Thursday, 31 March 2022

PM Lee Hsien Loong's Dialogue with the Council on Foreign Relations on 30 March 2022

Ukraine war heightens Asia's security concerns: PM Lee
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Mar 2022

WASHINGTON - The war in Ukraine has negatively impacted Asia and damaged the international framework for law and order and peace, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (March 30).

The crisis has also impaired the global multilateral system, a worrying development for a small nation like Singapore which depends on globalisation for its livelihood, he added.

At an hour-long dialogue organised by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, PM Lee laid out how Russia's invasion of its neighbour affects Asia, including Singapore, a deep concern that he and United States President Joe Biden expressed after their meeting on Tuesday.

Much of the wide-ranging dialogue was centred on the Ukraine war and its ripple effects on the world, from climate cooperation to energy security.

PM Lee, who has spent the week meeting America's top leaders, also gave his take on South-east Asia's security and economic landscape amid US engagement in the region.

He condemned the Russian invasion as something that endangered the sovereignty of all countries, especially small ones.

"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," he said at the event, attended in person by dozens of industry leaders and officials, and streamed online to more.

Moreover, he said, the conflict has rent relations in Europe between developed countries and Russia, making it more difficult for countries to work together on issues from trade to nuclear non-proliferation.

"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 hang together and cooperate with one another and not fall into disorder, autarky or anarchy?" he said.

What happens in Ukraine will also further strain US-China relations, affecting the rest of the world, said PM Lee.

Governments in the region will also draw from the crisis their own lessons about who they can rely on for defence, he added.

He cited how the crisis has prompted some in Japan to publicly consider whether the country should host US nuclear weapons, even though the government has rejected the idea, and how South Korea opinion polls have of late reflected a public reception to the idea of nuclear capabilities.

"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," said PM Lee. "I think we're heading into very dangerous directions."

Opinion polls have shown a decline in confidence among the Taiwanese public that America will come to their aid should Taiwan be attacked, he said. "These calculations will be made. It will not change the scene overnight. But all these are significant strategic recalibrations," said PM Lee.

The crisis has also highlighted the importance of having institutions in the Asia-Pacific that can help avoid conflict and head off a failure of deterrence, he added.

These institutions will have to enable a difficult adjustment - "how to accommodate a China which is going to become more developed, larger... and yet not become overbearing on the rest of the world and acceptable to the US, which currently is the dominant military power worldwide".

PM Lee said: "You need to give thought to this and steer things in a direction which does not lead you to a hot conflict."

The dialogue followed a day of meetings in Washington for PM Lee, including with Vice-President Kamala Harris, on Tuesday.

They discussed new areas of cooperation, including cyber security, space cooperation and infrastructure development.

Ukraine conflict underscores importance of defence, principled diplomacy: PM Lee
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 2 Apr 2022

NEW YORK - The conflict in Ukraine underscores the importance of Singapore ensuring its own defence, and the need for regional institutions that encourage cooperation and interdependence between countries, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (April 1).

Beyond their country building up its military capabilities, Singaporeans must also have the will to defend their home, PM Lee said in an interview with Singapore reporters at the end of his week-long working visit to the United States.

"'This is my home, I am going to fight for it if necessary and willing to die for it. And it is that will to defend what is yours and to defend your family and friends that keeps the Ukrainians going and that Singaporeans must have, if we are going to keep ourselves safe in this world," said PM Lee.

In terms of diplomacy, Singapore can also champion forums in the Asia-Pacific to talk about difficult issues and head them off before they become impossible to manage, he said.

These include the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the East Asia Summit and America's Indo-Pacific economic framework, which bring countries in the region together to expand their areas of cooperation and interdependence, he added.

"We are doing our part to encourage that, but that is something which requires many participants. And to the extent that we have influence, we try to encourage other countries to go in that direction," said PM Lee, adding that doing so was one of the reasons for his US trip.

During his visit, Singapore also signed the Artemis Accords on space cooperation, announced a new cyber-security dialogue with the US and inked agreements to deepen cooperation in infrastructure development and other areas.

The war in Ukraine - which is now in its second month - was very much on Americans' minds and came up in all his meetings, said PM Lee.

Over the course of the week, he met US President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, Cabinet secretaries, Democrat and Republican congressional leaders, and industry leaders, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

PM Lee, who departs for Singapore on Saturday, said he had sought to explain his perspectives to US leaders on Ukraine, US-China relations and other issues, including why Singapore strongly condemned Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"From our point of view, right from the beginning, we saw this as a matter of fundamental principles of upholding the UN Charter and, in particular, not violating the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of states," he said.

"That is the fundamental principle which is vital to us, because if that is up for grabs, then what is our basis for saying we are entitled to exist, and to security and to be safe in the world."

Singapore is not choosing sides but standing up for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, said PM Lee, stressing that the Republic has consistently taken this stance over the years.

"You have to take a stand; you have to have the courage to do this. Because if you do not do this and do not stand up, where will you stand if one day you need help? And you say, 'Please come, fundamental principle is at stake'. We have to protect that principle," said PM Lee.

Singapore took a similar stance when Cambodia was attacked by Vietnam in 1978, and when the US invaded Grenada in 1983, he added.

"We voted against them at the UN," said PM Lee of the US invasion, which involved a military occupation and regime change. "(It) does not mean we are the enemy of the US, but we cannot approve of what they did; we cannot endorse or condone such violation of the sovereignty of another country."

Singapore also imposed sanctions and other export restrictions against Moscow on its own, even though it typically looks to the UN to set the pace on sanctions.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine was "such an egregious, flagrant and major violation of the international norms and with such a major consequence for the global order" that Singapore decided it had to act on sanctions without the UN, said PM Lee.

"We had to stand up and be counted," he said, noting that the UN is unable to impose sanctions because Russia, as a Security Council member, can veto them. "It is a matter of principle."

PM Lee said that Washington, which he last visited in September 2019, is thinking ahead about how to manage the Ukraine crisis, particularly in relation to its relationship with Beijing.

Describing the US-China relationship as fraught, PM Lee said that the superpowers' issues are difficult, and while communication channels exist, he is not sure whether they are up to the demanding subjects that need to be discussed.

"There is a certain continuity in basic attitudes in the US administration, in the House, in Congress, as well as in the population, because mutual trust and confidence is lacking, and that is a very difficult problem to overcome. But it is something which they are very seized with," he said.

"I hope that it will be possible to make things gradually turn in the right direction."

Russia's invasion of Ukraine raises 'awkward questions' for China: PM Lee
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Mar 2022

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has raised some "awkward questions" for China, given the attack's violation of territorial integrity and sovereignty, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a dialogue on Wednesday (March 30).

He was asked by the dialogue's moderator, Council on Foreign Relations president and former veteran US diplomat Richard Haass, for his views on whether the Russian invasion of Ukraine had been a "sobering experience" for China.

PM Lee replied: "It violates the principles which the Chinese hold very dearly: territorial integrity and sovereignty, and non-interference.

"If you can do that to Ukraine, and if the Donbass (region) can be considered to be enclaves, and maybe republics, what about Taiwan? Or other parts of non-Han China? So, that is a very difficult question."

China stresses that Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province to be reunited with, is an internal matter of sovereignty.

It also holds a similar position when criticising Washington's positions on other controversial issues, such as Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

The sanctions have also underscored how interrelated the world's economies are with one another, said PM Lee, who is in the United States on a working trip until Saturday.

"Any one of us, especially the bigger ones, can pull the house down... we are all dependent on one another," said PM Lee, citing as an example how one country may own a lot of US treasury bonds, but should Washington decide to freeze those accounts, that will have practical economic consequences.

Conversely, the US is also economically interdependent with China, one of its biggest trading partners and a manufacturing base for many US companies, he said.

"If those links fracture, it is going to hurt you too. It doesn't mean that you won't end up in a bad spot. But it does mean that both sides know the price is very high," said PM Lee.

Singapore has strongly condemned the invasion on principle and imposed sanctions and export restrictions on Russia, but it is so far the only South-east Asian country to do so.

On Wednesday, PM Lee said he did not think that Beijing is paying a political price in the Asia-Pacific for not distancing itself from Moscow.

While countries in the region might worry about the implications on their sovereignty and the principles of the UN Charter, they also want to preserve their ties with China. Quite a few countries have significant ties with Russia as well, PM Lee added.

A journalist in the audience asked PM Lee "if the Biden administration had accepted your preferred role as Beijing whisperer".

PM Lee said with a laugh: "I am not a Beijing whisperer."

Asked if he could be, he replied: "No, we cannot. We are not part of the family.

"We are an ethnic Chinese majority country in South-east Asia - multiracial, multi-religious, with independent national interests and priorities, and they treat us as such."

He added: "And we remind them that that is so."

PM Lee was also scheduled to separately meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Wednesday afternoon.

PM Lee: Efforts to tackle climate crisis not helped by geopolitical tensions
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Mar 2022

WASHINGTON - Global efforts to mitigate the climate crisis will be "inadequate" and are not being helped by geopolitical realities like the Russia-Ukraine war and tensions between the United States and China, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (March 30).

Therefore, Singapore has to adapt to climate change for its survival, he added at a dialogue at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

"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," said PM Lee.

Singapore takes climate change very seriously, given its vulnerability to rising sea levels, and is doing its part. But much more depends on global initiatives because Singapore forms such a small fraction of global emissions, PM Lee added.

Singapore's carbon dioxide emissions make up about 0.2 per cent of the world's total, according to the European Commission's Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research.

Singapore hopes to reach net-zero emissions around 2050, but the exact timing depends on, among other things, technology and carbon markets, which are "big question marks", PM Lee said.

Much also depends on the international order, and ongoing developments like Russia's war with Ukraine and fraught US-China relations make it harder to cooperate on climate change, he added. "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 PM Lee.

"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 (US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate) 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?" added the Prime Minister.

"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," he said.

The US and China are the world's top two emitters of carbon dioxide, and Russia is the fourth largest.

Asked if climate cooperation had been relegated by the renewed emphasis on energy security, as Europe attempts to grow less dependent on Russian gas exports, PM Lee said that cutting off dependence on Russia will impact Europe in the first place.

"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," he said.

PM Lee was also asked about how Singapore manages to do business with China, in comparison with America's unhappiness over China's business practices. Washington has accused Chinese companies of intellectual property theft, among other issues, and responded with sanctions and tariffs.

The Prime Minister replied that he did not think sanctions would get the US very far, and said that a certain basis of trust was needed to do business and solve problems together.

"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," he said.

"As (former US secretary of state) George Shultz 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."

Singapore also does not benefit from the difficulties in Chinese markets, said PM Lee in reply to another question. He said some companies or people in Hong Kong will think of moving 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," he added.

"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," he added, referring to the rival American rental car companies.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, President Joe Biden discuss Ukraine war's implications on Asia-Pacific and regional issues
By Charissa Yong, US Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Mar 2022

WASHINGTON - The war in Ukraine has implications for the Asia-Pacific, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a joint press conference with United States President Joe Biden on Tuesday (March 29).

"There are potential flashpoints and contentious issues in our region too, which, if not managed well, could escalate to open conflict," said PM Lee, who is on a working visit to the US.

"Countries with interests in the region need to pursue all efforts to settle disagreements through peaceful means so that we can avoid reaching a point of no return," he added, without specifying any countries.

PM Lee said it was therefore important to keep open channels of dialogue between countries, including at the highest level.

“This will help to manage developments in order to avoid conflict and prevent misreading each other’s intentions,” he said.

“We also need to create inclusive constructs to bridge differences and encourage cooperation and interdependence in the Asia-Pacific – for example, the Apec Leaders’ Meeting and the proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.”

The two leaders met for an hour at the White House, and afterwards strongly condemned the attack by Russia on Ukraine, now into its sixth week, at a press conference.

Said PM Lee: "The sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity of all countries, big and small, must be respected. The unprovoked military invasion of a sovereign country under any pretext is unacceptable."

He said that he and Mr Biden had discussed the measures taken by Singapore to constrain Russia's capacity to conduct war against Ukraine. These include sanctions and export restrictions.

Mr Biden said Singapore's "strong leadership in the region" made it clear that Russia's war was unacceptable to countries in every region, not just Europe.

"Today, Singapore and the United States are united in sending a message to all nations… regardless of size or population, they are equal in their rights on the global stage," he said.

"They have a right to sovereignty and territorial integrity and to determine their own future, free from violence and intimidation."

The leaders, who last met in Rome on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in November last year, also discussed peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific, said Mr Biden.

"That includes ensuring that all nations in the region, including China, uphold the principles that enable a free and open region," said the President, adding that Singapore and the US were both committed to freedom of navigation and the unimpeded flow of maritime commerce in the South China Sea.

They also urged North Korea, which has conducted missile tests in recent months, to return to negotiations and refrain from further provocations.

Mr Biden said they had expressed deep concerns over the continuing suffering and violence in Myanmar, following last year's military coup.

"Singapore and the United States agree that the military regime must urgently implement the Asean Five-Point Consensus and return Burma to its path to democratic transition," said Mr Biden, using Myanmar's former name.

Asean's five point road map for Myanmar, called a "consensus", calls for an immediate cessation of violence, constructive dialogue among all parties, a special envoy to facilitate mediation and meet with all parties concerned, and humanitarian assistance.

PM Lee also met Vice-President Kamala Harris on Tuesday afternoon and will attend a dialogue at a think-tank on Wednesday. He is accompanied on his trip, which ends on April 2, by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong, and Communications and Information Minister Josephine Teo.


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