PM Lee hopes Trump-Xi meet will see more constructive steps, after positive G-20 summit

Mr Lee noted that if America and China do not handle their differences well, they may well be headed for a prolonged period of extensive and far-reaching tensions, frictions and difficulties.
Mr Lee noted that if America and China do not handle their differences well, they may well be headed for a prolonged period of extensive and far-reaching tensions, frictions and difficulties.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

BUENOS AIRES - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes the meeting between United States President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will enable more constructive steps to be taken and built upon to improve US-China ties.

"It doesn't mean all the problems will be solved tonight, but some constructive directions can be pointed (towards), and further steps hopefully later on can be taken," Mr Lee told Singapore media in an interview ahead of that meeting on Saturday (Dec 1).

Mr Lee noted that if America and China do not handle their differences well, they may well be headed for a prolonged period of extensive and far-reaching tensions, frictions and difficulties.

But it would not be exact to call this possible chapter a new Cold War, he said, pointing out that unlike "the Soviet Union against the rest of the world" in the past, the US and China are deeply embedded in the global economy and with each other.

"It's not possible for countries to choose sides so easily. It's not so easy for America and China to cut themselves off from one another either," Mr Lee said in the interview after the end of the Group of 20 (G-20) leaders' summit, which he attended.

Singapore was invited by Argentina to represent Asean, which it chairs this year. Singapore is also speaking on behalf of a group of small and medium-sized states known as the Global Governance Group, or 3G.

Mr Lee warned that prolonged US-China tensions would mean a more uncomfortable world and less stable region, with more uncertainty and less growth for Singapore.

"We have to be on our toes more. It means you can't just cruise along and expect that every year we will live safely and soundly and the economy will just grow," he said.

"It means you can't predict what is going to come, and we must be prepared for things to come our way, and for us to be able to react," he said.

 
 
 

Mr Lee, who chaired last month's Asean and East Asia summits in Singapore and attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) economic leaders' meeting in Papua New Guinea - both of which the US and China also attended - also gave his reading of the state of global cooperation following the G-20 meet.

The G-20 summit avoided the fate of the Apec summit a fortnight earlier when leaders failed to release a joint statement for the first time in the forum's 30 year history, over an inability to resolve differences on the wording of trade issues.

In contrast, the G-20 on Saturday afternoon released a joint statement calling for an overhaul of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), though it was somewhat defanged, as it skirted trade tensions and avoided stronger language on protectionism.

Said Mr Lee: "The countries have not moved... there has been no negotiation in the sense of positions shifting, coming together gradually, joining issues and then seeing how you can work things out.

"What there has been, after the Apec conference, is a desire to have a joint communique. It can be put in very bland terms but they did want to have a joint communique."

The G-20 negotiations therefore focused not on bringing positions together, but on agreeing on a form of words which was not objectionable to anybody, he said.

"There's some value in that, because hard words stated make it harder for countries later on to come together and to reconcile the differences, which eventually will have to be done," said Mr Lee.

In that regard, he added, the G-20 conference had been positive although difficult negotiations will still have to take place.

On reforming the WTO, which sets the rules for global trade, Mr Lee said that that while everyone agreed that the rules are not working well and need to be revised, the question is what revisions are necessary.

For instance, some may feel rules need to be changed so that big countries will follow them more. Others may feel that developed countries should have more stringent requirements and developing countries need more room for manoeuvring.

"How to change the rules becomes part of the struggle - it is in the nature of these international disagreements," said Mr Lee.

What comes next depends on the attitudes of the countries, he said, adding that the next steps could be worked out if countries treat their differences as practical trade issues to be overcome and work out trade-offs.

"You can have side deals and you can make temporary arrangements and accommodations. There are well-established mechanisms, and trade negotiators do that all the time."

"But if it goes beyond trade and the countries see this as 'he is trying to kick me down, and I am trying to make sure that I do not allow him to kick me down', then it is much more difficult," said Mr Lee.

He added: "It is not just individual personalities, but a certain climate of opinion forms in a country. In America, about China. In China, about what America wants China to do or to not do. And these climates of opinion can be very powerful and the leaders cannot go against them.

"And then of course, you have events developing a momentum of their own."