SINGAPORE - Seeing the war in Ukraine as a battle between democracies and autocracies complicates the problem, and automatically puts Beijing in the wrong camp, making it untenable for China to denounce Russia, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.
If the conflict is instead defined as one about sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, "even China would not object to that, and would actually privately strongly support that", he said in a dialogue with The Wall Street Journal editorial board in New York on April 1.
The transcript of PM Lee's session, which took place during his visit to the United States two weeks ago, was released by his office on Sunday (April 10).
China's refusal to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and its signing of a "no limits" friendship pact with Russia three weeks before the attack, has come under strong criticism from the West.
PM Lee said: "America asks why China does not stand with it. You have to be very careful not to define the problem with Ukraine in such a way that automatically, China is already on the wrong side, for example, by making this a battle of democracies against autocracies."
He added: "If you say it is democracies versus Putin's autocracy, I think that already is difficult. If you say democracies versus autocracies - plural - that already defines China into the wrong camp, and makes things even more difficult."
He said the fact is that the war in Ukraine is something that many countries do not support.
"We all have a problem in Ukraine. I think if we talk about sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, a lot of countries can come along," he added.
Singapore, for one, has stood up for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity every time the subject has come up in the United Nations, he said.
For a small country, it is an existential issue, PM Lee reiterated, citing past instances when Singapore had also taken a principled stance, such as when the US invaded Grenada in 1983 and Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978.
Outlining why Singapore imposed sanctions against Russia unilaterally, he said: "Mostly, we have not acted independently of the UN's decisions, and we follow whatever sanctions or decisions that UNSC (UN Security Council) comes up with.
"But from time to time, the UNSC is paralysed, like here. And in this case, it is such a big and egregious violation of international norms that we decided we had to act on our own, UNSC or not."
PM Lee also said that what has happened in Ukraine has implications for the way events develop in Asia, which could reshape the security architecture in the region.
He noted that some "rash people" have talked about a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato)-type situation developing in Asia.
But Asia is different, he cautioned. "How do we handle it so that in Asia, we have the right institutions in the long term, that we are able to develop mutual interest and interdependence across potentially hostile lines and prevent a fracture?"
He said countries are calculating their own responses and what Ukraine means for them, in terms of who will come to their help, and what the prospects are of something hotting up, for example, on Taiwan.
"My own take is that Ukraine does not influence Taiwan's prospects greatly one way or the other, that has its own dynamics and historical frame," he added.
Turning to Japan and South Korea, he noted that the topic of building their own nuclear capabilities has been broached.
Asked if nuclear proliferation might be a deterrent and a stabilising force, PM Lee said one could make an argument of that, "but in real life, a lot of accidents can happen, and people are not necessarily rational even on the most existential things".
He said that as the number of nuclear players proliferate, there was no guarantee that they would all understand the nuances of mutual assured destruction (MAD) - the doctrine based on the deterrent notion that a nuclear attack would be met with a counterattack that could annihilate both sides.
"I do not think Kim Jong Un is crazy; he certainly does not want to commit suicide," he said, referring to the North Korean leader.
"But supposing nuclear weapons proliferate in the Middle East, are you sure that those restraints will apply? And even in North-east Asia, even with restraints, are you sure that accidents will not happen?"
PM Lee noted that during the Cold War, there were times when nuclear powers came far closer than people knew, or than they wanted to, to catastrophic accidents.
He cited the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the US and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war over the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles in Cuba, as well as the Able Archer military exercise in 1983 by Nato forces, which saw both sides come to the brink of a nuclear war, and "could easily have ended up in sudden devastating grief".
"So, I really do not think proliferation is a good idea, but it will be very hard to prevent. All you can hope to do is to slow it down," he added.
Best to keep regional architecture open, flexible
The Ukraine war has also placed attention on the regional security architecture, and PM Lee thinks it is best to retain a certain flexibility to it.
He noted that while some Asia-Pacific countries are allies of the US, like Japan, South Korea and Australia, there are others which are not allies but have security cooperation that has gone on for a long time, like Singapore.
"Singapore and the US cooperate closely, we think it is good that you are participating in the region, but that does not mean we fight your wars or that we are expecting you to ride to our rescue should something happen to us," he said.
"There is a certain flexibility to it, I think it is best to keep it like that, because the countries in the region, we are not lined up eyeball to eyeball. I have my friends, you have your friends, and we both have some friends in common, and we both do business with one another, a lot of business with one another," he added.
"The architecture we want for the region is structures which will bring the region together and make you pause a little bit longer before deciding to go for an extreme solution."
At the dialogue with The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, he noted that China engages the region through many economic and other schemes.
China has free trade agreements with Singapore and Asean, and is part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. It has also applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Noting that the US had been part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) - which was renamed and renegotiated after the US withdrew - PM Lee said that was one avenue through which the US could have "one big chip on the table" and deepen its engagement in the region.
"You left the door open, and somebody else is now knocking on the door," he said.
He noted that China first saw the pact as a threat and denounced it as a devious plot, then later studied it and broached the topic of joining the pact, with the US at a very senior level, but still did not do so.
Then after the US entered into the Aukus security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom, China applied to join the CPTPP.
For the US to say that the region should reject China's engagement is wrong, said PM Lee.
"It is not just unrealistic, it is wrong. We do want China to engage, but we want to engage it in such a way that it is not the only partner, and we would like the United States, we would like Europe as well," he added.
He noted that the US administration under President Joe Biden understands the importance of improving market access and deepening economic relationship with the region, and has talked about creating the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
He said the way the TPP was negotiated by the US was "if I may interpret an intention, specifically to make the rules so strict that it would be difficult for certain other countries to participate".
This should not be the case with the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, he added.
"Begin to have that conversation, begin to get countries together on this, and do it in a way which is inclusive, meaning this is not something which is meant to be 'everyone but China', this is 'various countries for the time being not yet including China'. China will not be part of it soon, but one day it can happen."
Europe has also declared its strategic interest in the Far East, and the British and French have both sailed out their aircraft carriers in the region, he noted, adding that this is welcomed.
Ultimately, these different layers of engagement are important, PM Lee said.
"But you want to have an overlapping and constructive engagement in the region, so that you do not have a front line and the need to say 'well, this one is my buffer state'. A few states are a bit like that, like North Korea, and maybe some of the Indo-Chinese countries, not all," he added.
"But by and large, the countries in the region since the war have been your friends, some of them your allies, and that has not been a threat to anybody and long may that remain so."