US, China frictions can lead to wider mistrust: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

It does not have to go that way, he says in interview with US journalist

Trade frictions between the United States and China can easily deteriorate into a wider mistrust, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview published yesterday.

He was responding to veteran American journalist Tom Plate, who had asked if the US relationship with China is going to swing back and forth, as in the past, or whether a fundamental cleavage is starting to push both countries apart.

PM Lee replied: "It does not have to go that way.

"But from the trade frictions, it can easily develop into a wider mistrust. Because now, it is not just trade, exchange or currency exchange rates, but you (the US) are also blocking their investments, more than before.

"If you do not want to run a trade deficit with them, yet you do not want to sell them what they want to buy - either companies or strategic goods - then what is the outcome?"

His remarks were published in Mr Plate's column in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post online yesterday.

DIFFERENT BUT FRIENDS

Do you (the US) conclude that the Chinese have to be like you, in order to be your friend? Or do you conclude that they do not have to be like you, yet you can still do business with them?

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on US-China ties, during an interview with veteran American journalist Tom Plate.

PM Lee also said that even as the Trump administration may have initiated trade sanctions on China, he sensed that the move has wide support in the US.

"Even Thomas Friedman feels so," he said, noting that the New York Times columnist is not a natural hawk.

"So there are people who do not have a lot of time for the Trump administration, who agree with him on this matter," he added.

Last week, President Donald Trump said he would proceed with tariffs on US$50 billion (S$67 billion) worth of Chinese imports and introduce new limits on Chinese investment in US high-tech industries, as part of a broad campaign to crack down on Chinese acquisition of US technology.

PM Lee, on whether he buys the argument that eccentric American leadership can make the Chinese look more cosmopolitan, said: "Some Chinese think so... saying this is a strategic opportunity for China as long as Trump is President... I would not be surprised if some Chinese officials might have such thoughts as well."

He told Mr Plate, who authored Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew in the Giants Of Asia series: "They (China) are thinking strategically, whereas I am not sure whether America is thinking strategically about its relationship with China, or its role in the wider world."

PM Lee also believes that binary thinking in international relations is a double-edged sword.

"Do you (the US) conclude that the Chinese have to be like you, in order to be your friend?" he asked. "Or do you conclude that they do not have to be like you, yet you can still do business with them?"

He hopes that Americans can come to the second conclusion, as "it is not necessary for you to be enemies just because you are different from them".

"They do not think less of you just because you do not have a Communist Party of the United States."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2018, with the headline 'US, China frictions can lead to wider mistrust: PM Lee'. Print Edition | Subscribe