Visits to region by top US officials, including V-P Kamala Harris, are highly valued: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the virtual Aspen Security Forum on Aug 3, 2021.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the virtual Aspen Security Forum on Aug 3, 2021.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

SINGAPORE - Visits by top US leaders, such as Vice-President Kamala Harris' trip to Singapore and Vietnam in a fortnight's time, are greatly valued and show that the United States is investing the bandwidth and resources in the region, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Tuesday (Aug 3).

Such high-level visits also signal that the US has substantial stakes and interests to protect and advance, he added at the virtual Aspen Security Forum.

Mr Lee also noted the US' renewed emphasis on multilateralism and refocusing on its global network of allies and partners.

"There is a palpable sense of relief not just in the Asia-Pacific, but all round the world. Countries are looking for long-term strategic consistency from the US," he said.

"They hope for a reliable and predictable US, which will provide a stable anchor for the international order, as it has done for so many decades."

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin have visited Japan and South Korea, and Mr Austin was also in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, Mr Lee said.

PM Lee, who was the keynote speaker at the two-day forum, said the US is in the region not just to ensure regional security and a balance of power, but also to drive trade and investment, and to grow the broad trans-Pacific relationship.

"The current mood in the US is not pro-trade, but there are many new opportunities for the US to cooperate with the region, for example in digital trade and green growth. So I hope the US will pursue them, and continue to play a major role in fostering an inclusive, rules-based world order."

The White House had announced last week that Ms Harris will visit Singapore and Vietnam in August to deepen the US engagement with South-east Asia, but did not mention dates.

In his remarks, PM Lee said it was unfortunate that the Covid-19 pandemic has not brought countries closer together, but often to the contrary, even as there has been some cooperation on issues like vaccine multilateralism.

There was a scramble for critical supplies, like masks and personal protective equipment, and later vaccines, he said. "Internationally, the pandemic has spawned recriminations and finger-pointing - where did the virus come from, who is to blame, and so on. Domestically, populations in many countries felt growing anxiety and insecurity, which has fed nativist sentiments," he said.

His 50-minute session moderated by American journalist Evan Osnos touched on a variety of issues, from how US politics was viewed around the world, to the issue of Taiwan reunification, and possible areas of cooperation between China and the US.

Asked whether the reaction against globalisation will continue, PM Lee said the impact will be felt not just in physical and financial investments. The impact on the movement of people was "a very big factor in Brexit and it's not absent from any of our politics".

"And even in Singapore where we have a significant number of migrant workers as well as foreign professionals, it's a sensitive political issue. We have to put a lot of effort into managing the relations and explaining to Singaporeans why this is necessary and how the issues can be managed," he said.

"At the same time, we explain to the foreign population here that their contributions and their economic efforts are appreciated."

PM Lee also shared his views on the US-China relationship, which he said has been more difficult in the last few years. In the US, there has been a deep, bipartisan shift in attitudes towards China, which extends into the population, he said. In China, attitudes have also become more assertive and robust.

China's strategic and economic influence has grown, he added, citing its more active international stance, seeking to reshape the international order to its advantage.

"It will be hard to reverse the present trend towards more troubled relations. But many countries still hope that the deterioration in the relationship can be checked.

"Because many US friends and allies wish to preserve their extensive ties with both powers. No good outcome can arise from a conflict," he said.

"It is vital for the US and China to strive to engage each other, to head off a clash which would be disastrous for both sides, and the world," he added.

At the Aspen Security Forum, moderator Evan Osnos asked Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong about US-China ties, Taiwan and Covid-19, among other issues. Here are edited extracts.

Misunderstandings in US, China

“There is a possible misunderstanding on both sides, because in China people say the East is rising and the West is declining. Some people believe and write about it, that America is in terminal decline. I do not think so. I tell them you look at all the science and medicine Nobel Prize winners who are ethnic Chinese. All of them were either American citizens or became American citizens, except for one, who is a Chinese citizen.

There is a moral in that. America is able to attract people from all over the world, (has) great talent and vibrancy and ability to reinvent itself, and (could) pick itself up again after it appears to be heading irrevocably in the wrong direction for a long time, which sometimes happens.

On the other side, I do not know whether Americans realise what a formidable adversary they would be taking on, if they decide that China is an enemy... This is a country with enormous dynamism, energy, talent and determination to take its place in the world again...

I would say to both: Pause, think carefully before you fast forward. It is very dangerous.”

- PM Lee, on bridging misunderstandings in the US and China about each other

US position on Taiwan

“The official position this administration has taken has been a very careful one. Lloyd Austin was in Singapore recently. He was asked about this and what he said was important, although it was not very much picked up.

I quote what he said. He said two things: One, ‘no one wants to see a unilateral change in the status quo with respect to Taiwan’… Secondly, ‘the US is committed to supporting Taiwan and its capability to defend itself in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act, and the US’ one China policy’.

In other words, the US is taking the position which it has taken for several administrations. It is a careful statement. It is a statement to both sides that unilateral acts to change the status quo are not welcome, and what the US will do is carefully spelled out in terms of the limits of where you are prepared to go.

I think if that careful position is clearly and consistently maintained, then we are able to maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, which is crucial to the whole region, and I think likely crucial to your overall relationship with China too. It is something to worry about, but it is not tomorrow’s conflict. It is something over a medium term.’’

- PM Lee, in response to a question on the likelihood of a change to the status quo on Taiwan

Covid-19 remains challenging

“We are under no illusions about the challenge of Covid-19. We are almost at 70 per cent to those vaccinations, we should be there within a week or so, but I do not think 70 per cent is the endpoint, we are trying to push it higher than that.

As we get there, we plan gradually to ease up on the safe management measures that we have.

We think that a big bang is taking more risks than is necessary, but we will move incrementally, and we will see how the disease spreads. It will not go to zero, it will be in the community, the question is will it be at a bearable level, and in particular, will a minority of people, old people who are vulnerable, be sufficiently protected?

If that can be done, then we can take further cautious steps forward. But we are treating this as a public health thing and a public morale thing, explaining to people why the twists and turns happen to us, and we have to be as supple as the virus. But it is tough, and people do get tired.

- PM Lee, on how Singapore is handling the pandemic