Singapore-US relationship is based on strategic congruence of views, deep cooperation: PM Lee Hsien Loong

PM Lee Hsien Loong speaks with US President Donald Trump during the G-20 Summit on July 8, 2017.
PM Lee Hsien Loong speaks with US President Donald Trump during the G-20 Summit on July 8, 2017.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

SINGAPORE - Singapore has a deep and multi-faceted relationship with the United States, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes to develop it further when he visits Washington next week, he said in an interview with US news channel CNBC.

"It is a very sound relationship that is based on a basic strategic congruence of views about the world and the region, and deep cooperation over many years, in the economic sphere, trade, investments, in defence and security," he said.

The upcoming visit is also an opportunity to meet US President Donald Trump formally, as well as key officials and leaders of Congress, he noted in the interview which will air on Friday (Oct 20) and Saturday. A transcript was released on Friday.

PM Lee also hopes to underline the point that Asia is important to the US, and that the US should cultivate its relations with the region and continue to contribute to its peace and stability.

Asked if he worried about America turning inwards, he said: "We have long depended on an America which has got a clear sense of its stakes in the world and how much it depends on the world as well as how much the world and its allies and friends depend on the United States of America, and we hope this will continue."

His visit comes ahead of Mr Trump's first visit to Asia as president next month, during which he will visit Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul, and attend two key regional summits - of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) in Vietnam and Asean in the Philippines.

Asked how he would describe Mr Trump, Mr Lee said "he is confident of himself".

"There are things which he wants to do. He has a very set view of the world and of people. And we will work with him. He has been elected, he has a mandate from the American voters and he represents the United States of America," he added.

"I think every administration has a settling-in process. There is always an adjustment between what you can say during a campaign and what you find are the possibilities and imperatives when you win the election, when you enter the Oval Office. The Trump Administration is not different.

"Perhaps the adjustment is bigger in this case because President Trump represented such a radically different rethink to so many things which the American policy intelligentsia had considered to be shared conventional wisdom - but reality and forces of events press down on every president," he said.

One key campaign pledge Mr Trump has kept is to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), whose remaining 11 members have tried to press on with a version of the deal among themselves.

"We are still talking, the 11 remaining members are still discussing how we can take it forward and we hope we will be able to get somewhere," Mr Lee said.

"Many of the 11 are quite keen. The trade ministers have been meeting and Apec is coming up soon. By the time Apec comes up, perhaps there will be further developments," he added.

The TPP was a key plank of the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, and would have enhanced relations and interdependence among its members.

Nevertheless, Mr Lee noted that the volume of trade between the US and the region is substantial "and we hope that it would still be able to grow".

"Their pulling out of the TPP means that we did not conclude this deal to have a free trade agreement. It does not mean that the existing trade stops. It does not mean that the investment flows are abandoned. It does not mean that Asians are not travelling to America to work, to study and for tourism, or that Americans are not all over the region.

"These are very big stakes we have in each other and which will continue. We had hoped that with the TPP, that would have given it an extra boost. That was not to be. But we have what we have and we will find other ways to take it forward," he said.

As for whether the pact would be revisited in future, he added: "There is a tide in these affairs. If you miss the tide, you may be able to achieve the same objectives one day. It will have to be in a different form, in a completely different way."

PM Lee also hopes the US will continue to pay attention to the region because Asia has been a source of strength and prosperity for America, which has many partners and security interests here.

"It is something which I say on every visit to the US. It is a message which bears repeating because I think it is the truth, which is not going to change in the short while and which needs to be made a reminder because the US has so many other preoccupations - domestically and also internationally, in other parts of the world," he said.

PM Lee was also asked about Singapore's relations with China, following his visit to Beijing last month and the rough patch in ties before that.

"We are forward looking. We are two countries and sovereign countries, so there will always be issues where we do not completely see eye to eye. But fundamentally, there are no basic conflicts in our perspectives and we both wish to do more together bilaterally and also in the context of Asean," he said.

Singapore is chairman of Asean next year, and has been coordinating the grouping's dialogue relations with China.

"We both want to make the relationship prosper. In fact, there's a lot we are doing together. Singapore has big investments in China... The Chinese are growing their activities in Singapore, too," he said.

"With the Belt and Road, there is opportunity for them to use Singapore as a base for financing, for regional headquarters, for all sorts of activities. And I see no reason why that should not happen."

Asked about lessons from issues with China last year, PM Lee said: "We understand each other's position clearer now."

Elaborating, he added: "It is clear. But events happen, and then we react to events and then the positions have to be restated, clarified. In the case of the South China Sea, our position has always been that we are not the claimant state. We have no claims. So we do not take sides on those claims: who owns which island.

"But we do have an interest in freedom of navigation, in the rule of international law, in the peaceful resolution of disputes, and in Asean having a role in an issue which is this important in our neighbourhood. I think that bears repeating."

Asked if it was getting difficult to manage relations between the US and China, Mr Lee said this depends on how the US relationship with China develops.

"If that stays stable and good, then it is easier for Singapore. It that becomes strained or harsher, then it is harder for us."

"If there are tensions between America and China, we will be asked to pick a side. It may not be directly, but you will get the message that: We would like you to be with us and are you with us. If not, does that mean you're against us? And that is to put it gently," he said.

"We hope not to have to pick sides. We have such substantial relations with both. China is our biggest trading partner, America is somewhere near there. And very important partners in many other areas as well including security. We hope we will be able to maintain these relationships."