Ukraine conflict underscores importance of defence, principled diplomacy: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking to Singapore reporters at Lotte New York Palace Hotel in New York City on March 30, 2022. ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

NEW YORK - The conflict in Ukraine underscores the importance of Singapore ensuring its own defence, and the need for regional institutions that encourage cooperation and interdependence between countries, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (April 1).

Beyond their country building up its military capabilities, Singaporeans must also have the will to defend their home, PM Lee said in an interview with Singapore reporters at the end of his week-long working visit to the United States.

"'This is my home, I am going to fight for it if necessary and willing to die for it.' And it is that will to defend what is yours and to defend your family and friends that keeps the Ukrainians going and that Singaporeans must have, if we are going to keep ourselves safe in this world," said PM Lee.

In terms of diplomacy, Singapore can also champion forums in the Asia-Pacific to talk about difficult issues and head them off before they become impossible to manage, he said.

These include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the East Asia Summit and America's Indo-Pacific economic framework, which bring countries in the region together to expand their areas of cooperation and interdependence, he added.

"We are doing our part to encourage that, but that is something which requires many participants. And to the extent that we have influence, we try to encourage other countries to go in that direction," said PM Lee, adding that doing so was one of the reasons for his US trip.

During his visit, Singapore also signed the Artemis Accords on space cooperation, announced a new cyber-security dialogue with the US and inked agreements to deepen cooperation in infrastructure development and other areas.

The war in Ukraine - which is now in its second month - was very much on Americans' minds and came up in all his meetings, said PM Lee.

Over the course of the week, he met US President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, Cabinet secretaries, Democrat and Republican congressional leaders, and industry leaders, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

PM Lee, who departs for Singapore on Saturday, said he had sought to explain his perspectives to US leaders on Ukraine, US-China relations and other issues, including why Singapore strongly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"From our point of view, right from the beginning, we saw this as a matter of fundamental principles of upholding the UN Charter and, in particular, not violating the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of states," he said.

"That is the fundamental principle which is vital to us, because if that is up for grabs, then what is our basis for saying we are entitled to exist, and to security and to be safe in the world."

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Singapore is not choosing sides but standing up for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, said PM Lee, stressing that the Republic has consistently taken this stance over the years.

"You have to take a stand; you have to have the courage to do this. Because if you do not do this and do not stand up, where will you stand if one day you need help? And you say, 'Please come, fundamental principle is at stake'. We have to protect that principle," said PM Lee.

Singapore took a similar stance when Cambodia was attacked by Vietnam in 1978, and when the US invaded Grenada in 1983, he added.

"We voted against them at the UN," said PM Lee of the US invasion, which involved a military occupation and regime change. "(It) does not mean we are the enemy of the US, but we cannot approve of what they did; we cannot endorse or condone such violation of the sovereignty of another country."

Singapore also imposed sanctions and other export restrictions against Moscow on its own, even though it typically looks to the UN to set the pace on sanctions.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine was "such an egregious, flagrant and major violation of the international norms and with such a major consequence for the global order" that Singapore decided it had to act on sanctions without the UN, said PM Lee.

"We had to stand up and be counted," he said, noting that the UN is unable to impose sanctions because Russia, as a Security Council member, can veto them. "It is a matter of principle."

PM Lee said that Washington, which he last visited in September 2019, is thinking ahead about how to manage the Ukraine crisis, particularly in relation to its relationship with Beijing.

Describing the US-China relationship as fraught, PM Lee said that the superpowers' issues are difficult, and while communication channels exist, he is not sure whether they are up to the demanding subjects that need to be discussed.

"There is a certain continuity in basic attitudes in the US administration, in the House, in Congress, as well as in the population, because mutual trust and confidence is lacking, and that is a very difficult problem to overcome. But it is something which they are very seized with," he said.

"I hope that it will be possible to make things gradually turn in the right direction."

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