South China Sea dispute: US has to build ties first, says PM Lee

PM Lee meeting US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen in Washington, DC, on Thursday. He is currently in the US on a working visit.
PM Lee meeting US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen in Washington, DC, on Thursday. He is currently in the US on a working visit.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

The maritime disputes in the South China Sea need to be tackled as part of a broader US-China relationship, rather than as a one-dimensional, zero-sum issue, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

To that end, he said the US must first start by building an overall, substantive relationship in the region.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal editorial board in an interview in the United States this week, PM Lee outlined what he thought the US response should be to the South China Sea issue.

"I think there must be no doubt in anybody's mind that America is a Pacific power, that you have an interest in the region, that you would like a peaceful region, but at the same time, you would like international norms and laws to be observed."

It was therefore important, he said, for the US to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal and ratify the decades-old United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

PM Lee on other regional concerns

In a wide-ranging interview with The Wall Street Journal in New York this week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was also asked about terrorism, and politics in Malaysia and Thailand. Here are some of his responses.


It is a very serious problem. The community, our Muslims, are on our side. The religious leaders understand and are quite unambiguous in their stance.

But you will have people who have had something gone wrong with their world, or they may be at a teen age or have had some life crisis and they get radicalised.

Their families may be in denial and may not tell us. Or sometimes, the families do tell us, and we act on the problem quickly. ''


We will have to see where the investigations lead. I think it is premature to say anything about them. Najib is somebody whom we have known a long time and worked with and been able to do business with, and we have a very constructive relationship with him and his government, and we hope that that will continue.


When you have an election, you never know how things will turn out until the ballot boxes open. The basis of politics in Malaysia has always been race, and religion has been a much bigger factor, Islam has become a much bigger factor over the years, and I think that will continue.

I do not know how the next election will turn out. In the last several elections, there have been surprises, but if you do not have a basis for governing Malaysia which will maintain social stability and racial harmony under Malaysian rules, that will mean a lot of uncertainty for them and undoubtedly impact on us.


They are in transition, they are anxiously watching the succession to a new monarch in due course and wondering how the system will work with a new monarch in place, having gotten used to a very dominant and revered figure over the last 60-something years.

It is a country which has a very difficult problem to solve because if you go purely on, how shall we put it, parliamentary democracy rules, like you would in Britain, it probably is not governable because the elite will not feel themselves part of this.

And if you just work on the basis of the elite being in charge and chuck the parliamentary rules out of the window, in this day and age, you will find it very difficult to run a modern economy and society.

How do you find the right balance which is going to be workable in such a society?

You may call it 'backsliding', you can say it is not according to the norms which prevail internationally, but they have got to find a solution which works for Thailand, and that is very hard.


"Without the interest in a broad range of mutual cooperation, America is just another country which has some claim or some assertion," he said. And once the relationship is built, the US would be better placed to deal with the South China Sea.

"You are in a position to say, 'I am here, I have an overall relationship with China, we have issues, we have cooperation, but we also have things which we need to discuss'."

Washington and Beijing have been at odds on the matter for years, with the US frequently chiding China over what it sees as its bullying of countries in the region. China, in turn, accuses the US of having double standards and interfering with Chinese national interests.

And while there have been attempts to stress the broader cooperation between the two sides, thorny issues such as cyber security and the South China Sea often overshadow meetings.

During the broad-ranging interview with the US newspaper, Mr Lee was also asked for his views on Chinese politics and President Xi Jinping's leadership.

Mr Lee said that though Chinese influence is growing rapidly, the country remains conscious of the issues it has.

"I am not sure that they are feeling triumphant. I think they are feeling anxious that there are so many relationships in the region which are yet to be fully consolidated. They like people to be their friends, but they know that that takes time."

And despite the challenges, he believes the Xi regime is stable.

"I do not think he has a challenger. I think he has a lot of personal popularity... They have problems, but they are working at it. They understand the problems even though they may not be able to overcome them quickly."

He also dismissed the suggestion that the Chinese leader was setting up a cult of personality.

"That is a pejorative, a normative statement, but I think he is putting himself front and centre because he thinks it will help him to get what he needs done, done. And he does have a personality and he is projecting it. You find it strange because several of his predecessors did not have any personalities publicly projected."

Jeremy Au Yong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 02, 2016, with the headline 'Sea spat: US 'has to build ties first''. Print Edition | Subscribe