Stable geopolitical environment needed; Xi-Biden meeting would set the tone: PM Lee

The upcoming meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Joe Biden is important to improve relations, said PM Lee Hsien Loong. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

PHNOM PENH – A stable geopolitical environment is important for the region to continue prospering, and the upcoming meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart is key to improving relations, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

The tone has to be set “right at the top”, PM Lee told journalists on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh on Sunday.

“And that means that the presidents of the two countries have to speak, be frank and lay out their cards. I think they understand what the stakes are, but to take it forward, that takes political will and wisdom on both sides.”

Asked about the planned meeting on Monday between Mr Xi and United States President Joe Biden at the Group of 20 summit in Indonesia, PM Lee said: “I hope it goes well. It’s important in order to stop the deterioration in their relations, to start to build trust, and to take steps to begin to work towards resolving the many individual issues – which are very difficult ones – between the two countries.”

Despite the heightened US-China rivalry and tumult caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the 18-country East Asia Summit saw the participation of Mr Biden, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Mr Biden signalled during the meeting that he would keep communication lines with Beijing open and ensure that US competition with China – which he stated would be vigorous – does not veer into conflict. He also said that his country would call out China’s human rights abuses.

Regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, PM Lee stressed that this had threatened stability by violating international law.

“We reiterate Asean’s desire for a swift and peaceful resolution of the conflict,” he said.

Cambodia, which is hosting this year’s Asean and East Asia summits, sidestepped these geopolitical tensions by issuing a chairman’s statement about the East Asia meeting that focused on women’s economic empowerment, strengthening energy cooperation, and promoting volunteerism for sustainable development.

“We noted with serious concern the surge and volatility of energy prices and the disruption of supply chains, due to the adverse impacts of ongoing and other military conflicts, amidst geopolitical challenges, along with the unprecedented impacts of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic on the global economy, on energy security, and the well-being and livelihoods of our people,” it said, urging the creation of a resilient and sustainable energy system.

Meanwhile, substantial negotiations to upgrade the Asean-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area were concluded – the first free trade pact Asean has upgraded since the pandemic hit.

Among the new features are commitments to work together to ensure the continued flow of essential goods during times of crisis.

Singapore has also signed a Digital Economy Partnership Agreement with New Zealand, and sealed a separate deal with Australia in October that PM Lee said would be “a pathfinder for regional cooperation in the green economy”.

“But the success of our efforts depends on a stable geopolitical and security environment,” he added.

The fact that Asean is holding its first physical leaders’ summits in three years also helped bring about resolutions on difficult issues, PM Lee noted.

The Asean and East Asia summits have been held virtually since 2020 due to the pandemic.

“That cooperation continues while you’re online. But to deal with really difficult problems, you have to meet face to face, engage, negotiate, deal, and eventually reach a settlement.

“And I think that’s been very useful this time – we’ve had to deal with issues like Myanmar, we’ve had to deal with Timor-Leste’s application to join Asean, and also we have been talking about expanding and deepening our cooperation,” said PM Lee

He was referring to the agreement that Asean has reached to move forward on a stalled peace plan for the Myanmar crisis, as well as the in-principle approval given to admit Timor-Leste into the grouping.

He added: “Unless Asean (members) can cooperate with one another effectively, we are not going to be able to maintain Asean centrality and we will not be valuable to our partners.”

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