Stefan Kornelius

Territorial disputes can be set aside: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke on the rise of China, rivalries in South-east Asia and the pragmatism with which a small country secures its influence in an interview with German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung during his visit to Berlin this week. Here is an edited translation.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin on Feb 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing a news conference at the Chancellery in Berlin on Feb 3, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Lee Hsien Loong is Prime Minister of a small country with a big name and influence that should not be underestimated. The city-state Singapore with its 5.4 million inhabitants might seem tiny next to the major Asian powers. But as a traditional trade and transfer hub with excellent relations to all regions in the world and with Western thinking prevalent among its political elite, Singapore has always been arbiter, interpreter, and a microcosm for European and American projections of South-east Asia.

Mr Lee, 62 years old and Prime Minister for 10 1/2 years, went to school in the West and rose to the state's pinnacle after a long military and political career. It was certainly no obstacle that his father and Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew turned the city-state into what it is today: A multi-ethnic small state with a good track record for integration, led with a firm hand, governed de facto by one party, strictly geared towards increasing prosperity, and friends with both China and the United States.

During his visit to Berlin, Mr Lee emphasises in an interview with Sueddeutsche Zeitung that this traditional role of balancing between major players is not just part of Singapore's central political understanding but also of most other South-east Asian states. "Everyone in the region wants to make friends with China and gain from the opportunities from its rise," says Mr Lee. "But at the same time, they would like the region to be open, to be stable and to maintain the relationship with Europe, America and the rest of the world."

The economic boom in China and its neighbouring states has given rise to a certain understanding of realpolitik which Mr Lee can easily describe: "It is not just a power matter; it is also a matter about your reputation internationally." With a view to China, he asks: "What image would you like the world to have of you?" According to him, it is impossible to understand day-to-day skirmishes without a long-term perspective: "The US is still a major player in the Pacific but it is not the only one. It is not the number of ships that is decisive but whether the US positively and constructively maintains its relations to the states in question. We do not want to choose between China and the US."

Mr Lee nevertheless does not deny that tensions between South-east Asian states have grown - especially due to unresolved territorial claims in the South China Sea and questions of maritime sovereignty. His typical pragmatism becomes apparent when he states that: "China with more resources and wealth, can become more assertive in defending and advancing its sense of its rights and what it is entitled to. Nationalism plays a role in China and other countries in the region. If disputes are burdened by nationalism, and also loaded with a historical dimension, then it is impossible to solve them. But disputes can be set aside. The parties involved can agree not to settle this, but you move on and try to keep the relationship on an even, practical and constructive level."

Setting aside problems and benefiting from one another: Mr Lee never tires of referring to the long historical dimension with which Asian states and especially China tackle their day-to-day problems. According to him, territorial disputes can never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. "No one can produce documents that can prove a historically indisputable ownership claim. All you can say is, there were fishermen or sailing junks that were in this area, and human beings who have been living in this part of the world for thousands of years. All you can do is agree to disagree, and manage the disagreement so that you do not accidentally have two boats colliding or two aeroplanes crashing or exchange of fire and events spiral out of control. It is not a good basis for discussion when someone says: 'What belongs to me belongs to me'."

Since last year, the dispute about the various archipelagos and seafaring rights in the South China Sea has been pending before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg. The Philippines is pushing for clarification. The subject of the proceedings is China's claim to exercise not just commercial rights such as fishing but also other sovereign rights within a 200-mile zone. If, for example, China were to make use of these rights and prevent merchant ships from passing through, this could considerably limit international maritime transport and provoke massive tensions in the much-frequented South China Sea.

Singapore, which is situated between the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca, and as a trading nation depends on the routes being kept open, takes a clear stance: "Freedom of navigation is crucial, it is a very serious issue," Prime Minister Lee remarks. "No one knows exactly what the Chinese claim. Two hundred miles, the Nine-Dash Line or island territories: I suspect it would be disadvantageous for them to spell out exactly the basis of their claims. So they would just claim and assert what they have drawn on their maps."

Mr Lee suspects that the maritime tribunal in Hamburg will not be able to resolve the conflict either. China questions its authority even though the Chinese ratified the United Nations convention which forms the basis of maritime law. For Mr Lee, this is "taking a big-power position: What I assert is mine and I will continue asserting it's mine".

The Asean group of states is working on a binding code of conduct which would at least regulate actual interaction between the parties in the areas of tension. "This will take time," the Prime Minister believes. However, he also makes it unmistakably clear that the disputes are not caused by territorial claims but chiefly by a demonstration of assertiveness.

Japan's role in region

MR LEE, however, takes a different stance when it comes to Japan's role in the region which, according to him, is primarily shaped by a heavy historical burden. Tensions between China and Japan about the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are the expression of profound historical resentment, he says. When asked whether China and Japan should try to find a common view of history, Mr Lee laughs out loud. "This is impossible. On one side, nothing has been forgotten and, on the other, nothing is remembered." According to him, more than one generation of young Japanese has grown up without knowing all the bad things that were done by the Japanese military government, as well as their soldiers all over China and Asia, while the Chinese government practically cultivates the image of Japan as an occupying force. "Now there is a new generation in the Japanese government which wants Japan to be a normal country without wanting to assume responsibility (for the past)." The German way of coming to terms with its past is "unimaginable" in Japan, he says.

Mr Lee, however, shows understanding for Japan's attempt to counterbalance China's influence in the region. "From an economic point of view, they will be able to do so and definitely with regard to technology. But when it comes to the projection of power, they will not be able to compete with China. If Japan wants to have more influence, then this would only be possible in a way that does not evoke old fears. They have not yet reached that point."

The Prime Minister calls on Germany and the European Union (EU) to play a more active role in the region. While there are 1,400 German companies in Singapore, Mr Lee always perceives a certain hesitation in European investors. A good example of such hesitation is the EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement which could still be brought before the European Court of Justice and had introduced the Prime Minister to the subtleties of European bureaucracy.

Mr Lee also demonstrates political pragmatism when it comes to European issues of war and peace. He is clear about Russia's historical sphere of influence in Ukraine and accuses the EU of ignoring the Maidan Revolution's repercussions. "You may not like Mr (Vladimir) Putin's style, but these are geostrategic realities" which, however, must be balanced by questions of territorial integrity, he says. "Countries cannot go round annexing other countries."