Statesmanship, give-and-take & cooperation needed for world to accommodate China's rise: PM Lee

Singapore must stand up and speak up for its own principles, and does not take sides.

Sulaiman Daud | March 24, 2023, 10:49 PM

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outlined Singapore's approach to international relations and in particular, the importance of maintaining good relationships with other countries while also standing up and speaking out for its own principles.

In an interview with CCTV-3, a China-based media outlet, at the Istana, PM Lee also touched upon U.S.-China relations and Asean, and how China could best navigate its relationships with others to achieve a win-win outcome for all sides.

The interview, which was broadcast on March 24, was reported off a full transcript issued by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Good ties between Singapore and China

Speaking at the Istana on March 17, PM Lee said he had written to China's President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang to congratulate them on their re-election and election, respectively.

He noted that Singapore and China have very good relations that go back further than official established diplomatic relations in 1990, and the two countries are currently engaged in a number of government-to-government projects like the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Chongqing Connectivity Project and the Tianjin Eco-city.

PM Lee expressed his support for China's Belt-and-Road Initiative, calling it a good strategic move by China with an opportunity for it to deepen economic and trade links. For its part, Singapore can contribute in its role as a financial centre, financing projects, and as a place for legal arbitration.

He also welcomed companies who wished to set up their headquarters in Singapore, which could serve "control tower functions" and manage their operations in Southeast Asia.

Tense relations between U.S. and China

The interviewer asked PM Lee for his views on the relations between China and the U.S..

PM Lee said: "I think you have to take things step by step, and stabilise the relations and then gradually build trust, and gradually try to move forward."

He noted that Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden have spoken to each other directly, both online and in person. The two world leaders previously met in Bali, Indonesia during the G20 summit.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China, before the meeting got derailed over the balloon saga, which the U.S. claimed was aiding espionage efforts.

PM Lee said he hoped that both sides could build contacts and that the situation will remain stable and without mishaps.

"But it will take time. It is not easy and there are political pressures on both sides," he said.

China's rise and how it could be accommodated

PM Lee also spoke about China's rise, and how it could be better accommodated in the global system.

In response to the interviewer, who also claimed that an overwhelming majority of countries sees China's rise as beneficial to the world with a few viewing this as a "threat", PM Lee said that its rise has resulted in a "very major change" to the global system.

"China, which used to be maybe two or three percent of global trade, you are now 15 to 20 percent of the global trade, you are 18 per cent of the world’s GDP," he said, adding that it is a "tremendous transformation" for both China and the world.

PM Lee said that from a "dispassionate" point of view, it's a good thing that 1.4 billion people lead better lives. But from an operationalisation point of view, the question is how to make the transformation work without generating tensions and misunderstandings.

This could lead to new problems that will be "very hard" to resolve.

The way forward, PM Lee said, is for "statesmanship" and a lot of "give-and-take", cooperation with other countries and adjustment on both sides.

China is not what it used to be, with implications for both sides

This is because other countries have to be able to accept that China today is not what it used to be. It is more prosperous, contributes more to the world economy and has a stronger voice in international affairs. But PM Lee also said:

"But at the same time, China must also be conscious that the arrangements which worked when you were much smaller, and countries could say, 'Well, this is a developing, not so advanced economy, and therefore we can cut it some slack and make some concessions, and therefore allow it to do things which are an extension of the rules which generally apply'."

PM Lee said he thinks some of those concessions need to be reconsidered, and China has to be able to recalibrate its position in the world, which is not easy to do on both sides.

"But I think it is absolutely essential to do because the world cannot afford a conflict between China and the rest of the world, and in particular between China and the U.S.," PM Lee said.

Economic cooperation in Asean depends on overall relationship

PM Lee also spoke on the relations between Asean and China, where the interviewer noted that "remarkable progress" has been made and both sides has become each other's largest trading partner.

With the interviewer asking what role Singapore could play in upgrading cooperation, PM Lee said that Singapore is "nearly the smallest" and only one of Asean's 10 members. However, it could show the potential of what's possible, aside from participating in Asean.

Referring to the Singapore-China Free Trade Agreement, PM Lee said, "Therefore, it is an encouragement when working with Asean, to say: 'Look, it is possible, Singapore has done it, we have found it good, China has found it workable, why not think about it?'."

PM Lee also pointed out that Asean-China cooperation depended on the overall relationship, as not only are economic issues at play, but also security and political ones.

He noted there are "some problems" being worked on, and added, "The more progress we can make working on these problems, I think the easier it will be for us to make further progress on economic cooperation."

Not just economic issues

He cited the matter of the South China Sea, and the Code of Conduct, and said that while it is not something easily worked out, he hoped progress could be made. If the issue could be managed in a way that respects the interests of all countries, "big or small", it was easier for economic cooperation to go further.

PM Lee also made the point that while economic cooperation could lead to "win-win arguments", these opportunities may not be seized if the political relationship is lacking, as with China and the U.S.

"Between America and China, for example, I think that is one of the issues you have now, because your relations are tense. Therefore, even when there is opportunity to work together, for example on pandemic cooperation or climate change, it is not so easy."

He added:

"Between ASEAN and China, the relations are good. But the more we can deal with the non-economic issues well, I think the more the economic relations can prosper. And it works the other way round too – if we can have good economic ties, I think there is more incentive for us to resolve the other problems."

Singapore stands up for its own principles

The interviewer asked PM Lee about the Global Development Initiative, launched by Xi in 2021 and focusing on infrastructure and other development in developing countries.

PM Lee pointed out that Singapore is a small country that does not determine world affairs, but can and does speak up and makes its voice heard when making common cause with others.

"We stand up for a rules-based international system. We stand up for fundamental principles of the UN Charter. When Ukraine was invaded, we had to say very clearly that this was against the UN Charter, this was a violation of territorial integrity of a country, and we opposed it. In fact, we imposed some selective targeted sanctions on Russia.

It is not that we are hostile to Russia, or are Russia's enemy, but we cannot stand for such conduct. That has always been our position – whether, on one occasion, when the Americans invaded Grenada, we took such a view at the UN, and on other occasions, we have done that too, consistently."

Singapore is consistent and makes friends but does not take sides

He added that there are fundamental principles Singapore has to stand up for and speak up, including in support of an international order that allows countries big and small to co-exist peacefully.

PM Lee said, "I think that is very important. Because if you do not speak up, and one day something happens to you, who is going to speak up for you?"

He noted that Singapore goes on principles and remains consistent, instead of taking sides, and said, "I think that has served us well. We are friends with China, we are also friends with Europe, we are also friends with America. And we hope to remain that, whatever the state of the world."

In the wide-ranging interview, PM Lee covered many other topics, including his vision for Singapore, and his personal history of not regretting never having become a mathematician.

Top image from MCI.