US reviewing Asia policy, but 'nobody is talking about disengaging': PM Lee

US reviewing Asia policy, but 'nobody is talking about disengaging': PM Lee

PM Lee Hsien Loong says while the new US administration is reviewing and developing its trade and foreign policies towards Asia, he takes comfort from the fact that “nobody is talking about disengaging.”

PM Lee Oct25
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at a dialogue session at the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States. (Photo: Bharati Jagdish)

WASHINGTON: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who is on an official working visit to the United States said on Wednesday (Oct 25) that while the new US administration is reviewing and developing its trade and foreign policies towards Asia, he takes comfort from the fact that “nobody is talking about disengaging.”

Speaking at a dialogue session at the Council on Foreign Relations, Mr Lee said, “I think the Trump administration is still developing its Asia strategy, just as it is still developing its strategy on many parts of the world. But we have met your secretaries and they said they are not disengaging. And that is the important message.”

Mr Lee noted however that US officials are talking about engaging in “a different way”.

“There’s a feeling in the administration somehow that America hasn’t quite got as long an end of the stick as it ought to, and they would like to rebalance. Maybe in terms of market rules, maybe in terms of influence in the world. The world has changed and America would like to have an adjustment. I can completely understand that.”


However, Mr Lee said that he is reassured that quite a number of senior US officials know that America’s fate depends on what happens in the rest of the world.

“I think they also know that America, because it has taken a very open and generous approach, has enabled a stability and prosperity in the world which others have benefited from, and so too the United States.”

Mr Lee noted that the US has been the “most open market in the world.”

“Now the Americans are saying why should that be so? The others should be as open as us. And I think it’s reasonable to push for that but if you want that to happen overnight it may well come to grief.”


Mr Lee also talked about the US relationship with China. He had previously described it as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world.”

He expressed his hope that the US will maintain a stable and constructive relationship with China, as good US-China relations will benefit the region and the world.

“On the one hand, they (the Chinese) will be concerned about their bilateral relationship with you, but the other aspect of it is while they've got certain objectives and they will pursue these assiduously, they'll make friends and influence people whether or not you are there and if you're not there, then everybody else in the world will look around and say, "I want to be friends with both the US and the Chinese and the Chinese are ready and I'll start with them."”

China’s economy is still growing well at more than six per cent and it is of great importance economically and strategically. He also pointed out the opportunities afforded by its Belt and Road initiative.

When asked if the Belt and Road Initiative poses a challenge to the United States,
Mr Lee said it’s not a question of the initiative being a challenge.

“The question is how is the US going to respond to a China which has got a GDP which will, within the next decade, or two at most, be as big as yours, world trade which is considerable, which has financial resources which are considerable.”

He said the US will need China in order to deal with “a lot of issues.”

“They have become stronger. They have become bigger. It means that you need their cooperation more, not just on bilateral issues, but on strategic things. To do climate change you must have them. To do nuclear non-proliferation, you must have them on board. To deal with North Korea, you must have them on board.”

Mr Lee said the US needs to be able to work with China in a “gradually evolving relationship which gives them the space to grow their influence, but in a benign way".


Other Asian countries, including Singapore, have been watching the US-China dynamic closely, according to Mr Lee.

“We remain friends with both. If you have a tense relationship, and one or both of the parties say, "You're either with me, or you're against me, then we're in a difficult spot. It could happen."


One of the thorny issues involving China has been the disputes over the South China Sea. He discussed ASEAN’s role in resolving the issue and negotiating a Code of Conduct.

“Some in ASEAN are claimant states like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia. Some are not claimant states but have a stake in freedom of navigation, international law. Some have no coastline, they are landlocked but they are adjacent neighbours to China and they do most of their business with China. So when ten of these countries are in one group and they are looking for a consensus, I think that consensus cannot be a very encompassing or powerful one.”

However, he said that there is consensus that the countries want stability and want to avoid conflict and would like to have a Code of Conduct.

A framework for a Code of Conduct has been agreed on and Mr Lee said the next step is to actually start negotiating it.

“I anticipate (it) will take quite a long time because no sovereign country particularly a big one, is likely to commit itself to be bound, particularly when the status quo doesn’t require it. So to reach a point when the Chinese will agree to be bound by a Code of Conduct and the ASEAN states are happy with it - I think this will be the work of several ASEAN chairmanships.”


Mr Lee was also asked about the North Korean nuclear situation which was something he discussed with Mr Trump during their meeting at the White House on Monday (Oct 23).

“This administration has made some very strong statements but at the same time you’ve made clear that you do not want to go to war.”

He reiterated his stance that dialogue is necessary.

“You have to apply pressure, but you also have to talk. You cannot not talk because if you don’t talk, it doesn’t get anywhere. If you only talk, then nothing happens. You will just be strung out. It has happened so many times before.”

He noted however that cooperation with other nations, particularly China, Japan and South Korea is key to dealing with the North Korean issue. 

“Even if you (the US) want to do something decisive, if the South Koreans are not with you, you can’t do that. So you have to have that diplomacy as well as that realpolitik”, he said. 

Source: CNA/de