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PM Lee: I am sure the US will bounce back

Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong touched on a broad range of topics - including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and American foreign policy - in an interview with Politico Magazine editor Susan Glasser.

WASHINGTON, DC: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on a broad range of topics - including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and American foreign policy - in an interview with Politico Magazine editor Susan Glasser on June 25, when he was on a working visit to the United States.

The full transcript of the interview is as follows:

Glasser: Thank you very much, Mr Prime Minister. I really appreciate your time today and I am looking forward to our conversation. I am going to jump right into Washington and you called it yesterday, the rebalancing towards Asia that the Obama Administration has announced with much fanfare but has not always had the easiest of time actually turning from strategic goal into reality. Just this week, of course, we have these events in Iraq, we have this incredible tension in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine distracting the President, the Vice-President . It seems like we are in a crisis-a-day mode, never mind Afghanistan. Do you feel out of sync coming to Washington? What is the message about Asia that you are bringing?

PM Lee: Well, the message is you are a superpower, you have far-flung concerns and interests all around the world, but Asia is vital to you and you are a Pacific power. You have always been and will always be, and amidst tending all the other issues, please bear in mind that in Asia, you have interests, you have friends, you have investments and you have to pay due attention to it in terms of resources, in terms of mindshare and in terms of explanation to the public, to the population why this is important and how it can make a difference to America.

Glasser: But is it really a strategic pivot? I guess that is sort of the big question, is it not? How is it possible, given all the crises in the world, the US’ unique role? The struggles of the last few years are sort of a good reminder of our difficulty in taking a long strategic view of the world.

PM Lee: You have issues all over the world but that does not mean you are completely equally distributed in all directions. In Asia, you may or may not have hot things going on at any one time. There are some hot issues too. North Korea can become hot, territorial disputes, the island disputes have warmed up significantly over the last couple of years. But there are also long-term secular crucial trends which are going to change the world. China is developing. Its influence is growing in the world. It is already one of the biggest economies.

The other countries in Asia are also linking up, cooperating with one another more, trading with one another more, developing a framework for international relations within Asia and America has to be part of this. If you are not part of this, I think you are going to find many of your interests will be affected and maybe even compromised.

Glasser: Some people have even talked of a sort of neo-isolationist strain within American politics over the last few years, people in both American political parties being tired of the burden, if you will, of global leadership. Do you find yourself having to make the case when you go up to Capitol Hill on your visit here in Washington, that America should even still be engaged?

PM Lee: Well, I think there is a mood like that in America. You talk about it; it is all over your media, your opinion polls show it and your Congressmen and Senators have to reflect this mood because they have to be in sync with the population. But America has been through these ups and downs before. After Vietnam, you had a period of withdrawal and being tired of the sacrifices and the pain and difficulties of the world, but you bounced back and I am quite sure you will bounce back this time. What I am trying to do is to register with people who are interested and who count that it is unavoidable that you are feeling how you feel now but you have to move on beyond that and the sooner you can come out from this mood, the better it is for America.

Glasser: Although if you look at our political calendar, unfortunately, it suggests that we might spend the next few years talking more in the other direction. I know you are here to talk to people about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and trade, for example, as we move closer and closer towards an American presidential election season, but unfortunately…?

PM Lee: Well, you have always got some election on the horizon. It is either the presidential election or the midterms and so you have got to try and time your non-election moves in the windows which are available where people can focus their minds and you can get policy pushed through and the TPP is one very important piece of it. The Administration has made it very clear it is one of their top priorities in Asia to get the TPP negotiated, agreed and then ratified and we have to leave it in their good hands to decide what the best timing is in your electoral calendar.

Glasser: What is your sense, having been here for a few days and talking with people, what is your best sense at the moment of the political prospects for the TPP and also in terms of the negotiations? I know negotiations will resume next week, I believe, in Canada.

PM Lee: The negotiations will continue. They have made a lot of progress, so these are the last few steps. There are some difficult issues yet to be resolved. I think the Japanese particularly have got some sacred subjects which have to be talked about, beef, sugar, dairy products, rice, pork.

Glasser: The full dinner menu?

PM Lee: Well, yes, but there are other things in life apart from dinner and we have made progress on those. I am hopeful that the agreement can be settled this year. I think everybody is trying hard and I know the Japanese do want to settle. Then it has to be ratified. I do not have a feel for whether it can be. I am told that people think that in the House, they would be able to have the votes. In the Senate, well, it depends on the Senate leadership and it depends who the Senate leadership is because your mid-terms are coming and after that, well, you are not quite sure what the composition will be. So we will have to see.

Glasser: Would a Republican Senate be better? Historically, it is certainly better.

PM Lee: Historically, yes, but now you have the Tea Party who are a different kind of Republican. So it is hard to say how the numbers stack up.

Glasser: On the negotiations and this question of the Japanese, it does seem like there is been much more success in bringing the other eleven parties together. The New Zealand Prime Minister was just here as well, I believe, and suggested that perhaps we should make a deal without the Japanese?

PM Lee: The New Zealanders are very, very anxious to have a deal because, for them, the TPP is the only game. For the other countries, there are various other Free-Trade Agreements (FTAs) which they belong to and Singapore, for example, has an FTA with the US already. For the New Zealanders, their only way to do that is through the TPP. So they want the TPP come hell or high water. 

But from a strategic point of view, I think it is very important for the Japanese to be in on the TPP because they are a key strategic partner of the US in Asia. You have a security alliance with them. Your ties with China now, probably the volume is greater, but you have to maintain that link with Japan. And if you leave them out from the TPP or drop them, having invited them to negotiate, I think that is very bad.

Glasser: And quickly in terms of the calendar, I know President Obama has spoken of by November wanting to have at least the contours of the real deal in place. Does that seem realistic to you?

PM Lee: We have had several deadlines over the last couple of years. We have not hit all of them, but they have helped us to push forward. I think we should take this deadline very seriously and I believe we have a very good chance of settling it by November.

Glasser: So you talked about the strategic implications of the trade deal. Looking more broadly at the strategic picture in Asia right now, you had some very interesting things to say about both what is going on with the Japanese and the Chinese. You face challenges with these two big regional powers. Clearly, that raised the question of what role the United States can continue to play in the region, either balancing off of those, negotiating resolution to some increasingly loud disputes?

PM Lee: You have very important relations with both Japan and China. With Japan you have a security alliance which has been since the Second World War and is both a reassurance to Japan as well as a restraint because with that security alliance, it means Japan has a nuclear umbrella and does not have to think about providing its own nuclear capabilities and I think that is a stabilising factor for the whole region. With China your relationship has grown very considerably. Trade - China is one of your biggest trading partners. The interdependence goes both ways. The Chinese invest in America, just as you invest in China. They buy your treasury bonds, treasury bills and US government securities. They depend on America as a source of technology, ideas, as a destination for many of their most promising young people to go to study. 

So you have a lot of positive elements in your bilateral relationship and you have to manage your difficulties which come up, whether it is territorial and maritime disputes, whether it is exchange rates or human rights in such a way that it does not skew the whole relationship in the wrong direction.

Glasser: You talked recently about the problem of the South China Sea and China’s territorial claims there and not wanting to assert the privilege that basically can prevail, over-ride and they should be settled within the framework of international laws?

PM Lee: Yes.

Glasser: Do you see any reasonable prospects for that occurring anytime soon?

PM Lee: I think it is something which is going to take a very long time to resolve because no country will likely give up its territorial claims. It is politically very difficult to do and so you end up with an impasse. So, I think that for a resolution it will take a very long time. On the other hand, you have to live with the situation where it is without leading to frictions or encounters and incidents and escalation on the ground which can easily happen. Ships bump into one another, a boat is sunk, sailors are killed or aeroplanes bump into one another. Something can easily go wrong. Therefore there has to be some code of conduct which we all abide by. So, until such a time as we solve the problem and agree where to draw the lines, we exercise restraint and we manage the problem and prevent it from flaring up.

Glasser: Well, that is what has been so hard to watch from the distance of Washington over the last few years, I think is this perceived escalation of the risk of one of those catastrophic and then it is like ships bumping into each other. It feels as though we have reached a new point where we do not actually know what the rules are going to be?

PM Lee: Well, I think that definitely if you look at it over the last 2, 3 years, tensions have risen, both in the South China Sea as well as on the Senkaku, Diaoyu island. And that is a bad thing and ASEAN is quite concerned about it. So is Singapore. So we have been counselling moderation and are managing this until you can resolve it in accordance with international law and including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Glasser: Did you think in a big picture sense when you see what happens on the other side of the world, this winter and spring with Ukraine and Russia and the idea that the Russians basically seized a portion of another country’s territory, has any kind of a spill-over effect in Asia? Do people look at this and say there is an unravelling of the international order?

PM Lee: Well, we think it is a bad precedent. It is not the right thing to do when a country can march in and take over a piece of somebody else’s country and particularly in contravention of international agreements which have already been reached which they were party too. Because in this case there was an agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s boundaries which Russians were party too. So, were the French, so were the British and Ukraine and America and it was in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. So for that not to count for anything, I think that is a very bad international precedence. And it has implications all round the world.

Glasser: When you think about what tools and mechanisms do we have, whether it is in Ukraine or in the South China Sea, let us say that one of these bad scenarios occurs, a mistake and accident between two ships. There is very little likelihood that the Security Council is going to act with the threat of a veto by China and Russia hanging over any possibilities. So, it is hard to see what any kind of international dispute resolution, mechanism even exists anymore?

PM Lee: Well, theoretically there are dispute resolution mechanisms. Territorial disputes can be taken to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. In fact Singapore has gone to The Hague over such a dispute with Malaysia and it was resolved and we both accepted the outcome. Maritime disputes can be taken to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which has a tribunal in Hamburg and in fact the Filipinos have done that. They have referred an issue to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) for adjudication. So, there are mechanisms, but is not often that big powers submit themselves to such international authorities. America does not submit itself to…

Glasser: We are not a member of the Law of the Sea Convention.

PM Lee: Indeed, well, you signed but you did not ratify it.

Glasser: Exactly.

PM Lee: And successive presidents have advocated ratification but Congress has not moved. And I think that that is really not the best posture for America to take.

Glasser: Pulling back more, just looking at the big picture of the region as you see it. You have China which we have discussed. In Japan there has also been a rise of nationalism. You talked about the rising tensions with South Korea, for example, this reopening, this constant reopening of World War Two and its tragic history. How much of a negative consequence does that have on the region?

PM Lee: Well, I think it is not helpful. We ought to be able to put these historical facts behind us and move forward. Nobody would forget that or should forget them but neither should you be trapped by that. And you should be able to move forward and cooperate with each other despite this as the Europeans have succeeded in doing between the French and the Germans. Well, the war was a brutal and nasty business but they are now allies (although) not without many areas of argument. But nobody can imagine them going to war. 

But in Asia, we have not had that coming to terms with the past and that ability to move forward. Some years ago, in I think 2007, the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Tokyo and he made a speech in the Japanese Diet and he said well, we must move forward and our history of friendship long exceeds our history of enmity and therefore, let us put this behind us and move forward and work together. But unfortunately relations have since then soured again, which is a great pity.

Glasser: Do you see China obviously is going through a period of great transition. It still has a relatively new leadership. What is your view of the path that China is on right now? I think there have been some questions about how aggressively it will reform, whether political reform is possible?

PM Lee: I think they are working hard. I think the new leadership has established itself faster than people expected. They have worked out a comprehensive scheme for the reforms they want to carry out which they adopted at the third plenum last year in November. They know what they need to do domestically. I think they have some idea of where they want to be internationally. Whether they can do it is difficult to say because it is a very big system and there will be inertia and push back. But I think they are quite clear what they want to achieve especially on the economic path where you can have a good roadmap. When there are social reforms, political reforms, they will have to feel their way forward but I think they know that the status quo is not tenable. 

For the international angle, the challenge is on the one hand they want to defend what they see as a legitimate interest of theirs. On the other hand, they also know that if they assert themselves by might other than through acceptance by other countries, in the long term this is not good for China or for the world and how they find that balance, we are still waiting to see. It is not going to be an easy balance to strike because it is not just the leadership but it is also the whole mood of the society, the population and nowadays in China there is public opinion to worry about. They have the Internet and people have the equivalent of Twitter –Weibo – and netizens in any country are seldom a moderating force.

Glasser: Now, you talk about the status quo, not necessarily being nimble in the long-term for China politically. There was just the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident which of course was much discussed here in the United States and around the world, not so much in China which went out of its way to make sure those netizens were not able to have a free discussion of those tragic events. Do you see the possibility for a more peaceful version of the kind of movement towards free speech and democratic reforms that really has been squashed ever since then?

PM Lee: Well, actually if you look at it in objective absolute terms, there is a lot more speech and a lot more free discussion with China than there ever has been. There are restrictions, the Internet is censored and there is a great Chinese firewall. But the average Chinese citizen has many more sources of information and many more opportunities to express his views and to participate in debate than even ten or five years ago. There are some no-go areas, you cannot question the rule of the Communist Party, you cannot debate whether Tibet can be independent or not or autonomous or Taiwan. But other than those, on many, many issues, in fact the Chinese have been very open and it is a very diverse society. It is not a monolithic totalitarian system which some Westerners sometimes have an impression of. It is not correct and if you talk to them you will find that they are very open and they will speak. 

Now, how do you take the next steps which will lead to channelling these views and these mass attitudes into the political system so that the leaders respond to them in a more formal way. That is what they have to work out. You can see it happen in other societies. The Vietnamese, for example, they are communist system, the communist party will be in charge and there is no election with other parties but within the party there is a lot of discussion, within the parliament there is debate, there is criticism of the government and even the Prime Minister has had to apologise for mistakes in the parliament. So, there are ways it can be done but they have to experiment and find out which one works for China.

Glasser: Do you think the wave of instability that we have seen in the Middle East in the wake of those Arab Spring, protest movements of a few years ago, has that set back the cause of democratisation in Asia, does it have an effect on these processes which are much slower and much more internal?

PM Lee: Well, when the Arab Spring came along, everybody thought that a hundred flowers were going to blossom and it has not turned out to be so simple. In fact, it is a very difficult business to remove a dictatorship and replace that with something better. You can pull down the old regime, but how do you make sure that what replaces it is not anarchy or a new authoritarian government? And that is much, much more difficult to do. And I think in China, their fear is not of change but of disorder and I can understand that because…

Glasser: I am sure that is a concern that you have as well?

PM Lee: Well, every country has to find a way to manage its affairs in this new globalised Internet age. It is much harder but we have to do it because the world has changed and we are not going back to where we were 50 years ago.

Glasser: Before we wrap up, I wanted to come back to Washington for a moment. As you, of course, have a long history here. What are some of the most common misconceptions that you hear when you come to Washington about what is happening Asia right now? What are we missing or not getting right as we think about the region and its place in the world?

PM Lee: I think you do not always realise how much goodwill there is in the region for America. You have been there for a long time, you have been there doing business, you have been there with the Seventh Fleet, you have been there diplomatically. The President has visited and it is not always the hot part of the world, so it is not always at the top of your mind. I mean, when you had Vietnam, it was at the top of your mind and you do not want to have that kind of a situation.

Glasser: That is not a great country.

PM Lee: That is not a good model. But while it is peaceful and developing, you do need to know that there are many people in Asia, many countries in Asia, which greatly appreciate what the United States can contribute in terms of stability, in terms of prosperity, in terms of soft power and who depend on the US to do that. And if you did not do that, you are missing out and probably going to do less, well, do less well than you should do out of a story which is going to be a very big part of the 21st Century.

Glasser: And what do you think, in terms of when you go around to Beijing and other capitals in the region, what do they misunderstand about the United States? I think there is a question about whether China is betting on American decline, for example?

PM Lee: Well, that is one of it. I mean, I think many of them do not realise how resilient the United States is and they think that after the global financial crisis, you are done for and, well, suitable obsequies will be spoken and then the new power will rise. But I have told them, when I had a chance to, that it is not so and it is a very resilient country and it has tremendous energy, creativity and drive and it is going to bounce back. It may be now tired of wars and battles, but it will come back. It has done so before.

I think there also a perception, in China particularly, that America is trying to circumscribe it, restrict it, even contain it and it will thwart it from taking its rightful place in the world. I do not think the any American leader wants to do that. I do not think any American think-tank believes that it is feasible. But I believe that there will be anxiety in America, wondering what does the rise of the China portend, how will it fit in, how would it affect American power and influence? So these are confidence-building steps which need to be taken in order that they can have a stable long-term relationship between America and China.

Glasser: Yes, no doubt that is at the heart of the misconception. I remember when the ‘Pivot to Asia’ article first came out that Secretary Clinton wrote in for a policy magazine, the magazine that I edited, and all of the Chinese that I encountered after that, they just absolutely dreaded it and saw it as a recipe for containment, which is becoming a sort of a toxic word in conversation. Do you quiz both sides about it? Do you think containment is the wrong way of thinking about it?

PM Lee: No, I think the Americans know that is not going to work because nobody is going to help you to contain and you cannot do it yourself. All the Asian countries want to work with China, want to prosper with China, and want to take advantage of the opportunities which China is offering them. America, too, is also deeply engaged with China. How can you contain them? With Russia, you had negligible trade or…

Glasser: But that is right. This is our biggest partner in the global economy.

PM Lee: Yes, indeed. So how can you possibly do that? So it is not doable, but nevertheless, that lack of confidence in the other, that lack of trust in the other is there and it is an issue which has to be addressed. And I think it is being addressed because the President has spent time with Xi Jinping and last year, he had a Sunnylands summit in California and you have got the strategic economic dialogue between your Treasury and State Secretaries and their counterparts in China. And you have to have these top-level engagements, but actually, it would also be helpful to have engagement lower down the line in the government services, in the armed services.

Glasser: In particular, the military?

PM Lee: Yes, in particular, the military so that you do not get a mismeasure of each other which can lead to wrong assessments and missteps.

Glasser: That is one thing that I constantly hear from people here are, in particular in our national security establishment. It is just that we do not have the kind of robust person-to-person military ties that would be crucial in a conflict. But also, just being more understanding that our real relationships are over here at the economic side but our problems are in places where we do not have robust relationships.

PM Lee: Yes. That is a gap which needs somehow to be addressed. I think there is apprehension and reserve on both sides, maybe on the Chinese side more than the American one. But we should encourage them to open up and come forward. We have a Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore which meets once a year. We just had it end of May, beginning of June, and the US Secretary of Defence usually comes and the Chinese are represented, not quite at the same level, but this year, the Chairman of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee (Fu Ying) came, there was a Senior General who came and we hope that that will develop into a useful opportunity where you have contact. But it cannot be the only one, you need more. 

Glasser: So just our final question to come back here one last time. You are going over to White House this afternoon. You will see senior officials, I guess…

PM Lee: I am seeing Susan Rice and Vice-President Biden.

Glasser: They will be happy to not be talking about Iraq for part of their day.

PM Lee: Well, I hope they will be able to take their minds off Iraq and spend some time talking about Asia. Vice-President Biden was in Singapore last year. We had a very good visit by him. Susan Rice, I think, has not been to Singapore (in her current capacity), but I hope I will be able to invite her to come.

Glasser: I am sure she will want to do that. Now there has been a lot of conversation and questioning and criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy. That is the nature of our system. But there has been a persistent critique that really I have heard from Democratic and Republican about the question of whether we continue to assert a kind of leadership role that obviously we were trying very hard to pull away from the militarised foreign policy over the last few decades, we are trying to end the wars of the last post-9/11era. But President Obama, to many, does not seem to project a new vision for what this new kind of leadership…

PM Lee: It is not easy to lead in the world today. On the one hand, people want America to take the initiative, on the other hand, when America moves, they say, there you are, you are squashing people.

Glasser: That is right.

PM Lee: And on the part of the American population, they want to see leadership, on the other hand, they do not want to see entanglement and they are not keen to be involved in new adventures. So the psychology is conflicted and Mr Obama has a very difficult job. But there is really no substitute for the Americans to engage in the world whatever the difficulties because if you do not do that, it is going to be a much less hospitable world for you and for many, many other countries all over the world.

Glasser: Seems like an important point to end on. So thank you very much, Mr Prime Minister.

PM Lee: Thank you.

Glasser: I so appreciate your time.

PM Lee: Thank you very much.


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