PM Lee: S'pore will not take sides in tussle over South China Sea

opinion April 12, 2014 00:00

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses regional tensions over maritime disputes with China, elections bringing change to SE Asia, and Myanmar's reform process, in the second half of his discussion with Asia News Network editors

Pana Janviroj, The Nation: When we met you about eight years ago, Singapore was a regional city. Now, Singapore is a world city. You are pulling away, perhaps from the different economic standards of Asean, in a league of your own. Are there any things you have done that have exceeded your expectations? 
Well, first of all, I don’t think we are pulling away from the rest of the region. Because we have reached a level of more developed economy and we are growing GDP two, three per cent a year if we can do well, whereas Asean countries, whether it is Thailand, whether it is Malaysia, whether it is Indonesia, more so the Indo-Chinese countries – Vietnam, Myanmar – you can make six, seven per cent, even eight, nine, 10 per cent. You are at that level, so, in fact, the gap is narrowing. And your cities are able to grow very steadily and rapidly, even on top of that base, because you have got the country advancing and you are tapping the wealth and resources and the talent of your countries. So Bangkok, I mean there’s no reason why you should not be a very, very prosperous city; it’s already a prosperous city. So I don’t think that we are pulling ahead from the rest of the region. What we want to do is to progress together with the region. If you look back over the last decade, I think overall, we have done economically better than we expected, grown faster. It’s partly because the winds were favourable and the markets were open, investments came in. It’s also partly because we decided that we would catch the wind when it blew, and we would go with it. So we said, let’s put in the resources, let’s bring in the foreign workers we need, let’s grow, because tomorrow I don’t know whether the opportunity would be there. ... Unfortunately, we succeeded more than we expected, so in terms of the infrastructure, we were not able to catch up – our public transport, building houses. And we paid a price. We have spent the last three, four years working hard to try and come back up to speed.  We have made some progress. We are not there yet, but we have made some good progress. I think in a more open environment, particularly if we are positioning ourselves as a global city, it is very important that our people have a sense of belonging and place and of roots here, and a sense of country and community. And that’s something we are working at, because we are a country. We are not like London or New York, where you have a country and London can be completely cosmopolitan but it’s quite certain you are part of England. Here, Singapore is part of Singapore; that’s all there is.  And we have to make sure that Singaporeans feel like that and are confident of their position in this society, which they have every reason to be.
John Nery, Philippines Daily Inquirer: 
The president of Singapore was in the Philippines last week. Philippine President Aquino is seeking what he calls a defence dialogue with Singapore. How do you respond to that?
Well, we are happy to explore possibilities and to cooperate where it makes sense bilaterally. In fact, we used to have a cooperation arrangement with Philippines, but then the Philippines Congress said this has to be subject to ratification. And so it wasn’t possible, and so the arrangement came to a pause. I think that we will proceed in a way which makes sense for both countries. I would say that in the context, if you are talking about defence, we are friends with all our Asean partners, as well as with other countries in the region, including China. And so we would like to keep it like that.*
JN: Speaking of China, I think President Aquino’s request is precisely based on the present [dispute over South China Sea territory]. If he would like to extend defence dialogue to defence cooperation, would you consider that?
No, I think we take this one step at a time. On the South China Sea maritime dispute, our position is quite clear, and that is: We don’t take sides on the merits of the respective claims, because each country has got its explanation and its reasons and its historical narrative of why it has a good claim, and its legal basis. We are not in any position to judge or to take sides [on] who has a good claim, whose claim defeats whose and where the line should be drawn. But what we do have is an interest in the matter being resolved peacefully, in accordance to international laws, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea; and that countries exercise restraint and we negotiate a Code of Conduct with China. And Asean plays an active role, constructive role, to help to manage the issues, because I don’t think they can be solved. You can only manage them to prevent any mishap, any conflagration, any escalation being sparked off by some incident at sea. You have already had incidents at sea, between you, not with China but with Taiwan, which was very troublesome. And Taiwan has had incidents with other countries, in the East Sea, at the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. So incidents can happen and incidents can have consequences, and I think it is best that all sides exercise restraint and agree on a Code of Conduct which will make it more unlikely that such an incident can happen or can lead to disastrous consequences.
JN: Are you happy with the pace of progress in drawing up that Code of Conduct?
Well, Asean has always been in favour of making progress expeditiously, but the partners all have to be ready to do so.
JN: So it’s not yet ready?
No, not yet. They have just started talking.
JN: So how long do you think that process will take?
I do not know. It depends how long the participants want it to take.
JN: Is China ready to conclude?
Well, China is talking. Whether they are ready, you will have to ask China. I think the discussions are still at an early stage now.
JN: What is the difficult process that prevents…
I don’t think they have reached that point yet. I think they are just in the preliminary discussions.
Yu Kun-ha, The Korea Herald, South Korea: Our president attended the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague and afterwards proposed a package of economic and cooperation exchanges with North Korea. North Korea rejected it and threatened to carry out another nuclear test. How do you assess the prospect for reunification between the two Koreas? And also, Northeast Asia has very powerful economies – No 2 in the world is China, and No 3 is Japan. Korea is just as strong. Do you think the three countries will continue to fight among each other? What role do you think Singapore can play for good, friendly relations between the northern and the southern parts of East Asia?
First of all, I don’t know whether the North Koreans are about to do another nuclear test, but I can imagine that at some point, they will test another weapon, because this has been an exercise in brinkmanship on their part. Threaten, ruffle your feathers, make some noises, fire some weapons, and then people make an effort to calm you down, and then the cycle starts again. I think the other participants in the six-party talks have now taken a firmer position, so there will be some testing of wills and you cannot tell how this would develop. I don’t see this leading to reunification soon, under voluntary circumstances. I think the North Korean government sees this as an existential issue for it, because if two countries merged, somehow, then what happens to all of the present leadership of one of the countries? So in the case of Germany, West and East, the East German system simply collapsed. In the case of Korea, North and South, we don’t know what will happen in North Korea. So we will have to wait and see. You cannot imagine that it will be like this 100 years from now, but you don’t know whether it will still be like this 10 or 20 years from now.  
As for cooperation between the three major economies in Northeast Asia, that’s very much to be hoped for. Unfortunately, their historical factors which have not been resolved, in fact some of which are being revived, make this very difficult to do. China and Japan, you know what the story is. Korea and Japan, you also know what the story is. South Korea and China, the relations presently are not bad, but you have the issue of North Korea to handle between you. So I think that there will be some cooperation, there will be always these historical issues. Unfortunately I don’t think the historical issues can be solved very soon. I mean, in the case of the Europe, it has taken two generations since the war and a very concerted effort in order to put the war history behind it and to say, no, never again. We will have a Europe which will always be at peace. In Northeast Asia, unfortunately, that has not taken place. So I think it is difficult to do.  From Southeast Asia we can wish you well, but … we can’t even solve all of Southeast Asia’s problems, so we are trying not to be too ambitious in solving Northeast Asia’s problems.  
Torben Stephan, Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, sponsor of Asia News Network: In creative problem solving, you are the best in the world. But you know journalists usually don’t ask about the things that run very well. So what is your government doing to get a better position in the Reporters Without Borders rankings?
I have given up on that. I do not take them seriously. They put us somewhere around Zimbabwe, I said, so be it. I mean, they find it useful, I just ignore that. We manage our press, our media and our freedom of information in a way which makes sense for Singapore. Information flows freely on the Internet, you can get data instantly from anywhere in the world. Newspapers report freely, but also responsibly, so that you inform and educate people, so that this is a source of reliable information, opinion as well as entertainment. And not all newspapers in the world aspire to do that. I think that it’s a model which has worked for us. It’s a model which is changing, because the Internet is a very big new factor, social media is a very big new factor, which we are struggling with. I think it’s something which we have to deal with, and not something where we say, well, we give up; that’s the way the world is and anything goes. 
Warren Fernandez, The Straits Times, Singapore: We have a strong leader emerging in China now, accumulating a lot of power. We have elections in Indonesia and India, two big Asian nations. The polls show that you could have leaders with reasonably credible mandates. Does this have implications for Asia, and what would they be?
Well, I think it’s good for Asia, for the countries to have capable, responsible and strongly supported leaders. Then you can do business, then you can manage regional affairs collectively and in a cooperative way. If the leaders are not strongly supported or the leaders are weak personally, then you may be able to have a discussion but it may not be so easy to deal with problems. Of course, strong leaders also have strong preferences and ideas, and it doesn’t mean that they will all get together and it will all be the best of all possible worlds. There will be friction, there will be disputes, there will be difficult problems to be solved. Between India and China, certainly; India and Indonesia, not so likely; Indonesia and China, I think Indonesia is not a claimant state in the South China Sea.  
But we in Singapore, we look forward to working with a strong Indonesian government, one which would take an Asean perspective the way the present Indonesian government has, and the way President Suharto did for many decades. And in India, we hope that the new leadership will continue to pursue cooperation with Southeast Asia and East Asia, as the previous BJP government did, the current Congress government is doing. And I hope the next government, whether Congress, BJP or something else, will do. In China, I think Xi Jinping has a very full agenda domestically and also internationally, managing China’s presence and increasing weight in the world in a way which advances China’s interests but at the same time maintains China’s position as a country which is a member in good standing in the community of nations. That’s a very full agenda to manage.
PJ: What do you think of the US-China relationship?
I think it’s good for the US to be engaged in the region. They said they are rebalancing towards Asia, they are doing that. [US Defence Secretary] Chuck Hagel has just spent time in Japan, I think also in China. I think that the two countries have been managing their relationship in a responsible and constructive way. They have talked about – the Chinese particularly – have talked about a new model of great power relations. I am not quite sure exactly what that entails, but it’s something we are watching closely.
PJ: Can I ask about Myanmar? Singapore has strong goodwill there, probably the best, most admired country. Secondly, you have very good people there, you have strong investments there. But Myanmar is now going to elections as well. Would you like to see change to the Constitution? And recently, the reforms have stalled somewhat – the economy is not expanding or liberalising. How do you see Myanmar progressing?
I think the change of the Constitution is for the Myanmar country to decide, and people. They have a process for how the Constitution is to be amended, which has to be gone through if they decide to change it.  It is not for us to say whether it should be changed or should not be changed. I think Myanmar is still on the path. It’s a long journey, and they have taken the first few steps, which is good. And they are in a much stronger position now than they were in 2010, before the elections were held. Internationally they are in good standing; domestically they have taken steps to get the administration strengthened, the framework of laws established, the business environment made more favourable, and to get investments to come in. And some investments have gone in. I think there’s a lot more work to be done, even on administration and economic management. But there’s even more work to be done in dealing with the political and nation-building issues of Myanmar, because it’s a very complicated country. Buddhists are the majority, but you have got Muslims other than the Rohingya. You have got Christians amongst the Kayin and some of the other nationalities. You have got to deal with the civil war, which is only recently over and really in some places, not fully pacified. And you have got to make this country be governed, all the way from the extreme north where you have snow-capped mountains to the south which is in the tropics, thousand-plus kilometres. So it’s a long distance, long journey to travel, and there will political jostling along the way, between the parties. I think within the parties too, I am sure there will jostling for who would be in charge. It is in the nature of societies. And we wish Myanmar success in going along this path.  
Our companies are there in some numbers. I don’t think we are the biggest presence there. They were there since before 20 years ago, before the student riots and the country closed down. They are still there. They are trying now to do a bit more business. I talked to one developer who is helping to build a port in Myanmar, one construction firm, and he says, well, things are better but still a long way to go. So I don’t underestimate their difficulties, but I knew [junta leader] Senior General Than Shwe previously, and President Thein Sein now for quite a number of years, and I think he is quite determined to make it work. And he knows that the path has to be forward, because you can’t go back to where you were before 2010.  
June Lee, The Star, Malaysia: The era of long tenureship of prime ministers seems to be over, especially in this region. We see governments changing very fast now. You have been in power for about 10 years. How long do you plan to stay at the helm?
I think that leaders stay as long as they are able to make a contribution. If they stay beyond that, then they have overstayed their welcome. And in Singapore, we pay a lot of attention to succession planning and making sure that we have a new team ready, and new leaders who are capable of taking charge, so that the country can move ahead and the leaders can be in sync with the country. I can’t say exactly how long I am staying, but I am 62 years old and that’s not young.
* Singapore President Tony Tan, on his state visit to the Philippines earlier this month, gave this response to the proposed defence dialogue: “Defence relations are warm and friendly. Both defence establishments interact regularly through high-level visits, professional exchanges and courses. The Philippines Defence Secretary is also a regular participant of the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore. President Aquino broached the subject of defence cooperation during our bilateral meeting but we did not discuss this in detail.”