Possible for countries to have relations with US and China and to work with both: PM Lee

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At the 27th International Conference on the Future of Asia on Thursday, 26 May 2022, PM Lee was asked by Shigesaburo Okumura, Editor-in-chief of The Nikkei Asia how was going to build relations with the two major powers – US and China – in terms of economy, diplomacy and security? 

The editor-in-chief noted that joined the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework) and Singapore also agreed to China’s joining of the TPP. 

Shigesaburo Okumura, Editor-in-chief of The Nikkei Asia:

You mentioned in your presentation that you prefer not to be forced to choose between the United States and China, (the choice) should not be imposed. I think that is the right opinion. 

However, realistically, the United States (uses) the words either democracy or autocracies that is a bifurcation, a choice between the two. How is going to build relations with those two major powers in terms of economy, diplomacy and security? I would like to have your view on that.

PM Lee Hsien Loong:

It is a very difficult balance, but it is something which we have tried to do for a long time, and I think many countries in Asia are also trying to do.

You talk about supporting China joining the TPP, but at the same time we have joined the IPEF. Japan has joined the IPEF but Japan has also joined the RCEP – Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – in which China is a member. We think that is the better approach, that it is possible for countries to have relations with America, to have relations with China, and to work with both. 

You may be closer to one than to the other. In the case of Japan, you have the US-Japan partnership, your treaty with the US. We do not have a treaty with the US but we are a major security cooperation partner with the US. At the same time, we have a lot of cooperation with China. I think both sides understand that when we speak up, we speak up for Singapore, we are not speaking on behalf of the US or on behalf of China, but for Singapore. If from time to time we disagree with one party or the other, it is because Singapore’s interests and principles are at stake. I think that is a sustainable basis on which to work.

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You mentioned the US talking about democracies against autocracies as a frame for how they see the battle in Ukraine. We do not see it like that. We do not think that is helpful because if you take that view, then you are already defining China to be on the other side together with Russia, opposed to the United States. If you want to solve the Ukraine problem, and you do not want to worsen difficulties in the Asia Pacific region, then I do not think it is helpful right from the start to toss the US-China relationship into the mix, by saying this is democracies versus autocracies. 

We see it, in Ukraine, as an issue of international rules, international law, the UN Charter, independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity of nations, which should be inviolate, and which have been violated by Russia and therefore we have stood up to oppose it strongly. We have voted for the motion in the General Assembly in the UN, and we have also imposed certain sanctions targeted on Russia and its financial institutions in order to hinder them from pursuing the war in Ukraine. I think that is a principled position which many countries will be able to accept to varying degrees. I think it is a wiser way to deal with conflicts which are going to arise from time to time.

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