U.S. President-Elect Joe Biden likely has a "full plate" of priorities, with domestic matters as the most urgent, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with Bloomberg editor-in-chief John Micklethwait.
As per PM Lee:
"I think his first priorities will be domestic. He has got many urgent things to deal with, starting with Covid."
The interview was part of the Bloomberg 2020 New Economy Forum, which saw Micklethwait interview PM Lee at length on his thoughts on a Biden Presidency, the legacy of U.S. President Donald Trump, and the ongoing response to Covid-19.
In elaborating on his "full plate" term, PM Lee noted that apart from domestic concerns, Biden, "has many priorities and Asia is but one of them."
"In Europe, he has many priorities too – trade as well as NATO. With Russia, he has issues to settle, and in the Middle East."
PM Lee: I hope Biden will develop a framework for a constructive relationship with China
PM Lee further expressed his hope that Biden will develop a framework for a constructive relationship with China.
Such a framework should deal with issues such as "trade, security, climate change, non-proliferation, North Korea," he stated.
Some of these issues are of major concern to Asian countries which are keenly watching their development, PM highlighted and said:
"Because the last four years have been quite a tumultuous ride."
He pointed out:
"I cannot speak for the whole Administration, but I think there is some elements in the Administration who definitely did want to make moves which would be very difficult to reverse by the subsequent Administration, and which will set the tone for the relationship for a long time to come."
Such moves included the tariffs slapped on China, as well as recent statements by Trump on technological issues pertaining to China.
Biden knows Xi Jinping "very well"
When asked whether Biden could take a tougher line on China's President Xi Jinping, PM Lee said that it was possible.
He further noted that Biden also knew Xi very well on a personal level, and that both politicians have spent "many hours together" during their respective visits to the U.S. and China.
"That personal engagement at the top is important. Equally important is how each country sees the other and the intentions of the other, and whether they see the possibility of being able to work together to mitigate the inevitable contradictions which are going to arise between them."
The Prime Minister acknowledged that while collaboration was a challenge, it had historically been possible, with past U.S. administrations, while making fierce statements on the campaign trail, subsequently pivoting once they entered office.
Here, PM Lee cited the example of Bill Clinton, "who (as a candidate) talked about coddling dictators from Baghdad to Beijing, but (as President) he did business with China."
The Prime Minister then voiced his hope that something similar might happen with Biden's administration, though with another acknowledgement that this might be difficult given that:
"The consensus to see China as a strategic threat is almost becoming received wisdom and unquestionable in the US, in Washington.
It will be very difficult for any Administration, whether it is Biden or on the other side Trump, to disregard that and then just proceed as if the last few years had not taken place."
Trump and what he stands for are not gone
As for Trump, PM Lee pointed out that he had received more votes than former U.S. President Barack Obama.
"He has not disappeared, nor the pressures which he represented, they have not disappeared from America's body politic either."
As such, this is an issue that Biden must contend with.
PM Lee added:
"Hopefully we will be able to remove some of the bitterness and rancour and poison, and begin some reconciliation between the red and the blue Americans so that come 2024, the contest is not such a poisoned one."
When asked by Micklethwait about whether Trump had wrought permanent damage of the U.S. in the region, PM Lee further replied that there will be "some long-term impact."
In implying that there had been shifts which took place even before Trump, PM Lee highlighted that Trump had made a clearer shift by giving a much more narrow definition of U.S. interests with his talk of "making America great again".
The Prime Minister explained that previous administrations:
"...have seen America as having a broad interest in the stability of the region and the well-being of its partners, in the tending of its alliances with allies, in fostering an overall environment where many countries can prosper in an orderly scheme."
This is a position that will take the U.S. for a while to recover, and for other countries to also be convinced that it is doing so.
Covid-19: Asian countries have been successful on getting their populations to comply with measures
When asked about why several Asian countries were performing better in managing Covid-19 compared to Europe, PM Lee replied that he was hesitant "to declare victory."
This then brought up his answer that Asian countries had been successful in getting their people to comply with safe distancing and mask-wearing measures, compared to the Europeans or the Americans.
"You want to go out and let your hair down and have a drink and have a rave. When you do that, there are consequences for public health.
We (Singapore) have been lucky because we have not had a huge number of cases in the community."
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Top photo from MCI