Shangri-La Dialogue: South-east Asia no stranger to rivalry between world powers, says Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong takes part in a question-and-answer session after delivering his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on May 31, 2019.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong takes part in a question-and-answer session after delivering his keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue on May 31, 2019.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

South-east Asia is no stranger to the great game of nations, starting from the days Singapore became a trading outpost for the British in 1819 until the Cold War in the 20th century, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last night.

In recounting the region's last 200 years to his audience at the Shangri-La Dialogue, he offered a historical perspective of the current strategic situation between the United States and China.

Now, the world is at a turning point, globalisation is under siege and tensions between the US and China are growing, he said.

"Like everyone else, we in Singapore are anxious. We wonder what the future holds, and how countries can collectively find a way forward to maintain peace and prosperity in the world."

Singapore's destiny was changed when Sir Stamford Raffles founded a port here. The Dutch had already colonised the Dutch East Indies and protected their trade monopoly. "Raffles took a different approach," said PM Lee. "He set up Singapore as a free port. Trade boomed and the settlement prospered. The more open approach of the British delivered superior results."

Over the next century, South-east Asia was fought over by colonial powers in an intense rivalry.

In the 20th century, the interests of big powers continued to intersect in the region. After imperial Japan invaded French Indochina in 1941, the US retaliated with an oil embargo on Japan, triggering the Pacific War.

 
 
 
 

"There followed for us the Japanese Occupation: Three years and eight months of oppression, fear and misery," said PM Lee.

During the Cold War years later, the region was split between communist and non-communist states. China supported communist insurgencies and promoted armed revolution in non-communist countries such as Singapore.

Amid the turmoil, the five non-communist countries in the region - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand - came together to form Asean in 1967 in a "remarkable act of statesmanship" despite some member states having a history of conflict, said PM Lee.

"But with Asean, the five countries eschewed conflict and took the path of dialogue, cooperation and friendship," he added.

Integrating into the world economy and linking up with advanced countries, Asean member states thrived, while their communist neighbours were held back by wars and the rigidity of their command economies, said PM Lee.

With the end of the Cold War, the US became the sole superpower. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar opened up.

The US was a stabilising security presence as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific, said PM Lee.

"International trade was expanding rapidly. Trade barriers came down, often led by the US. The Asean economies prospered through export-led growth and foreign investments," he said. International frameworks established rules and managed conflict between countries big and small.

While playing a minor role at first, China became a growing partner of the Asean countries as its economy took off and a major participant in regional affairs.

Against this historical backdrop, PM Lee said: "The US-China bilateral relationship is the most important in the world today. How the two work out their tensions and frictions will define the international environment for decades to come."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2019, with the headline 'South-east Asia no stranger to rivalry between world powers'. Print Edition | Subscribe