MM LEE'S COMMENTS ON U.S.' ROLE IN ASIA
MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's recent comments in the United States have caused unhappiness among China's netizens. He had urged the US to remain engaged in Asia so as to balance China's military and economic clout. He also said China's 'blue-water fleet with aircraft carriers cannot just be to deter foreign intervention in a conflict between Taiwan and the mainland'.
Mr Lee had made frequent comments related to China before. Some of his remarks have seemed acceptable to Westerners, and some to the Chinese.
The background to Mr Lee's most recent remarks was US President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to four Asian nations, including China, from next Wednesday. Mr Obama said publicly that he was looking forward to hearing Mr Lee's views on Asia before leaving on his trip.
There was great unhappiness with Mr Lee among Chinese netizens. Many have a good impression of Singapore as it is a country with a majority Chinese population. They felt that since China does not harbour any ill intentions towards Singapore, there should be no occasion for the current situation.
A Chinese expert on world affairs told the Global Times that Singapore has been vacillating between the US and China, and that Mr Lee's comments may reflect the views of some South-east Asian nations. However, small nations must be extremely careful as they try to balance big nations against one another, as they risk outsmarting themselves.
[Sounds like a warning if not a threat to me.]
What Mr Lee said
THE comments that angered the Chinese netizens were made by Mr Lee at the US-Asean Business Council's 25th anniversary gala dinner in Washington on Oct 27.
The gala dinner was attended by 'a stellar cast of the political and business heavyweights', the Singapore media noted. In a story headlined 'MM Lee urges the US to retain role in Asia to balance China', he was reported to have warned the US that it risked losing its global leadership position if it did not remain engaged in Asia to balance China's military and economic clout.
He said the rest of Asia was unable to match China on its own, so the US was needed to strike a regional balance. 'The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance,' he said.
He also said: 'If the US does not recognise that the Asia-Pacific is where the economic centre of action would be and it loses that economic superiority or lead that it has in the Pacific, then it would lose it worldwide.'
Agence France-Presse said Mr Lee seemed concerned over China's military build-up, which he said might not necessarily be meant for a conflict over Taiwan. He said it was a surprise that Beijing paraded high-tech weapons during the parade on Oct 1 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. It raised the spectre of a modern high-tech People's Liberation Army in two or three decades.
Mr Lee also said that closer to home in South-east Asia, China could flex its military muscle over overlapping territorial claims to islets in the Paracels and Spratlys. 'The Chinese have built on several islets fishing outposts, and coast guard vessels patrol them,' he said. 'Later, behind these small patrol craft will be a blue-water fleet.'
Lianhe Zaobao reported that Mr Lee held a 45-minute talk with Mr Obama at the White House. The US President said he was 'looking forward to hearing Mr Lee's views on the evolving situation in the region'. On Oct 31, Lianhe Zaobao ran an editorial titled 'The strategic future of the US is in Asia-Pacific', echoing Mr Lee's remarks. With the rise of China and India, the driving force in the world's development has shifted increasingly from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Mr Lee's Washington speech was a reminder of this trend.
The editorial said that China had also become more confident due to its growing national power. Chinese officials who visited the US recently have turned from being defensive to going on the offensive, by raising some of the major obstacles to the development of Sino-US ties.
One is US activity in China's maritime exclusive economic zone, which should be cut and eventually cease. The US military is likely to have mixed feelings upon hearing this as it has been sending its warships to the Asia-Pacific waters since the end of World War II.
According to Japan's Sankei Shimbun, Mr Lee said the US should play a key role in the concept of the East Asian Community, and asked the US to participate actively in the process.
His comments caused unhappiness among China's netizens. Several lamented that while they treated Singaporeans as Chinese, Singaporeans did not treat the Chinese as 'among their own'.
One netizen said: 'Lee Kuan Yew spoke for the feelings of those in the West who fear China's rise would harm their vested interests.' The more emotional netizens made even stronger remarks.
Mr Wang, a 32-year-old manager in Beijing, said the Chinese respected Singapore. He has not heard of anyone asking anything from Singapore when China grows stronger, so there is no conflict of interests between China and Singapore. He did not understand why politicians would make such comments (as Mr Lee did).
What experts say
MR JIN Canrong, the deputy dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University, told reporters that Mr Lee's remarks reflected the mentality of some South-east Asian nations.
'We have to face a fact - some of the neighbouring countries are not at ease with China,' he said.
'China is the No. 1 trading partner of many of its neighbouring states. They rely on China economically, but do not trust China on security issues, and hope to turn to the US to safeguard their own security.
'However, the US has reduced its attention to the Asia-Pacific region since the outbreak of the financial crisis, as it is preoccupied with problems at home.
'These countries are still willing to get close to the US regardless of whether the US has the capability or is interested.
'Thus, several South-east Asian nations were very excited when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Asean Regional Forum this year.'
Mr Jin said Mr Lee made the unfriendly remarks towards China because first, he knew that the Chinese government followed the broad principles of tao guang yang hui - 'keep a low profile and bide one's time' - and will not argue with him over this. Besides, Mr Lee did not fear angering Chinese citizens as he felt that they played a small role in China's diplomacy.
'Lee Kuan Yew made a misjudgment on this, and this is also a point foreigners are generally not aware of. In reality, the people's opinions play a more important role in diplomacy than they can imagine,' he said.
Mr Su Hao, an expert on East Asian affairs at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times that Mr Lee's action was a bit unexpected and his remarks were unfriendly towards China. He said Singapore was a small nation located between two larger nations - Indonesia and Malaysia. Hence, it needed to seek strategic backing from a big nation.
Thus, Singapore has traditionally valued its ties with the US. Singapore has its own strategic interests and considerations, but it provided the conditions for the US to have a military presence in South-east Asia. Though this is not favourable to China objectively, Singapore is not targeting China intentionally.
He said Asean nations hoped to maintain an equal balance between the big nations. But with China and Japan wielding big influence in Asia, and Asean having little power, they hoped for a big nation from outside the region, like the US, to be actively involved in East Asia.
Singapore has always viewed itself as the brain of Asean. Hence, it hopes to spur the US to place importance on East Asia through its statements.
Many netizens do not see Singapore as one of America's closest allies. Chinese military affairs expert Dai Xu told the Global Times that Singapore has close military ties with the US and participates actively in its joint military drills in Asia. In addition, the US has a permanent base in Singapore, which also buys almost all its weapons from the US.
He said Singapore often plays roles too big for itself, hoping in vain to be the Israel of Asia. In its diplomacy, Singapore plays up to big countries and leans on them. Singapore needs to grab attention to feel alive as it fears being drowned out on the world political stage, he added.
Previous comments on China
THE sprightly Mr Lee has often commented on China and is frequently sought for interviews by the Western media. However, his comments have been contradictory at times.
The German weekly Der Spiegel asked him in 2005 if China's success had become dangerous for Singapore. 'We have watched this transformation and the speed at which it is happening...it's scary...So it is a very serious challenge for us to move aside and not collide with them,' he replied.
Time magazine published an interview with him in the same year. He said: 'The discomfort (with China) is primarily that it is becoming a very powerful country and that it's not averse to making its power felt...When we did not sufficiently make amends for (then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong) having visited Taiwan, they just froze all economic ties at the official level.'
In a United Press International interview on Feb 8 last year, Mr Lee said the Chinese leadership was determined not to challenge any existing power - meaning the US, European Union and Russia - but just make friends with everybody.
When speaking about China's peaceful rise in September this year, he said he was confident the current generation of Chinese leaders wanted peace, but he was unsure of the younger generation of Chinese.
Mr Jin said Singapore was America's bridgehead in Asean and was of higher importance when it came to American politics in the Asia-Pacific region as Singapore, having a majority Chinese population, can be an intermediary between China and the US.
'The US has placed more weight on Singapore because China has become more important to the US. As Singapore can serve as the bridge between China and the US, it has a higher status in the eyes of the US,' he added.
The article first appeared in China's Global Times on Monday. Translated by Ho Cheeng Cheeng and Lim Ruey Yan.