S’pore hopes US can continue to play the role of ‘benign' influence on regional security: PM Lee

The U.S. emphasised its commitment to its "long-standing relationship" with Singapore.

Sulaiman Daud | August 23, 2021, 06:44 PM

On her second day in Singapore, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was grilled on the troubled American withdrawal from Afghanistan and its implications for its relationships with other allies and partner countries, including Singapore.

In response, Harris emphasised the U.S.' commitment to its "long-standing relationship" with Singapore, and spoke of further scope for cooperation between the two countries.

U.S. commitment in light of Afghanistan situation

At a joint press conference with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Aug. 23, CNA asked Harris about U.S. commitment to "longtime allies" in light of the Afghanistan situation.

Harris replied that the U.S. takes its role as a global leader "very seriously", and her presence in Singapore is a reaffirmation of the U.S.'s commitment to its membership in the Indo Pacific region, longstanding partnerships in Southeast Asia, and its longstanding relationship with Singapore.

She added that the visit, combined with the various agreements made with Singapore on the same day in areas like cybersecurity, "speaks volumes" in terms of the integrity of U.S. relationships it has around the world.

A Reuters journalist followed up with a more provocative question along the same lines, asking about Afghans being trampled and dying as they rush to flee the country, and asked PM Lee if the "fall of Afghanistan" has changed his "calculus" on how he can rely on America as a partner in the region, both militarily and economically.

"Does that impact the credibility of America's foreign policy promises?" she asked.

Singapore understands the reasons behind Biden's decision

PM Lee said he had already addressed the point in his earlier remarks. In his reply to CNA, PM Lee said that multiple U.S. presidents had declared their resolve to withdraw from Afghanistan, and described it as an "extremely difficult situation" inherited by the Biden Administration.

He told Harris that Singapore understood the reasons for U.S. President Joe Biden's decision, and that Singapore is "grateful" for the U.S. intervention that has "stopped terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a safe base for 20 years".

He also said:

"What matters is how the U.S. repositions itself in the Asia Pacific, engages the broader region, and continues to fight against terrorism, because that will determine the perceptions of the countries of the U.S. global priorities, and of its strategic intentions."

PM Lee: U.S. is a "benign influence" which ensures security in region

Replying to Reuters, PM Lee added that what the U.S. does will influence perceptions of U.S. resolve and commitment to the region.

He said countries have to take positions and make calculations, but also recalculate and adjust their positions from time to time.

"Sometimes it can be done smoothly. Sometimes there are hiccups. Sometimes there's things (that) go awry and take time to put right.

But countries remain with long term interests, with long term partners, and is the mark of a country which can succeed, that it takes these interests and partners seriously, and in a dispassionate way, and maintains them over the long term."

PM Lee said the U.S. has been the region for more than 70 years. There have been ups and downs, difficult moments and dramatic transformations in Asia, brought by "the benign and constructive influence of the United States as a regional guarantor of security and supporter of prosperity".

He added that Singapore hopes and works on the basis that the U.S. will continue to play that role, and "continue to engage the region for many more years to come".

Quarantine-free travel for the U.S.?

The New York Times had a question for PM Lee on opening up Singapore to foreign visitors, asking:

"Your country's travel restrictions are a major strain on American businesses, businesses worldwide.

Since Singapore has said that it wants to expand quarantine-free travel, what are the specific conditions it would take to get a quarantine-free arrangement in the U.S., and high-vaccination countries like it."

PM Lee said he had discussed this with Harris. As more people are vaccinated and infections are brought under control, it would be easier to open up.

He said Singapore has been "very tight" on our borders for some time because it was necessary to get the situation secure. Although progress has been made, herd immunity has not yet been reached.

PM Lee said that working out travel arrangements depends on vaccination progress in other countries, but also on the prevalence of Covid-19 in those countries, and having confidence in pre-departure testing and vaccination certificates.

PM Lee said that as a hub, it was important for Singapore to open up but to do so safely, and the U.S. is one country that Singapore is in discussions with.

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Top image from MCI.