Perception that US is on the wane as the East rises likely to be proven wrong: PM Lee

America's challenge is to manage its relationship with China so that it becomes "a modern, great nation" in a way which is constructive, said PM Lee. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - There is a strong perception in some parts of the world, including China, that the East is rising and the West declining, and that the United States no longer has a bright future as the world is changing too fast for its system - a democracy with checks and balances.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not believe this at all, he said in a recent dialogue with the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal.

While the US is preoccupied with many problems for which it does not see a ready solution, to conclude that America is a country with no future is a "very, very rash assumption to make", he said.

"It is a bet which if proven wrong - which is very likely - is going to cost; cost in overly ambitious plans, cost in overly complacent assumptions, cost in being aggressive in ways which are going to cause a problem, not just to the US but with the rest of the world."

Even if the US is no longer the hyperpower, he added, it will still be close to the biggest economy and one of the most advanced, vibrant and dynamic economies and societies in the world, able to attract talent, generate new ideas and reinvent itself.

But he noted that this was not a universal view.

And there is not much the US can do about that perception by arguing about it.

"You can only solve that problem by progressively being seen to overcome your problems. And to be looking outwards and to be playing the part which so many countries in the Asia-Pacific would like you to play," he added.

The transcript of the dialogue on April 1, during PM Lee's visit to Washington and New York, was released by the Prime Minister's Office on Sunday (April 10).

For a long time, PM Lee said, the US had held itself out as a beacon for the world and saw that it was in its own interest to be open and to carry the obligations of being a policeman in the region.

And the stability of the region turned out to be a boon, with many US multinational corporations and citizens benefiting from being in the region and many from the region developing links and a fondness for the US, he added.

But over time, as the balance shifted with the rise of China and the development of South Korea and South-east Asian countries, a counter-narrative developed in the US questioning why it should still bear the burden of security when its share of the gains is now smaller than it used to be, he said.

While the current US administration under President Joe Biden takes a broader approach, the strategic and economic balance has shifted, and adjustments do need to be made in terms of what the other countries in the region will do, PM Lee added.

He also said that he felt the bipartisan mood on the US-China relationship was "not helpful".

While the Biden administration handles foreign policy differently from its predecessor, it has not shifted much in terms of US-China relations, noted PM Lee.

"Whether it is Democrats or Republicans, whether it is on the Hill, in the think-tanks or even in the media, a very deep sense has settled in that this is a challenger that is different. And if I do not challenge him now, when do I challenge him?" he said, responding to a question on US credibility.

"You do have credibility on that count, but I would have much preferred credibility in being able to make a commitment that even if we cannot co-habit, to at least coexist in this world. It is a coexistence for a very long time, and we do have to work together to make sure that we do not end up causing harm to one another continually."

He noted that already, there is very little trust on both sides, and it will not be easy to find the right level empowered to engage so that both powers can reach rapprochement to reduce tensions, build up trust, and work towards accommodations that are necessary for coexistence.

"In a situation where 80 per cent of the relationship is adversarial or conflictual, you cannot really segregate the remaining 20 per cent and say 'Here, I would like to win-win, cooperate on pandemics and climate change", or for that matter, trade'," added PM Lee.

Meanwhile, China treats the Pacific like a near abroad in some ways, and has intense engagements with countries in the region, he noted.

Pointing to President Xi Jinping's remarks several years ago about the Pacific being big enough for both the US and China, PM Lee said the question is whether the region is big enough for countries to be friends with both the US and China, or whether it is big enough to be split down the middle.

On this count, he noted, China has said it is quite happy for countries to be friends with both, and that it does not approve of closed, exclusive groupings.

At the same time, it has also said that regional affairs should be resolved by regional countries, even though "there are some regional issues in which countries which are not within the region have a legitimate interest", he added, citing freedom of navigation as an example.

Asked what China's intentions might be, PM Lee said he could not read President Xi's mind, but believes that the Chinese leader feels a sense of mission.

Quoting a phrase the Chinese leader had used in previous speeches about China's goals to "stand up, get rich, and get strong", PM Lee said it has already achieved the first two, and President Xi will want to accomplish the last part of the formulation.

He noted that China has just marked the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, and declared an end to extreme poverty.

For the next centenary in 2049, when China will mark 100 years as the People's Republic, "they aspire to be a modern, great nation", he added.

America's challenge, he said, is to manage its relationship with China, so that China gets there in a way that is constructive and not destabilising to the global system.

In fact, China, too, wants friends and influence, added PM Lee.

He noted that China had commissioned a study some 20 years ago of how great powers rose and fell over time, and had come to the conclusion that all the powers that rose by might of arms eventually ran into trouble.

"So, if you ask what China would like, I think they would like friends and they would like to make friends and influence people. And they have the resources and the focus, and they do so in many ways," he said.

He also said that countries in the region have a broad relationship with China and want to take advantage of the business opportunities it brings, but at the same time, they also want to retain "freedom of manoeuvre and agency in a multi-polar world".

PM Lee was also asked about Singapore's Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act, passed last year, and what countries Singapore perceived as being a threat.

He said Singapore, with its multiracial, English-speaking population and connectivity via the Internet, is very exposed to the world.

"We look very apprehensively at influence operations which have been done on the US, at other countries which have experienced similar problems, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, often pervasive, and we ask what reason we have to believe that it will not happen to us. Just look around the world," he added.

"There are any number of reasons why somebody might want to influence our attitudes and political opinions - either to push us in a certain direction or to cause differences in views amongst our population. It has happened repeatedly in our modern history."

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