Asean wants to work with both US and China, says PM Lee, as Pence calls for Indo-Pacific free of 'empires'

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and US Vice-President Mike Pence chat during the 13th East Asian Summit in Singapore on Nov 15, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - The Indo-Pacific has no place for "empire and aggression" US Vice-President Mike Pence told Asean leaders on Thursday (Nov 15) in a pushback against China's growing presence in the region.

Facing the 10 Asean heads of states and governments at their annual summit, Mr Pence said: "Like you, we seek an Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, can prosper and thrive - secure in our sovereignty, confident in our values, and growing stronger together.

"We all agree that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific."

Standing in for President Donald Trump, who has drawn criticism for choosing to skip the meeting this year, he said: "Our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that every nation treat their neighbours with respect; they respect the sovereignty of our nations and the international rules of order."

His comments come a month after a major speech in Washington where he spoke against China's "aggression" in the East and South China Seas and criticised its use of so-called "debt diplomacy" through which Beijing has come to expand its influence over the smaller nations in Asia after giving them unsustainable infrastructure loans.

In response, the US has canvassed support for its vision of Indo-Pacific first unveiled by Mr Trump at last year's Apec summit. It is seeking to counter China's state-led trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative through channeling greater private sector investments in the region. The US has also stepped up its "freedom of navigation" exercises in the strategic South China Sea where China has militarised disputed islands in waters also contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In his intervention during the summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Asean-US partnership has to be seen in the background of the US-China relationship, stressing that the Asean nations wanted to work with both the nations.

Remote video URL

"The US-China relationship is the most important set of bilateral relations, and has profound implications to Asean," Mr Lee said.

"Asean countries want to be able to engage with both US and China, and maximise the scope and advantages of our cooperation. Therefore, we hope that the US-China relations remain stable and hope that all will work out. We are open to proposals by external partners to strengthen the existing Asean-centric regional architecture."

At the same time as Beijing and Washington have both sought more influence in the region, they have also been locked in a trade war for most of this year. Their tit-for-tat tariffs, imposed on annual trade worth US$350 billion (S$482 billion), have set off tensions across the globe and hurt growth prospects.

Mr Lee noted that Mr Pence's reiteration of a "free and open Indo-Pacific" with its fundamental principles, such as respect for Asean centrality, promoting a rules-based order, and resolving disputes in a peaceful manner, was aligned with Asean's key interests.

"We also believe that a robust, united Asean-centric regional architecture that is open, inclusive, and invites and interacts with all stakeholders, is our best chance of building a peaceful, prosperous and secure region," he said.

Separately, Mr Lee welcomed the US-North Korea summit in Singapore in June as a journey to lasting peace on a denuclearised Korean peninsula, assuring the meeting that Singapore would do its bit to fully implement obligations under the UN Security Council Resolutions.

Noting that ties had grown beyond traditional areas, such as defence, he announced that Asean-US Leaders' Statement on Cybersecurity Cooperation had been adopted. The initiative aims to strengthen the resilience and capabilities against cyber crime and cyber attacks. Mr Lee also said he looked forward to the further development of the US-Asean Smart Cities Partnership which Mr Pence said would catalyse American investment in the region's digital infrastructure, shoring up its security.

Defence establishments on both sides are set to have an Asean-US Maritime Exercise next year.

The US is Asean's third-largest trading partner, and America's investment in Asean totals almost US$274 billion, more than the US investments in China, India, Japan and South Korea combined. Trade between the US and Asean creates more than half a million jobs for Americans.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.