PM Lee hopes US President-elect Biden will come up with framework for 'constructive' US-China ties

PM Lee Hsien Loong (right) speaks to Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait (left) in an interview which airs on Nov 17, 2020. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - Asia - and especially China - is an important part of the world for America, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday (Nov 17), expressing his hope that US President-elect Joe Biden will develop a framework for an overall constructive relationship with China.

This means a relationship in which the United States and China remain in competition with issues to resolve, but ultimately do not want to collide and will work to develop areas of common interests while constraining the areas of disagreement, he said at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum.

Within this framework, topics such as trade, security, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and the issue of North Korea can be dealt with, he added.

The Prime Minister also expressed the hope that the World Trade Organisation, under the Biden administration, will no longer be "deliberately pushed to one side" in the way it has been under the Trump administration.

Countries may quarrel over many things, but they should try to "insulate" trade because trade disputes hurt all parties involved, he said. "The more countries avoid doing that, the more it will be credible when they say we believe in multilateral trade, and they believe in win-win development and cooperation with our neighbours."

PM Lee was speaking to Bloomberg News editor-in-chief John Micklethwait in a wide-ranging interview that touched on such topics as US-China relations, the global race to secure a Covid-19 vaccine, and Singapore's own handling of the pandemic.

Mr Lee was asked if President Donald Trump has done "permanent damage" to the way the United States is viewed in the region.

There will be some long-term impact on perspectives on America, as well as how America views itself, he replied. Although the shift in perspective did not start with Mr Trump, it has become more evident in the last four years.

"When you talk about putting America first and making America great again, it is a more narrow definition of where America's interests lie than has hitherto been the way US administrations have seen things," Mr Lee said.

Remote video URL

Previous administrations took a broad interest in the stability of the region and the well-being of its partners, he noted. It tended its alliances, fostering an orderly environment in which countries could prosper and subjecting itself to the same rules.

"It will take some time for America to come back to such a position, and for others to be convinced that it is taking such a position," the PM said. "It may never come back all the way, certainly in the short term and certainly in terms of its relationship with China."

But he also noted Mr Biden knows Chinese President Xi Jinping very well for they have spent many hours together when they visited each other's countries. "That personal engagement at the top is important," he said, when asked how Mr Biden might deal with China on issues like human rights.

"Equally important is how each country sees the other and the intentions of the other, and whether they see the possibility of being able to work together to mitigate the inevitable contradictions which are going to arise between them."

The Chinese, for their part, do not want a collision with America. But at the same time, Mr Lee said, "I am not sure that they are prepared to give a lot of ground."

Remote video URL

China is likely to hold the view that its growing affluence and power has resulted in a win-win situation for the world, he said. "Things have gotten better, yet many countries do feel that things do need to be adjusted. That adjustment will be very difficult to make."

On Mr Biden's pledge to convene a global summit of democracies in the first year of his presidency, Mr Lee said most countries want to work with the US but few would be willing to join a coalition that excludes players like China.

All countries should be involved in working out adjustments to the world order, he said. In the process, alliances will form and cooperation take place. "But to try and make a line-up, Cold War-style, I do not think that is on the cards."

PM Lee also spoke on two major trade agreements - the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the recently-signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

The CPTPP involved a relatively small number of economies, and went for deep agreement requiring substantial commitments from all parties involved, he noted.

In comparison, he said the RCEP trade pact is a "different animal, for a different purpose" - not as deep, but still a significant step towards reducing trade barriers.

Asked if America will rejoin the CPTPP, Mr Lee replied that this is not likely to happen anytime soon.

"The stars are not aligned," he said. "I still think that it makes sense for the US, but it has to make domestic political sense as well. That will take time and a different alignment of the economic situation as well as the political configuration in the US."

On regional blocs and technological bifurcation, Mr Micklethwait noted Singapore has "finessed Huawei quite elegantly" in giving it some access to the 5G network in Singapore. Mobile network operator TPG Telecom has said it will use Huawei's network equipment to deploy 5G services, although the bigger players - Singtel, Starhub and M1 - are partnering with Ericsson and Nokia.

Mr Lee disagreed, saying Singapore did what made sense for it. Singapore made clear its stringent security requirements first and then invited mobile operators to bid. Each operator made its own calculations and decided which 5G network provider to partner with, he said.

Every system has its vulnerabilities, deliberate or not, and absolute security is not possible, the PM added. "We have to be practical about it. We will do what we can, and we will use the systems for the risks and purposes which suit them."

On whether Mr Biden could reach out to Asia when he becomes president, Mr Lee said it is a possibility, but Asia will be just one of the Biden administration's many priorities. He also said the domestic forces represented by Mr Trump persist, and will have to be dealt with.

"I hope that it will be a new direction for America, but do not forget that Mr Trump collected more votes than Barack Obama," he said, referencing the former US President.

PM Lee added of Mr Trump: "He has not disappeared, nor the pressures which he represented, they have not disappeared from America's body politic either."

At the same time, China has come to realise that having an America that is "at sixes and sevens" is not much to their advantage, the PM added.

"It is better to have somebody there who may not fully agree with you, but understand his interest in a broad way and whom you can deal with. With Biden, maybe they will decide that they want a new try. I hope so. It is not easy to do this."

Mr Lee was also asked for his thoughts on Hong Kong, where pro-democracy lawmakers resigned en masse earlier this month after Beijing ousted four of their colleagues.

He noted that the Chinese government has settled on a formulation in which it makes legislation to be carried out by the Hong Kong administration. He expressed his hope that this can be done in a way that does not shake confidence and keeps Hong Kong's system intact.

"It will not go back to where it was, but something which is sustainable, which will enable the Hong Kong people to live stably and have the economy working, and have a greater degree of the freedoms and access to information and expression than pertains on the other side of 'One Country, Two Systems'," he said.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.