WASHINGTON: An impact on already strained US-China relations is among the implications that the Asia Pacific may have to brace for as a result of the war in Ukraine, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Washington on Wednesday (Mar 30).
Giving his thoughts at a dialogue organised by the American think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Mr Lee also said that if "crazy decisions and historical errors" were the justification for invading another country, many in the Asia-Pacific region would feel "very insecure".
Mr Lee had raised the point about implications for the Asia Pacific during a press conference with United States President Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday. Both leaders had also spoken of the “negative impact” on the Indo-Pacific region from the ongoing conflict in their joint statement.
At Wednesday's hour-long session that was moderated by former diplomat and CFR president Richard Haas, Mr Lee said: “What happens in Ukraine is bound to have a big impact on US-China relations.
“You hope that with contacts between President Biden and President Xi at the highest level, rational calculations will be made and the relations will hold. In other words, not become worse than they already are,” he added.
“But you don't know, despite the best efforts on both sides, and if relations between the US and China worsen, there's a big implication for the whole of Asia-Pacific and the world."
"FEELING VERY INSECURE"
The Ukraine war, which began on Feb 24 when Russia invaded its Eastern neighbour, has also damaged the international framework for law and order and peace, violated the United Nations (UN) charter and endangered the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones, said Mr Lee.
“If a principle is accepted, that crazy decisions and historical errors are the justification for invading somebody else, I think many of us are going to be feeling very insecure in the Asia Pacific, but also the rest of the world.”
And at a global level, what used to be "win-win cooperation" - despite disagreements - on issues such as trade, climate change and nuclear non-proliferation has now changed, said Mr Lee.
“Now it’s win-lose - you want the other guy to be down, fix him, crash his economy,” said Mr Lee. “So how then do most of the countries, if possible, hang together and cooperate with one another and not fall into disorder, autarky or anarchy?”
This is a “big worry” for Singapore, which depends on globalisation to make a living, he told the dozens of industry leaders and officials who attended the event in person. Many more tuned in online via a live stream.
"VERY DANGEROUS DIRECTIONS"
Meanwhile, countries are going to ask themselves what lessons they can draw from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such as their own defence or who they can trust to come to their help when needed.
In Northeast Asia, Mr Lee said, Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has suggested Japan consider hosting US nuclear weapons in the wake of the crisis. While the government has rejected the idea, “the thought is planted and it will not go away”, said Mr Lee.
“Because the implication from Ukraine is that nuclear deterrence is something which can be very valuable.”
Likewise in South Korea, where the latest opinion polls have shown a majority of the population leaning towards the idea that the country should develop some kind of nuclear capability.
“I think we are heading into very dangerous directions,” said the Prime Minister.
When it comes to who countries can rely on for help, Mr Lee said “calculations are going to be made”, although the framework in the Asia Pacific is different from that in Europe. Europe, for instance, has the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Article 5, a guarantee of mutual defence between member states.
“And so the context as to where the lines are drawn, where the red lines are, is different. In Asia, you do not have that,” he added.
“But you have Taiwan; you have a One China policy; you have a Taiwan Relations Act on the US side. But between the US and China, you have Three Joint Communiques. What does this mean for how these structures will be interpreted, how things move?”
He went on to cite how recent opinion polls in Taiwan indicated that about one-third of the public believes that America will come to their help, down from two-thirds last October.
“These calculations will be made. It will not change the scene overnight but all these are significant strategic recalibrations,” he said.
CHINA PRESENTED WITH “AWKWARD QUESTIONS”
Asked by the moderator if the Ukraine crisis has been a “sobering experience” for China, Mr Lee replied that China has been presented with some “awkward questions”.
This is because the attack has violated territorial integrity, sovereignty and non-interference – principles that the Chinese “hold very dearly”.
“If you can do that to Ukraine and if the Donbas can be considered to be enclaves and maybe republics,” said Mr Lee, as Mr Haas interrupted to ask “What about Taiwan?”
“Or other parts of non-Han China?” the Prime Minister replied. “So, that is a very difficult question.”
Mr Lee also said: “I don’t think that in the region, the fact that China refuses to distance itself from Russia, costs it.”
While countries in the region may worry about sovereignty and the principles of the UN charter, they also want to have ties with China. Quite a few countries also have significant relations with Russia, he added.
“So the fact that the Chinese have taken their own position and they consider you a supplicant, asking them to help solve the Russian problem and they are saying well, to untie the bell you need the person who tied the bell,” said Mr Lee. “In other words, solve your own problem.”
Meanwhile, the crisis has also underscored the need to have institutions in the Asia Pacific that may be able to avoid conflict.
Citing how the region does not have its own version of NATO, Mr Lee said institutions that can “bring in countries on both sides – rivals – and engage the US, engage China, engage countries which are closer to one or the other” will be needed.
Such institutions will also have to enable a “very difficult” adjustment, that is “how to accommodate China which is going to become more developed … and yet not become overbearing on the rest of the world and acceptable to the US”.
Mr Lee was also asked if he was worried that the renewed focus on energy security in Europe due to the crisis had pushed climate action off the agenda and that the world is losing valuable time.
“I am very worried about the climate,” he replied, adding that the world’s current mitigation efforts are “inadequate”.
Singapore is taking the issue of climate change “very seriously”, as it is a low-lying island. But while the country is doing its part with mitigation measures and has set a target to reach net-zero “somewhere around the middle of the century”, it only makes up a small amount of total global emissions.
The country remains dependent on global initiatives, technological advancements and also international order.
“If you are at war with Russia, you will not be able to agree with Russia on reducing emissions, much less apportioning responsibility for cutting carbon,” said Mr Lee. “I think it is going to be very difficult and we are going to fall short of the goals – and the goals themselves are not high enough.”
Mr Lee also noted how Singapore is working on adaptation, citing his 2019 National Day Rally speech about how the country would probably need to spend S$100 billion over 100 years to tackle climate change and rising sea levels.
“I still believe that, and we will do that. But please understand that 100 years is not the endpoint, it is just the first milestone.”
Asked if Singapore may be willing to pursue geo-engineering experiments, Mr Lee said: “We do not have an official position but personally, I would be prepared to do some pilot projects.”
Calling the climate situation a “very dire” one, he added: “It’s one of those things where you’re boiling the frog and therefore, no political system is able to respond vigorously enough because today’s problems are always more urgent than the climate change challenge.”
The bulk of the dialogue on Wednesday was centred on the ongoing Ukraine conflict, although Mr Lee was also asked for his take on the situation in North Korea and Myanmar, as well as America’s engagement in the region.
Members of the Singapore delegation who were at the event included Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong and Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo.
He moves on to New York, where he will meet United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, as well as industry and financial sector leaders.