SINGAPORE: Countries in Asia should be thinking of how to work together, before conflict arises, to maintain peace and stability in the region, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (May 26), as he called on Japan to do more for regional security cooperation.
“We should maximise the opportunities for countries to work and prosper together, and minimise the risk of tensions worsening into hostilities,” said Mr Lee.
He was speaking at the opening of the 27th International Conference on the Future of Asia organised by Nikkei while on a four-day working visit to Tokyo from May 24 to 27. His comments come as war continues to rage in Ukraine and relations between the United States and China remain tense.
In a 20-minute speech, Mr Lee said that countries in the region should work together to strengthen collective security, along with stakeholders outside Asia, so as to maintain a regional balance of power.
This should be complemented by economic co-operation, he added.
“The various security arrangements and economic engagements need to fit together to form an open and inclusive regional architecture,” said Mr Lee.
ASEAN can play a “significant role” in this, and Japan, beyond its major role in economic affairs, can “make a greater contribution to regional security cooperation”, he said.
This is provided Japan can come to terms with the past and put to rest long outstanding historical issues from World War II.
On regional security, while each country will naturally re-examine its defence strategies and spending in the wake of the war in Ukraine, this may end up as an arms race, Mr Lee cautioned.
“Countries must therefore also work together to strengthen their collective security,” he said.
“And they must do this beyond forming alliances and formal groupings of like-minded partners, like the Quad or the AUKUS grouping, but also through engagement and confidence and trust building arrangements with potential adversaries.”
The Quad refers to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, made up of four countries: the United States, Australia, India, and Japan, while AUKUS is a strategic alliance between Australia, the United Kingdom and the US.
Mr Lee said that even at the height of the Cold War, there were “quiet channels of communication” between the US and the Soviet Union, at the top leadership level and between the armed forces.
He proposed that such channels need to be established between the US and China, and between other countries in Asia with disputes.
“They help to reduce mistrust, to clarify misunderstandings, and manage acute incidents, which are bound to arise from time to time,” he said, adding that countries must be “very mindful” in handling potential flashpoints such as on the Korean Peninsula, in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.
SECURITY COMPLEMENTED BY ECONOMIC COOPERATION
Mr Lee said that many stakeholders will be involved in regional security, including some from outside of Asia.
The US retains its “essential role” in providing the framework for peace and stability for the region since the end of World War II, even as the strategic balance shifts, he said. And Australia, the European Union, and the United Kingdom also have strong security ties with Asia, and interests in the region.
These players have “legitimate interests” in Asia in maintaining security, keeping the region open for global business and in accessing sea lanes of communications in Asia vital to global shipping and commerce.
“It is neither realistic nor wise to exclude these participants. Instead, our aim should be to achieve a regional balance of power and influence among all the stakeholders,” Mr Lee said.
Furthermore, security cooperation must also be complemented by “tangible and mutually beneficial” economic cooperation, said the Prime Minister.
In response to geopolitical tensions, countries are increasingly emphasising resilience and national security over the economic gains from free trade and investment flows, he said.
“But they should be very careful about taking extreme measures, preemptively before conflicts arise,” said Mr Lee.
“Such actions shut off avenues for regional growth and cooperation, deepen divisions between countries, and may precipitate the very conflicts that we all hope to avoid.”
In particular, for major powers like the US and China, economic cooperation with Asian countries demonstrates convincingly that their engagement is not just about enhancing their own power and reach in the region, but also has tangible benefits to their partners, he said.
"OVERLAPPING CIRCLES OF FRIENDS"
On forming an open and inclusive regional architecture for both security and economic co-operation, Mr Lee said that a lot will depend on how relations between the US and China develop.
“The US-China rivalry is inevitably affecting all countries in Asia. It is natural for some countries to be closer to one side or to the other but most countries would prefer not to be forced to choose between the US and China,” said Mr Lee.
“There will be no good outcome if Asian countries are split between two camps, each siding with one or the other.
“A more stable and less tense configuration is for the two powers to have overlapping circles of friends, and countries find it possible to be friends on both sides and to have friends on both sides.”
Security and economic schemes in Asia should “conduce” towards this outcome, said Mr Lee.
And given its influence and resources, Japan has a major role to play in regional affairs, being a leading investor in Asia, and a strong advocate for regional trade liberalisation, he said.
“However, in the security realm, the history of the Pacific War has led Japan to adopt a low-key posture.
“With the passing of the years and the generations, and in a new strategic environment, Japan should consider how it can come to terms with the past and put to rest these long outstanding historical issues,” Mr Lee said.
“This will enable it to make a greater contribution to regional security cooperation, and to participate in building and upholding an open and inclusive regional architecture.”
In this, Mr Lee said that ASEAN also plays a significant role: “We welcome the broad international support for ASEAN and for ASEAN Centrality in regional affairs.”
ASEAN Centrality is not just a concept, but has led to significant forums and mechanisms to foster regional integration and interdependence, he added.
Mr Lee concluded that a stable and secure environment has been critical to Asia’s dynamism and prosperity.
“We hope that the decades ahead will see peace prevailing, and economic progress continuing in Asia but we cannot assume that this happy state of affairs will persist,” said Mr Lee.
“As Europe’s experience shows, things can go wrong, and conflict can break out and war in Asia is a scenario we cannot rule out.
"Therefore, Asian countries must continue to strive to deepen cooperation between ourselves, foster mutual trust and work out our differences.”