SINGAPORE: In the coming days, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will embark on an official visit to the United States, where he will be hosted to a state dinner by President Barack Obama.
It will mark a significant milestone, being the first official visit to the US by a Singapore Prime Minister since Lee Kuan Yew visited Washington DC at the invitation of President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
Singapore will be the only Southeast Asian country to have its leader hosted to a state dinner during Mr Obama's term in office.
Ahead of the visit, Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan spoke with Channel NewsAsia's Nicholas Fang in an exclusive interview, during which he spoke on the timing and importance of the visit, bilateral relations and Singapore's role as a doorway to Asia.
DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS: DEEP AND ENDURING TIES
Channel NewsAsia: How would you assess the relations that we’ve had with the current Obama administration?
Dr Balakrishnan: Over the last 50 years, we’ve engaged with I think nine presidents - four Democrats, five Republicans. The key point I want to emphasise is the consistency of the relationship. There has been strong bipartisan support, there has been a deep and enduring relationship and friendship that has in a sense gone through decades.
And if you move back in time to our early independence, we were confronting gut-wrenching job losses, we were confronting militant communism. The United States was engaged in Indochina. The United States’ sacrifice in Indochina in the 1950s and 1960s really bought us time and space and political stability. It gave an opportunity for non-Communist Southeast Asia, of which we were one of the key players, time to develop our economies, attract investments, create jobs and prove that a free market, free trade model worked.
And that’s why for decades there has been this strategic alignment and I think this invitation reflects that five decades of alignment, of deep and enduring ties.
Channel NewsAsia: The visit comes at the tail end of President Obama’s final term in office and amidst geopolitical developments in the region such as tensions in the South China Sea, and China’s efforts to grow its own influence as the dominant power in Asia. What does the timing reflect in light of these developments?
Dr Balakrishnan: The timing reflects several things. First this is the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the United States and Singapore. Second, coming at the end of President Obama’s two terms, President Obama has made special efforts to engage Asia, Southeast Asia. He’s visited practically almost every single Southeast Asian country; he's made it a point to attend East Asian summits.
His engagement with Asia has been sustained. So I think that this state dinner in honour of Prime Minister Lee and Singapore, reflects the role and the consistent way in which Singapore has been a reliable partner for the United States. I think this narrative comes across very strongly.
Channel NewsAsia: And on a personal basis, President Obama and Prime Minister Lee have a very good rapport?
Dr Balakrishnan: Yes! They do, they do. Both of them are cerebral, articulate and deep thinkers. And their approach to the world is by studying things carefully, not being overreactive, and at the same time taking a strategic perspective. So at an intellectual, philosophical level they get along very well.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) and President Barack Obama (R) at a US-ASEAN meeting at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, USA.. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
A MULTI-FACETED, DEEP RELATIONSHIP
Channel NewsAsia: What impact do you think this latest development will have on Singapore’s efforts to maintain good relations with various major powers in the world that have an interest in Asia, and in Southeast Asia, for example China and Russia?
Dr Balakrishnan: We’re both proponents of free trade, we’re both signed on to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). We hope it will be ratified soon. America is one of our major trading partners. In terms of investment, America is our largest foreign investor in Singapore. If you look at education, you look at culture, you look at defence and security.
This is a multi-faceted, deep relationship and then if you project forward the things which we want to do: Smart Nation, entrepreneurship, the whole evolving field in cyber security, non-conventional threats, terrorism, counter-terrorism - there are many things we have to work closely with for the future as well.
You also have to understand this bilateral relationship on a regional basis. If you project developments over the next two, three decades, clearly, a lot is going on in the Pacific rim, the Asia Pacific area. So in a sense, America’s re-energized engagement of Asia, also is cognisant of that. With the developments going on in Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia, Singapore is a key node in Asia, and therefore the interests in us will only grow.
Now one key narrative, one key change in Asia over the past, I would say three decades, has been the rise of China. And because Singapore is such a good and close friend and investor in China, that also makes us relevant to America. Because both China and America are looking to expand their mutual circles of friends.
And if you look at states with deep understanding of both America and China, countries with long relations and with investments, trade and people-to-people exchange, Singapore appears on that radar screen; so the point I’m trying to make here is that it’s not a zero-sum game. In fact, the more that China and the United States engage with each other, the more that their trade and people and education and even in the future, security interests, engage with each other, (the more) we have a role and are relevant.
So that makes us all the more interesting, all the more worthwhile engaging and that’s a role we have played and will continue to play.
Troops from the Singapore and US armies participating at the opening ceremony of Exercise Tiger Balm (Photo: MINDEF)
Channel NewsAsia: You talked about people-to-people, finance and investment. What about the security realm and military relations as well?
Dr Balakrishnan: Well you know we’ve got long-standing defence and security ties with the United States. We have access to technology, we have detachments of the SAF, which have actually deployed for training purposes in the United States. We do joint exercises, we're engaged in counter terrorism.
We’ve played our part in the Middle East, and in Gulf of Aden, anti-piracy and the rest of it. So there’s on-going work. On a rotational basis, American combat littoral ships, American military assets rotate through Singapore. They use our facilities, so there's a very healthy, deep level of exchange, interchange, and engagement.
Then if you ask yourself well, right now, are we facing any clear and imminent dangers? Then the answer clearly, unfortunately is yes. You look at the rise of extremism, you look at terrorism, you look at non-state actors, even unconventional threats. These are all things that we face, common threats that we face. And again, another reason why we have to work closely together.
In the second part of this exclusive interview, we asked Dr Balakrishnan about the future of Singapore's relationship with the United States in view of the upcoming leadership change, as well as the city-state's role in helping the US engage Asia.