Editorial Notes

Why the US treated Lee better than other South-east Asian leaders: The Nation

US President Trump and PM Lee during a press conference at the White House Rose Garden.
US President Trump and PM Lee during a press conference at the White House Rose Garden. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

In its editorial on Oct 28, the paper says Thailand can learn from Singapore's foreign policy nuances.

BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - There were similarities and differences in the messages coming from South-east Asian leaders during their recent visits to the White House.

All the leaders toed the line and allowed US President Donald Trump, who came to power on an "America First" policy, to frame bilateral deals as job creation for American workers. In that respect, one can say Trump got what he wanted.

As Trump and his team put a spin on the outcome of these visits by South-east Asian leaders, one glaring difference was how each of the visiting leaders was treated, not to mention the kind of political baggage they were carrying.

American media wasted little time in raising the sticky issue of legitimacy when Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was there. They pointed to the fact that the Thai leader had come to power three years ago through a military coup.

The idea wasn't so much an attempt to discredit Thailand's international standing but a criticism of the American president known to be indifferent to America's historical values and democratic principles. Who an American leader associates with - and how - matters a great deal in the United States.

To Prayut, the visit to Washington signified a stamp of approval for his administration - something that he has craved for from the very beginning of his government.

But a stamp of approval coming from a man like Trump, a real estate tycoon with a shady background, wouldn't mean much for a lot of people.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had a US$1 billion (S$1.37 billion) scandal hanging over his head but the Malaysian leader offered something that Washington needs - his cooperation in the global war on terrorism.

With Islamic State fighters returning to South-east Asia after their defeat in Syria and Iraq, there exists the dangerous possibility of these idle cells launching terrorist attacks on Western targets and interests. Washington will have to work closely with Kuala Lumpur in the fight against the extremists.

Unlike Prayut, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not go to Washington with any baggage. Lee did not have an image problem and there was no downside for Trump to worry about. There was no issue of legitimacy and Lee was democratically elected. In other words, there was no potential embarrassment.

Lee didn't shy away from sensitive issues like North Korea and China. He urged Trump to work with China, South Korea, Japan and Russia to resolve the North Korean issue. "Pressure is necessary, but so is dialogue," Lee said.

He also reminded Trump that Singapore and other countries in the region "watch your relations with China very closely" and see it as "the most important bilateral relationship in the world".

Unlike other South-east Asian leaders, Lee got to stay at Blair House and hold a joint press conference with the American leader at the Rose Garden. In short, he was given better treatment than other South-east Asian leaders.

What Singapore has understood - but Thailand hasn't - is how to balance the relationship with China and the United States. Singapore may have taken a firm stance against communism during the Cold War, but the island-nation was quick to embrace China as it opened up its country economically in the 1980s.

Today, both China and the US are Singapore's largest trading partners.

It may have been a win-win for Singapore's relationship with the two superpowers but, like Thailand, such a position will not be as simple as in the past. Beijing has become more assertive and Trump's unpredictability has made leaders around the world that much more uncomfortable.

It's a dilemma for Singapore because it relies heavily on the US for security.

"This is their dilemma. There is not a lot they can do about pulling back from America ... (But) they know full well that in the long term they have to orient towards China," said Michael Barr, associate professor of International Relations at Adelaide's Flinders University and author of  The Ruling Elite Of Singapore.

The challenge for Thailand, it seems, is not to swing so far and so fast between China and the US in a way that it loses credibility and respectability.

The Nation is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.