Russia's invasion of Ukraine raises 'awkward questions' for China: PM Lee

PM Lee at a dialogue moderated by Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass on March 30, 2022. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

WASHINGTON - Russia's invasion of Ukraine has raised some "awkward questions" for China, given the attack's violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a dialogue on Wednesday (March 30).

He was asked by the dialogue's moderator, Council on Foreign Relations president and former veteran US diplomat Richard Haass, for his views on whether the Russian invasion of Ukraine had been a "sobering experience" for China.

PM Lee replied: "It violates the principles which the Chinese hold very dearly: territorial integrity and sovereignty, and non-interference.

"If you can do that to Ukraine, and if the Donbass (region) can be considered to be enclaves, and maybe republics, what about Taiwan? Or other parts of non-Han China? So, that is a very difficult question."

China stresses that Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province to be reunited with, is an internal matter of sovereignty.

It also holds a similar position when criticising Washington's positions on other controversial issues, such as Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The sanctions have also underscored how interrelated the world's economies are with one another, said PM Lee, who is in the United States on a working trip until Saturday.

"Any one of us, especially the bigger ones, can pull the house down... we are all dependent on one another," said PM Lee, citing as an example how one country may own a lot of US treasury bonds, but should Washington decide to freeze those accounts, that will have practical economic consequences.

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Conversely, the US is also economically interdependent with China, one of its biggest trading partners and a manufacturing base for many US companies, he said.

"If those links fracture, it is going to hurt you too. It doesn't mean that you won't end up in a bad spot. But it does mean that both sides know the price is very high," said PM Lee.

Singapore has strongly condemned the invasion on principle and imposed sanctions and export restrictions on Russia, but it is so far the only South-east Asian country to do so.

On Wednesday, PM Lee said he did not think that Beijing is paying a political price in the Asia-Pacific for not distancing itself from Moscow.

While countries in the region might worry about the implications on their sovereignty and the principles of the UN Charter, they also want to preserve their ties with China. Quite a few countries have significant ties with Russia as well, PM Lee added.

A journalist in the audience asked PM Lee "if the Biden administration had accepted your preferred role as Beijing whisperer".

PM Lee said with a laugh: "I am not a Beijing whisperer."

Asked if he could be, he replied: "No, we cannot. We are not part of the family.

"We are an ethnic Chinese majority country in South-east Asia - multiracial, multi-religious, with independent national interests and priorities, and they treat us as such."

He added: "And we remind them that that is so."

PM Lee was also scheduled to separately meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Wednesday afternoon.

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