partnership I appreciate very much and with whom I’ve worked throughout my administration. This will also be an opportunity for me to reciprocate the hospitality that the Prime Minister and the people of Singapore showed to me during my visit to Singapore for the APEC summit in 2009.

This visit also reflects the important role that Singapore plays in the rebalance of American foreign policy to the Asia Pacific. With Singapore’s partnership, the United States in engaging more deeply across South-east Asia and Asean, which is central to the region’s peace and prosperity. Singapore is an anchor for the US presence in the region, which is a foundation of stability and peace. Both our nations are committed to building a regional order where all nations play by the same rules and disputes are resolved peacefully and this visit will be an opportunity to continue deepening our cooperation on behalf of regional stability and prosperity.

More broadly, Prime Minister Lee and I will work to advance the US-Singapore partnership across the board. We’re committed to sustaining the dynamism of our economies with the Trans-Pacific Partnership—the highest-standard trade agreement ever—which will support trade and innovation in both our countries.  

Singapore was the very first South-east Asian nation to join the global coalition against ISIL (ISIS) coalition, and we’ll work to sustain our momentum in destroying that terrorist organisation.

We’ll discuss how we can implement the Paris climate change agreement in order to protect coastal cities like Singapore.

And building on our Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative, I’m hopeful that we can continue expand the ties and cooperation between our young people and students.

US' REBALANCE TO ASIA TO ENDURE

Q:  You've expressed some confidence that the US commitment to Asia will not fade away after your presidency, primarily because a majority of Americans understand the importance of the region. However, the election campaign thus far seems to show that Americans are not convinced about globalisation, even Donald Trump notwithstanding, Americans of all political stripes seem to be turning inwards. Are you still as confident that the Asia rebalance will persist? What will happen if your successor doesn't attend the annual Asian summits and never hosts another Asean meeting like the one in Sunnylands?

A:  There’s no question that a lot of Americans on both the right and the left are expressing some fears and frustrations about the dislocations brought on by globalisation. Many of those frustrations are legitimate and they need to be addressed.  

But in an interconnected world, I remain convinced that the best way to manage these dislocations and to ensure our security and prosperity is to engage more deeply with countries around the world, not less—especially in the Asia Pacific.

That’s why, over the past eight years, the United States has worked hard to deepen partnerships across the region and across South-east Asia in particular.  We’re now a part of the East Asia Summit and we have a strategic partnership with Asean.  At the US-Asean Leaders Summit I hosted earlier this year in Sunnylands, California, we agreed to a set of principles that will shape the future peace and prosperity of the region, from promoting innovation and furthering economic integration to addressing transnational challenges like global health security and climate change.

I’m confident that America’s foreign policy rebalance to the region will endure beyond my presidency because it’s in the national interest of the United States. The United States has been a Pacific nation for over two centuries. That’s not going to change. That reality transcends election cycles. And just as our past has been integrally linked to the region, so, too, is our future. The Asia Pacific is home to nearly half the world’s population, a growing middle class and holds so much opportunity for us all. It’s no wonder that America’s engagement in the region has strong, sustained, bipartisan support. So I’ll be handing my successor a strong foundation—including closer ties with Singapore—on which to continue building, and I’m optimistic that will happen.

TPP 'WILL GET CONGRESS SUPPORT'

Q:  On the TPP, many observers, including Singapore's PM Lee, have said that if it doesn't happen this year, the chances of it happening at all drop significantly. And that would be a big hit to US credibility in the region.  Do you agree with that assessment and how optimistic are you that it will pass Congress this year?

A:  I remain committed to TPP because it’s a good deal—for America, for the region and for the world. TPP advances America’s economic and our strategic interests.  It would eliminate 18,000 tariffs – basically taxes -- on American products and help us sell more American exports to the Asia Pacific. It levels the playing field for our workers and helps to ensure countries abide by strong labour and environmental rules. It will help strengthen our relationships with partners like Singapore and lay the foundation for even greater cooperation in other areas. It will make sure that we’re writing the rules for trade in the 21st century.

That said, I know that the politics around trade can be very difficult—especially in an election year. There are legitimate concerns and anxieties that the forces of globalisation are leaving too many people behind—and we have to take those concerns seriously and address them. But the answer isn’t to turn inward and embrace protectionism. We can’t just walk away from trade. In a global economy where our economies and supply chains are deeply integrated, it’s not even possible.

The answer is to make sure that trade is working for our people by supporting good jobs, reducing inequality and creating more opportunity. That’s what TPP does. I’ll continue making the case for TPP, and I’m optimistic that the United States Congress will ultimately support this landmark agreement.

SOUTH CHINA SEA RULING 'LEGALLY BINDING'

Q:  The permanent court of arbitration issued its ruling on the Philippines South China Sea case on July 12. What is your administration's approach to the ruling and how will it engage on it with a Chinese government that has already indicated it does not recognise the ruling?

A:  The United States is committed to a regional order rooted in international rules and norms, including freedom of navigation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. That’s the only way to ensure our common security. We believe that big nations should not bully smaller nations, and that the sovereignty of nations must be respected. And we have long urged that disputes be resolved peacefully, including through mechanisms like international arbitration.

The Philippines made a lawful and peaceful effort to resolve their maritime claims with China using the tribunal established under the Law of the Sea Convention (Unclos). The tribunal’s ruling delivered a clear and legally binding decision on maritime claims in the South China Sea as they relate to China and the Philippines—and that ruling should be respected. We believe this decision can and should serve as an opportunity to renew efforts to address maritime claims peacefully. And we continue to urge China and other claimants to work constructively to resolve these disagreements, so that the South China Sea – which is so vital to the global economy -- can be defined by commerce and cooperation.

RULES-BASED ORDER

Q:  There is a belief in China that the US is practising double standards and double talk and that this belief is impending deeper progress in Sino-US ties. It is not a signatory to Unclos but is pushing China to respect the international law. It is beefing up military alliances with China's neighbours and conducting military operations in China's backyard but issuing alerts over Beijing's military activities or modernisation. What is your response to such views and what can future US governments in response?

A:  The United States believes that every nation should respect international law, including in the South China Sea. This is not an area where we can pick and choose. It is in the interests of all of us—the United States, China and the rest of the world—to make sure that the rules of the road are upheld. These rules and norms are part of the foundation of regional stability, and they have allowed nations across the region, including China, to grow and prosper.

The United States, therefore, works to ensure that any actions we take are consistent with international laws and norms—including those reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention. It’s worth remembering that our presence in the region is nothing new. For more than 60 years, the United States has stood by our allies and partners in the Asia Pacific. That includes our defence partnership with Singapore, which stretches back more than two decades.

Moreover, our alliances and partnerships are not directed against any nation. Rather, they are focused on protecting and defending our common security and upholding a rules-based order that undergirds the peace and prosperity of the region and the world.  In this work, we are grateful for our continued partnership with Singapore.