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Next 20 years present a 'historic opportunity' for Asia: PM Lee

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paints two scenarios the region could face over next two decades - one of peace and prosperity, another marked by tension and dispute.

TOKYO: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (May 22) painted two possible scenarios Asia faces over the next two decades: One of a region at peace, with countries working together to advance shared interests, and another of a fractious Asia marked by territorial disputes and protectionism.

Speaking at the Nikkei Conference in Tokyo, Mr Lee highlighted how the interactions of three key countries – US, China and Japan – over the next 20 years will shape the future of the Asia-Pacific.

The US will remain the world’s pre-eminent superpower in 2034, Mr Lee said, while Japan "will still be one of the world’s largest economies, with great strengths in science and technology". But "the biggest change for Asia in the next 20 years will be the growth of China’s power and influence", he said.

SCENARIO 1: A PEACEFUL, INTEGRATED ASIA

The new strategic landscape in Asia will depend on how the three nations interact with one another, said the Singapore Prime Minister. Should the US and China relationship strengthen and the Japanese economy recover its confidence, the region will reap the benefits of peace and stability.

"One scenario is that Asia remains at peace, with countries working together to advance shared interests, while competing peacefully with one another," he said.

"A stable strategic environment will help foster regional economic cooperation. Greater economic interdependence will raise standards of living for all, and contribute to a peaceful region in a virtuous cycle."

In this scenario, members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) will be able to "deepen their cooperation and integration" and remain "an effective neutral platform for major powers to engage one another".

SCENARIO 2: A RIVEN, FRACTIOUS ASIA

However, should the rapid growth of China force an imbalance in the region and in the US-China pivot, Asia "will be contemplating another, less benign scenario", one marked by territorial disputes and nationalist populism, Mr Lee said, citing maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas as well as the recent anti-China protests in Vietnam as examples.

In this scenario, ASEAN nations will be forced to choose sides, with South-East Asia becoming "a proxy battleground" for friction between the superpowers, he said.

"Such a strategic climate inevitably sets back economic integration. There are more trade disputes and currency wars and tit-for-tat protectionism. The result is less shared interest in one another’s success, more frictions and disputes, and fewer restraints on countries when things go wrong," he told the audience in Tokyo.

"Everyone loses in such a scenario."

KEY FACTORS

Two critical factors will play a large part in determining the region's fate over the next two decades, he said. First, US-China relations - "the most important bilateral relationship in the world", but one which can easily spiral out of control should a flashpoint escalate into violence.

Second, the uncertainty over the Korean peninsula. "Quite possibly the status quo will prevail, with repeated brinksmanship and occasional tensions, but hopefully no war. Even in the absence of a war, failure to denuclearise the Korean peninsula poses a continuing risk."

Mr Lee concluded his speech by calling the next 20 years a "historic opportunity" for Asia.

"I have described these uncertainties and scenarios vividly, to help us visualise how things could turn out. I am not predicting what will happen, but describing what may happen.

"Whatever the forces driving the politics and policies of each country, ultimately we share a common interest in peace and prosperity in Asia. All stakeholders big and small have a responsibility to make this vision come true."

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