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In full: PM Lee's dialogue with the Council on Foreign Relations

In full: PM Lee's dialogue with the Council on Foreign Relations

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a dialogue with Richard Hass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC on Mar 30, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: On Wednesday (Mar 3), as part of his working visit to the United States, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke at a dialogue organised by the American think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He spoke at length about the Ukraine conflict, US-China ties and the impact of the war on small states.

This is the transcript of the dialogue in full:

CFR president Richard Haass: I want to begin with the joint statement that was issued on the occasion of your meeting with President Biden earlier this week. I want to quote one line in particular, “The war in Ukraine has a negative impact on the Indo-Pacific region.” And just to begin, I would love to hear your explanation as to why that is so, and how? What specifically are you alluding to there?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: It impacts the Asia Pacific area at many levels. First of all, it damaged the international framework for law and order, and peace between countries. It violates the UN Charter, it endangers the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones. 

And 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 in the rest of the world.

Secondly, because of what has happened and the rend in relations in Europe, between developed countries, and Russia, the global system of multilateral working together - whether on trade, climate change, pandemic preparedness, nuclear non-proliferation - has become very difficult to work. 

You no longer have a framework in which opponents, rivals, competitors, work together and maybe disagree with one another, but there is a way in which we can do win-win cooperation.

Now it is win-lose, you want the other guy to be down, fix him, crash his economy. 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? 

That is a big worry for us in Singapore because we depend on globalisation to make a living.

Thirdly, what happens in Ukraine is bound to have a big impact on US-China relations. It will strain them; it has already strained them. 

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. 

But you do not know. Despite the best efforts on both sides, and if relations between the US and China worsen, that has a bigger implication for the whole of Asia Pacific and the world.

Then there are the countries’ specific responses towards what is going to happen in Ukraine. Every country is now going to ask what lesson does this hold for me? In terms of my defence, in terms of who can I trust to come to my help when I need it? 

And you can see particularly in Northeast Asia. Mr Abe in Japan (is) saying we should think about hosting US’ nuclear weapons. And I am sure that some Japanese involved in strategic issues have been thinking these thoughts before. 

But now Mr Abe has put it on the table. The government of course has said no, we will never do that. But the thought is planted, and it will not go away because the implication from Ukraine is that nuclear deterrence is something which can be very valuable.

I think South Korea also. If you read the opinion polls, (it) has a majority of the population who believe that the country should develop some kind of nuclear capability, not just host American weapons, which it used to do, but some kind of its own nuclear capability. 

So, if it goes in that direction, if you are an optimist, you will say now, North Korea has it, South Korea has it, Japan has it, PRC has it, and we have a stable equilibrium. 

And if Iran has it and Turkey and Saudi Arabia and some other Middle Eastern countries, you have an even bigger equilibrium. You hope it is still stable, but I think we are heading into very dangerous directions.

Then, in terms of who is going to come to your help, I think calculations are going to be made. The framework in Asia Pacific is different from the framework in Europe. In Europe, you have got NATO; you have got Article Five; you have got former Warsaw Pact countries, the former Soviet Union republics. 

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. 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?

I think if we look at what is happening in Taiwan, in terms of their own defences, we are now talking about pushing their draft National Service from four months to 12 months. I do not think it is going to happen, because it is not so easy just to call up everybody for that much longer, but at least that is the public mood at the moment. 

And there was a poll on Taiwanese opinion as to whether they have confidence, which country will come to the help should the situation arise. And it is now at the point where there is 40 per cent (who) believe that the Japanese will come to their help, and 30 per cent or one-third who think that the Americans will come to their help. And in October last year, it was two-thirds believing that the Americans would come to their help.

So, I think these calculations will be made, they will not change the scene overnight. But all these are significant strategic recalibrations. 

I think beyond the response to the immediate situation in Ukraine, we should also think in Asia Pacific about the path into conflict and how it can be avoided. What structures can you build; what processes; what engagements; what strategic accommodations can be made, in order to head off such a failure of deterrence and then you are into a defence situation.

In Europe, there is a big debate, amongst academics anyway, between the realist like John Mearsheimer who says if NATO had not expanded into Eastern Europe, this would not have happened and those who said, well, this would have happened anyway, just as well, you have now got Poland and the Baltics inside NATO. 

In Asia, you do not have NATO. But we do have hotspots; we do have issues which are difficult to resolve, and we do need institutions which will bring in countries on both sides – rivals, and engage the US, engage China, engage countries which are closer to one or the other, and enable an adjustment which is very difficult to make - which is how to accommodate China, which is going to become more developed, larger, more advanced in the technology, and yet not become overbearing on the rest of the world and acceptable to the US, which currently, is the dominant military power worldwide.

And you have got to move in that direction. We have APEC, it is very helpful. It is focused on economic issues. We have the East Asia Summit which brings all the participants in and talks about strategic issues, but it does not go a lot beyond that into substantive implementation. 

And now the US talks about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as a way to engage the region and not just on strategic or security and potentially hostile basis, but on a win-win basis. I think you need to have given thought to this and steer things in a direction which does not lead you to a hot conflict.

Haass: You have put a lot on the table, sir. Thank you. By the way, in the room here, I see a lot of my former colleagues, we have all been involved one way or another in writing, or signing off on joint statements. 

This one is worth looking at. There is a little bit more substance to this than say, many of the joint statements I was associated with. I won't speak for several of you, but I do recommend it. Every once in a while, government delivers and this was one of those times.

You said something I was going to raise but I want to follow up on it, which is regional views of the United States. So my question is, in this crisis, the United States has provided what I would describe as indirect support for Ukraine, significant military help, diplomatic help, intelligence help, obviously the economic sanctions, and the rest, but not direct military support, either it has rejected the “no fly zone idea”, boots on the ground. 

So that is one data point. This administration is very different than its predecessor in important ways. So, when people look at what the United States is right now, look at what it is doing and not doing and Taiwan (and) Ukraine. 

Does this increase confidence that the US is there? Because you essentially are suggesting maybe not.

PM Lee: I think the situations are different. As I said in Europe, you have got NATO and you know where you draw the line on NATO. And in Asia, you do not have NATO, you have the Three Joint Communiques, and you also have a policy of strategic ambiguity on what you do in Taiwan.

I think what we will all like to see happen in Taiwan is that the status quo continues, and changes - if there are any changes - they must not take place, forcibly or non-peacefully. That is very difficult to manage because it is not just (an) economic issue, it is not just a strategic issue, but also to do with the politics and the sentiments of the population.

And so, it is something which you can only manage over a long period of time.

Haass: Is there though a concern that because of the re-emergence of what you might call a significant Russian threat to European order, that plans for the pivot to Asia will not materialise and instead, the United States is almost going to require a detour on the way to its pivot to Asia to pivot back to Europe?

PM Lee: Well, America has always had worldwide preoccupations. I mean, if it had not been Ukraine, it would have been Iran or something else would have come up somewhere else in the world. Latin America from time to time preoccupies you too. 

So, I think we accept that you have worldwide far-flung interests, but the Asia Pacific is one of those areas where you not only have China, whose relationship you must manage, but also so many other partners of the United States, some of them your allies. 

Others of them, your friends. Many of them with very substantial economic ties to the United States. You’ve developed this relationship and these interests, and this region of relative stability and peace in the world for nearly 80 years since the war. 

So whatever your other far-flung interests, this is something which you cannot walk away from. And I think the US Presidents understand this, and they all have given personal attention to this, but I cannot see them focusing on this to the exclusion of everything else. 

Neither do I think they are very likely to neglect their relationship with China because they are preoccupied elsewhere. What we do worry is while dealing with China, whether there is also bandwidth and appetite and possibility to develop relations with Southeast Asia and other countries in the region.

Haass: Let us talk about China for a second. Several people - I will admit, I am one of them - put forth the argument that this has been a sobering experience for China. The fact that the sanctions introduced by the United States and its partners, including your country, have been wide and deep, really unprecedented. 

And China is much more of an investing and trading company than Russia, so potentially vulnerable. Plus, all this was done mounting an indirect defence of Ukraine and as you said, our position of strategic ambiguity in no way rules out a direct defence of Taiwan.

So, sitting in Beijing, do you get the sense that the Chinese have been somewhat sobered by this, and that they indeed paid something of a political price in the region and beyond, for so closely associating themselves with a war that is truly identified with one individual and has been carried out in an extraordinarily brutal way?

PM Lee: I think it presents them with awkward questions. Because on Ukraine, it violates the principles which the Chinese hold very dearly - territorial integrity, and sovereignty and non-interference. And if you can do that to Ukraine, and if the Donbas can be considered to be enclaves, and maybe republics…

Haass: What about Taiwan?

PM Lee: Or other parts of non-Han China? So, that is a very difficult question. Also, looking at the sanctions, it shows how interrelated we all are. Because if we do business with one another, we all have accounts with one another, and any one of us – especially the bigger ones – can pull their house down. 

I may own a lot of US Treasuries, but if the US decides to freeze those accounts, well, that has practical economic consequences. So, we are all dependent on one another. 

I would put it conversely too - if you cut off China, and say “well, I will do without that”, you do not have accounts in Chinese banks on the same scale, but your economic interdependence, they are one of your biggest trading partners - it is a manufacturing base for many of the US companies. 

If those links fracture, it is going to hurt you too. It does not mean that you will not end up in a bad spot, but it does mean that I think both sides know the price is very high.

One more thing: I do not think that in the region, the fact that China refuses to distance itself from Russia, costs it. All the countries in the region - they worry about sovereignty and the principles of the UN charter - but at the same time, they want their ties with China and quite a few of them have significant ties with Russia, for example, India. 

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. In other words, solve your own problem.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a dialogue with Richard Hass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington DC on Mar 30, 2022. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

Haass: We noticed that. You mentioned the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. Two questions associated with that: What is your sense of what it should do? It has been articulated, but not really fleshed out. And to what extent can or will it be seen as an alternative for US participation in the CPTPP? 

Is this in any way seen as a substitute, or is this seen as at best a distant second best? What could, or will the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework prove to be?

PM Lee: What it should do is to be a positive agenda for the US on economic cooperation with countries in Asia Pacific. An agenda which is inclusive, agenda which is forward looking, and an agenda which has something in it of an upside for both parties. Ideally, you have the TPP. That is water under the bridge.

Haass: (Former US Trade Representative) Carla Hills is shaking her head.

PM Lee: That is water under the bridge, it has become the CPTPP, which means that you are not in it. But now the Chinese have applied to join, and what are you going to do? What are we going to do?

“We”, meaning the members of the CPTPP will have to reach some consensus as to how to handle this application. Taiwan has also applied by the way, and what is the US going to respond? By way of demonstrating that it is engaged in the region.

Ideally, the US would respond with a trade liberalisation market access type, move to develop links with a region you can't rejoin, some other scheme, but I think even some other scheme would be too difficult in the present political climate. What the US has come up with is the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

It is not what all the things which you need to do, but if you can do these things, they are positive items. I would say you could make this as substantive as possible. So short of having FTA elements, market access, at least imagine having some digital economy cooperation, or green sustainable economy cooperation.

Let us take some baby steps towards market access and trade liberalisation. Short of needing to get TPA from the Congress or needing to ratify something, begin to move there and hope that as over the next few American elections, the mood changes and it becomes more rather than less feasible, then you have a path forward. Meanwhile, well, politics is the art of the possible.

Haass: As we say in another part of the world, to what you just said, Inshallah. If you ask people, if you had word association, and you said “globalisation”, country associated with globalisation, Singapore…

PM Lee: We are top of the list.

Haass: Exactly. But right now, the word that increasingly is being bandied about is deglobalisation, because of sanctions, because of constraints and freezing central bank assets, because of supply chains, because of COVID, US-China frictions. What is your sense of how this balance between globalisation and deglobalisation is going, and what concerns you here?

PM Lee: To us ideally, we are all in one flat world. Tom Friedman used to write books like that. But it is not one flat world. There are not only hills and valleys, but deep chasms which you cannot easily cross and some of which have been deepened. We have to make a living trying to belong to the biggest, flattest and safest part of that world.

I cannot see countries going back, each on doing completely their own thing. You cannot make an iPhone totally in America, any more than you can make a Boeing aeroplane completely in America.

You do need international trade. You do need commerce. You need to have processes to make sure you trust your partners and that you can rely on one another and there is redundancy in case the lines fail. But international inter-dependence and economic cooperation will have to continue the challenges.

How do I talk about reshoring and rebuilding US manufacturing and all these good things, without it being captured and going overboard and becoming another name for protecting non-viable economic activities, impoverishing your own workers, including the middle class, and that is your challenge.

To us, the question is in this world, what can we do to make sure that we are part of trusted supply chains that we can continue to work with you and to maintain that relationship, and you can continue to trust us and we can do business together - not just two of us, but that there is an inkblot which is big enough so that many countries in the world can cooperate and where you have countries which are beyond the border, some kind of filter, so that you do not completely shut them out.

Because I think if you say you are going to shut out the Chinese completely, you will not kill them, but you are going to hurt yourself considerably.

Haass: I agree with that. I prefer the word distancing at times - selective distancing to decoupling. 

One of the piece of the joint statement I wanted to refer to - and we will open it up to questions in a minute then - when it came to North Korea, there was rather familiar language, there was the call for complete denuclearisation and permanent peace. 

Now I am as optimistic as the next guy. But I would think the odds of complete denuclearisation and permanent peace on the peninsula are something less than high.

So, what is your realistic agenda? Short of that, even if that's a long term goal, what is your realistic near and medium term goal with North Korea?

PM Lee: I think this is on the record, and I do not think any politician on the record would acknowledge that North Korea is entitled to nuclear weapons. I think what is conceivable to happen is that there is deterrence and there is a situation where the status quo does exist, but countries continue to not recognise it. 

Because if you do recognise it, then there are many consequences. And everybody else will straightaway say, well, if he is entitled to and recognised what about me? Why am I standing around? 

If he is not entitled to, he has it one day, the situation may well be put right, may possibly be put right. Well, perhaps there is some possibility to slow down proliferation and much, much wider spread. Maybe.

Haass: But in the mean(time), I hear what you're saying, and…

PM Lee: I do not think the North Koreans are crazy. What they have seen, is that nuclear weapons have considerable deterrence capability and they sure as hell are not going to give that up, either for North Korea or for the regime.

Haass: You actually alluded to that in the beginning (and I'll make this my last question). Whether that is one of the unintended consequences you have - the Budapest agreement, the assurances given to Ukraine, they give back the nuclear systems they inherited from the former Soviet Union. Ukraine has now twice been invaded, 2014 and now. Saddam Hussein is history, Muammar Gaddafi is history. Do you worry that even though we all subscribe to non-proliferation policy, too much of our foreign policy seems to be making the case for proliferation?

PM Lee: We do worry about that. But that is the reality of the world.

Haass: On that sober note, let me open it up to questions. Just wait for a microphone, identify yourself. I will probably play a little bit of badminton or ping pong or whatever, maybe pickleball, given the age of the audience here, going back and forth between people in the room.

PM Lee: Not to mention the speakers (laughs).

Haass: Yes, that is true. Fair point. Dov Zakheim.

Dov Zakherim (Center for Strategic and International Studies): It is good to see you again Prime Minister. Last time I saw you I had a lot more hair. I would like to ask you about the South China Sea and whether you think what has happened in Ukraine and the divisions you had spoken about, the consequences you had spoken about, are going to make any difference in what is going on in the South China Sea. 

In other words, where do you think that is going? Is it just going to continue as it is? Or do you see any possible changes?

PM Lee: I think facts exists in the South China Sea. Different countries have different atolls or islands occupied, some have been reclaimed and large fortified and the claims overlap in many complicated ways. China is a claimant, four ASEAN countries are claimant states. Singapore is not one of them.

Between ASEAN and China, there is an ongoing longstanding dialogue on how to manage this. We have a Declaration of Conduct. We are negotiating a Code of Conduct which is supposed to be binding. It is taking a very long time, we have got a negotiating text. 

We have got the preamble settled, but to settle a Code of Conduct is very difficult, because to define the problem is already to grapple with the problem. Which parts are in dispute? Mine are not in dispute, yours are in dispute. So, I think this is going to be a long process.

From our point of view, freedom of navigation is important, international laws are important, UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is also important, and peaceful resolution of disputes, so that you avoid some accidental conflict or collision, which can escalate.

I do not think many of the claimant states want this to go to the extreme because all of the ASEAN countries have substantial accounts with China; and the sovereignty of the South China Sea is important, but it is only one item in the broad accounts.

So, I think that some accommodation can be worked out. Our concern is freedom of navigation and the interest of international community, because a large amount of international global trade flows through the South China Sea - energy as well as many other supplies. To link it back to Ukraine, I think that has its dynamic of its own, and I do not think it is very closely tied to the Ukraine developments.

Michael Mosettig (PBS Online NewsHour): Your foreign minister has called for active mediation and for China to be invited in as a mediator on the Ukraine situation. Can China be an independent mediator given its thickening ties with Russia and the fact that many observers think that China now has a real stake in making sure that Russia is not humiliated in Ukraine?

PM Lee: I think you are quoting from a Bloomberg headline, which put what my foreign minister said in rather lurid spotlight. I do not think he meant that. I do not think it is very likely that the Chinese will volunteer for this task. I think they would much rather somebody else stand up to it and I do not think that lack of a mediator is the problem in Ukraine.

Stephen Biegun (Macro Advisory Partners LLC): Singapore is a leading member of some of the most important institutions in Asia - ASEAN and APEC - but there are additional institutions, and even new institutions, that are coming to the Indo-Pacific region. 

There is AUKUS; there is the QUAD, which is not so new, but is definitely transforming; there is Five Eyes, which is also not new, but is a significant platform.

I am just curious the view of Singapore, and do you welcome the new institutions in particular that are coming in? How do you see the role of Singapore, perhaps not in, but with some of these new institutions?

PM Lee: We understand why these new institutions have come into being. The US has strategic interests in the region, they want to advance these and you will make common cause with countries who will group with you in different configurations. AUKUS is one, QUAD is another; the Five Eyes has existed for a very long time, and they are part of the landscape.

ASEAN remains part of the landscape. We talk about ASEAN centrality, and if ASEAN is able to be cohesive and to play a useful role hosting the discussions and bringing parties together, then all the other pieces have their place. 

But that is up to ASEAN. These are 10 disparate countries along a spectrum of geopolitical situations and with corresponding geopolitical strategic views.

So, it takes a process to bring the ASEAN consensus together and to assert itself, but I think that is what is necessary in order to have the region have a centre of gravity, which brings players together rather than pulls players apart. There are other things, which bring the countries together.

I talked about APEC just now. The East Asia Summit is another one, which is associated with ASEAN, that includes Russia, China, America and India. And the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework – when that is created, we hope it will also be at least the basis, one day, for being an inclusive structure. And if you have those inclusive structures, then other groupings exist. Well, that is the way of the world.

Tim Ferguson (Business Journalist): Prime Minister, I used to spend a lot of time as a business journalist in Singapore. It is good to see you again. The Straits Times Index has more than recovered from the COVID dip in Singapore, like many of the Western markets, but unlike the Chinese markets, both on the mainland and in Hong Kong. 

Do you see going forward that Singapore, financially, at least might benefit from greater separation from the difficulties in the Chinese financial markets? 

PM Lee: No, we are not separated. We do business with them. They are our biggest trading partner, they have investments in Singapore, we have not small investments in China and in Hong Kong too. And we wish them well.

And a lot of analysts explained why the Chinese stock market has come down, and (it) has to do with policy decisions, decisions which the Chinese government have made. I think they want to establish a new set of rules in the tech space. And they have decided that the stock market performance is a secondary consideration.

And as far as their economy is concerned, so far, despite COVID, their economy has done quite robustly. And if you take a long-term view beyond COVID, we believe it has the potential to continue to be growing, developing economy with many opportunities, which we would like to continue to work with.

Hong Kong is a different specific problem because they are in a transition. And it is partly the broader China context which influences their market, but also specific situations and conditions in Hong Kong which will take some time to be resolved. We hope they will. 

From a narrow point of view with Hong Kong's problems, some of the companies or the people who are there, I will think of moving elsewhere in the region and may want to come to Singapore, and if they do, we will be happy to take them.

But from a broader point of view, it is not to our advantage to have Hong Kong languish. We are far better for us to have a robust competitor. They thrive, we thrive. We will make a living, and so will they. It is not Hertz or Avis.

Haass: I want to follow up on one thing that that question raised. In the United States, I would say in the foreign policy establishment or even beyond that, there is the widespread judgement that the decades-long effort to integrate China into global economic institutions largely did not succeed.

If the hope was to make China more open and rules abiding economically, more open politically, less aggressive in its foreign policy; that rather, China cherry picked its involvements and has emerged stronger, but not more moderate in its behaviours. 

And that leads to a sense here that we therefore are to become much more restrictive. Do you believe that we are learning the right lessons of history here, or are we over learning?

PM Lee: I think you have to see this in context. China is going to develop, China is going to grow, I think the momentum is enormous and unstoppable. Question is how can this be integrated into the global system? 

You can try to block it and hold them back. In which case, maybe you insulate yourself a little bit, but you set up for a troubled relationship for a very long time to come. 

Or you can try and work with them and fit them into the global system. They benefit from it, you benefit from it. And over time, you hope that a constructive evolution will happen.

I do not think that turning China into a democracy was ever on the cards. Nor was it the reason why we brought China into the WTO or engage with China on many fronts, but on its own merits. 

The US economy, US consumers, US MNCs have benefited enormously from what you have done cooperating with China. From the Chinese point of view, they will say - we benefited, we grew, you benefited, your companies prospered. There is nothing to improve.

But well, it is true that both sides benefited, but the balance has shifted. What used to be an economy one tenth this size, has now become an economy on some measures as big as the US or maybe even bigger, if you look at the PPP.

What used to be wearable arrangements, concessions, are no longer politically wearable or economically sensible. Adjustments have to be made. And you have to adjust to this situation.

First, gradually, to treat China more and more as a not so developing, but more closely developed economy. But secondly, also to give it some space to influence the global system. 

For example, shares in the IMF, or influence in the World Bank. You do not want to change your whole system of international order, or international law - this is a framework which everybody fits into. But now you have got a big player and they do want to participate and you have to enable them to participate.

If you do not, they will say, well, I will have my own show. I can’t get into the World Bank and have a bigger vote share. I have my Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and many countries would like to join. I would like to cooperate with my neighbours, (so) let us have the Belt and Road initiative.

In principle, these are all the right things to do because this is a big country. You are going to want to cooperate with it. What is the mechanism of the win-win cooperation?

In practice, what is the difficulty? The difficulty is when a very big partner cooperates with a very small partner, it will be very difficult to find that point of balance where both are equally happy.

It is very difficult for a big country to realise how huge its impact can be on the rest of the world. Even when it does not intend it. It is very difficult for the small country to manoeuvre and to gain from the cooperation and the opportunities, and yet, not from time to time to be made proposals, or offers which you cannot refuse.

The Mexicans have a phrase - the US is our best friend, whether we like it or not. And that is the dilemma.

Kim Dozier (Time Magazine): Kim Dozier with Time Magazine. I wanted to ask if the Biden Administration had accepted your proffered role as Beijing whisperer and also on Capitol Hill.

PM Lee: I am not a Beijing whisperer.

Kim Dozier (Time Magazine): Could you be?

PM Lee: No, we cannot. We are not part of the family. We are Chinese, ethnic Chinese majority country in Southeast Asia. (We are) multi-racial, multi-religious, with independent national interests and priorities. And they treat us as such, and we remind them that that is so.

Kim Dozier (Time Magazine): Then as a follow up, there is a lot of anger from the White House to the bipartisan anger on Capitol Hill over China's practices - of IP theft or investing in US companies and then pulling out and taking the ideas with them.

Whereas, how has Singapore managed to do business with them when you are one of the least corrupt countries on the globe, with the most transparency. How do you say to Congress you can do business with them, and here's how?

PM Lee: Well, I think that they are two separate questions. Corruption is one problem; but intellectual property theft is a different problem.

I know that for quite some time in the past, US companies and others too have had issues with intellectual property, either formally, being dispossessed of them, or informally, they turn up down the road in different forms.

If you have talked to the companies, they do tell you that the problems have not disappeared, but they have become more manageable. Because the Chinese have now got the greater interest in protecting their own intellectual property. 

But I think what the Chinese will want to do from other countries, is what the US tried to do very hard in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and that is to pick up technology and ideas from others who have got these technologies and ideas. Just as you did it from Europe and you have benefited from any number of emigres and visitors from Europe who brought in ideas and sometimes you have your own quiet channels to obtain the information. The Chinese do that too.

I think what gets the US Congress very upset is when you find very egregious examples which appear to have come from actors which trace back somewhere onto the mainland and then you are unable to get any recourse on that or any sympathy, or you get told, ‘I have the same problem’, and you really do not believe that answer but you are unable to do anything about it.

On that sort of issue, I do not think sanctions will get you very far. What you will need to do is to have a very serious conversation at very senior levels, to make it quite clear that to have stable relations, you must have trust. 

And if things are done which undermine that trust between the two countries - I may not be on the same page with you, I may not like you, but I need a certain basis of trust in order to do any business with you and solve problems together. 

As George Schultz said on his 100th birthday: Trust is the coin of the realm. That is gravely lacking now and one of the reasons is this question of intellectual property theft and cyber security is a problem.

Kara Tan Bhala (Seven Pillars Institute for Global Finance and Ethics): This is Kara Tan Bala from Seven Pillars Institute; I am a former Malaysian. In light of the climate crisis, how do you think Singapore will fare? How do you think the world will fare based on mitigation efforts so far?

Haass: I wish to piggyback on that, are you at all worried in that context of climate that this renewed emphasis on energy security that has grown out of the European dependence on Russian gas exports, in particular, has somehow relegated climate and pushed it off the agenda a little bit? Are you worried that we are losing valuable time here?

PM Lee: I am very worried about the climate. You asked me what I think about the mitigation efforts. I think honestly, they will be inadequate. The scientists are quite unambiguous. They are quite polite and hedged in their views. But their directions have consistently been more extreme than their predictions for quite some time now.

For Singapore, we take that very seriously, because we are a very low-lying Island. Our highest point is about the height of the Washington Monument and a bit more. If the sea levels rise, which they will, we would not be flooded overnight, but we will have floods regularly and it will become like Louisiana.

We are doing our own part to mitigate the measures, but it depends on the global initiatives because we are such a small part of the global output - 0.2 or 0.3 per cent of the global emissions. We have to do our part and we have to show a good example, and we are hoping to reach net-zero somewhere around the middle of the century. 

We are trying to pin down how soon exactly that can be, but it depends on technology, and it depends on carbon markets and those are big question marks.

Also, it depends on the 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. I think that is going to be a big problem even if you are not at war, even with China, where you have got a dialogue and John Kerry works very hard visiting them and talking to them. 

Because your relations are so fraught, it is very difficult to make progress and you have explicitly said you are not prepared to trade off climate against other issues. Then the Chinese say, well, what is the point of this? I think it is going to be very difficult, and we are going to fall short of their goals – and their goals themselves are not high enough – and we should prepare for that.

Cutting off dependence on Russia will, in the first place, impact Europe. But unless the Russian oil disappears from the world and they themselves do not consume it, it is going to pop up somewhere else. 

From the climate point of view, that does not solve the problem. From Europe's point of view, I speak out of turn, but I think without nuclear, it is very difficult for them to go to net zero. But it is not the politic to acknowledge that.

Haass: When you say that mitigation is never going or is unlikely to be – I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but we cannot put all of our eggs in that basket, it is unlikely to succeed. Where does that then leave you as a government, in terms of your policy? Does that mean you put a much greater emphasis on adaptation?

PM Lee: First of all, mitigation, we do our part, but we know that we do not determine the outcome, and the world will not do enough. Therefore, we have to work on adaptation. If we are talking about 100-year timeframe, I have 100 years to solve the problem and I have the wherewithal to do it. 

Before we went into COVID-19 and before we went into the Ukrainian war, I spent some time in my annual broadcast to Singaporeans talking about climate change and why it mattered to them, and I said, “you have got 100 years, if it rises 18 inches or even double that, we can live with it - you can build polders, you can build dikes, you can reclaim, raise the level, and we have the resources.” 

And I said, “S$100 billion over 100 years, we can afford that, and if we do it consistently, we will be able to survive.” 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 - this is going to continue for centuries.

Haass: Would you be open to supporting research and experimentation on various new technologies that would one way or another try to cool the planet? So-called…

PM Lee: Geoengineering.

Haass: Would Singapore be open to at least greenlighting certain experimentation there?

PM Lee: We do not have an official position but personally, I would be prepared to do some pilot projects. I think that it is a very dire situation, it is one of those things where you are 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, and you have no solution based on today's technology and today’s international infrastructure.

So, you do have to find new solutions, and if you have to experiment with geoengineering and put up some mirrors in the sky or even aerosols, I think that you have to think very carefully about it. You should not rule it out without thinking about it.

Sharik Zafar (Meta): I wanted to follow up on your point about digital cooperation. There are some specific steps that you would like the United States government to encourage with respect to digital cooperation in Southeast Asia. My company has headquarters…

PM Lee: About digital cooperation? Yes, we do encourage digital cooperation. We have a Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA) with New Zealand, Chile and Singapore – three (countries). The Chinese have applied to join, Korea too, and we are trying to encourage the US to think about such an understanding between us and the United States.

It is necessary because you need the framework, mutual understanding, rules - what information can be shared, where can information be stored and intellectual property questions. There is substance to this. 

I don’t know if we coined the name, but we decided, we popularised the idea of a Digital Partnership Agreement to bring all these bundle together and treat it separately from traditional FTAs. That is one of the things, which I hope you will be able to do in some form in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.

Haass: I think there is a mis-intention there. In the politically-fraught trade space in this country, there seems to be more space to explore things in the digital domain than others.

PM Lee: Yes, but even there, I think there is some sensitivity because it benefits the tech companies who are presently in bad odour.

Haass: We will not go there. Another virtual question?

Kira Kay (Bureau for International Reporting): I wanted to ask you about the other war in Myanmar. I appreciate the call today to release political prisoners and to implement ASEAN’s Five-Point plan. 

But Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, including commercial ties with military-owned businesses and Singaporean banks handle the revenue from the oil and gas sector. It would seem that a resolution to the crisis would benefit Singapore besides the humanitarian need. So, what more could we expect from Singapore on the sanctions front?

PM Lee: With Myanmar, none of us have enormous influence on what happens within their country. These are domestic developments, they are domestically driven, it is a deep conflict between the military and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, and it has been going on for several decades now. 

Singapore, you say that we have investments there; actually, they are not doing anything. All our people wish to get out, but they are stuck there - they cannot sell and cannot get out. Our banks handle Myanmar accounts - some of them we have prescribed, the rest of them we watch very carefully, and we make quite sure that if anything untoward happens, a Suspicious Transaction Report (STR) is filed, and we will look into the matter.

You know perfectly well that looking for bank accounts is very difficult as a strategy to force policy change in a country, particularly in the case of a country like Myanmar, which is actually only too happy to turn inwards and close off from the rest of the world. 

So, we do not have a lot of aggressive options, but we do try to continue to speak and encourage. The last time we did this, it took a long time, but with patience, Myanmar eventually came onto a path, which led to elections and to a civilian government, which lasted for some period. It may be necessary for us to walk that path again, and I hope the second time will not be harder.

Haass: Prime Minister, we want to thank you for not just being with us today, but for being so open and candid and thoughtful about many of the challenges facing not just your country, but the region in the world. Thank you.

Editor's note: This article has been updated after some of the quotes in the provided transcript were amended.

Source: CNA/az

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