Thursday, July 3, 2014

A less hospitable world without US engagement: PM


In a wide-ranging interview with Politico Magazine during his visit to the United States last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about Sino-US ties, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and America’s role in keeping the international world order. Below is an excerpt of the interview

Politico: The Obama administration has announced the “rebalancing towards Asia” with much fanfare, but has not always had the easiest time turning it from a strategic goal to reality. Just this week, we have these events in Iraq, this incredible tension in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine, distracting the President and Vice-President. It seems like we’re in a crisis-a-day mode. What is the message about Asia that you’re bringing?

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: The message is, you are a superpower; you have far-flung concerns and interests all around the world, but Asia is vital to you and you are a Pacific power. You have always been and will always be and, amid tending to all the other issues, please bear in mind that, in Asia, you have interests, friends and investments. You have to pay due attention to it in terms of resources, mindshare and explanation to the population why this is important and how it can make a difference to America.

But is it really a strategic pivot?

You have issues all over the world, but that does not mean you are completely equally distributed in all directions. In Asia, you may or may not have hot things going on at any one time. There are some hot issues too: North Korea can become hot; territorial disputes, island disputes have warmed up significantly over the past couple of years.

But there are also long-term secular crucial trends that are going to change the world. China is developing. Its influence is growing in the world; it is already one of the biggest economies.

The other countries in Asia are also linking up, cooperating with one another more, trading with one another more and developing a framework for international relations in Asia. America has to be part of this; if you are not part of this, I think you are going to find that many of your interests will be affected and perhaps even compromised.

Some people have even talked about a sort of “neo-isolationist” strain in US politics over the past few years — people in both American political parties being tired of the burdens of global leadership. Do you find yourself having to make the case that the US should still be engaged?

I think there is a mood like that in America. You talk about it, it’s all over your media, your opinion polls show it and your congressmen and senators have to reflect this mood because they have to be in sync with the population. But the US has been through these ups and downs. After Vietnam, you had a period of withdrawal and being tired of the sacrifices, pain and difficulties of the world.

But you bounced back and I’m quite sure you will bounce back this time. What I am trying to do is register with people who are interested and who count that it is unavoidable that you are feeling how you feel now. But you have to move beyond that and, the sooner you can come out from this mood, the better it is for America.

What is your best sense at the moment of the political prospects for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)?

The negotiations will continue. They have made a lot of progress, so these are the last few steps. There are some difficult issues yet to be resolved. I think the Japanese particularly have some sacred subjects that have to be talked about — beef, sugar, dairy products, rice and pork.

I am hopeful the agreement can be settled this year. I think everybody is trying hard and I know the Japanese do want to settle. Then, it has to be ratified. I do not have a feel for whether it can be.

I am told people think that, in the House, they would be able to have the votes. In the Senate, well, it depends on the Senate leadership and who the Senate leadership is because your mid-terms are coming and after that, well, you are not quite sure what the composition will be. So we will have to see.

Looking more broadly at the strategic picture in Asia now, you’ve had some very interesting things to say about what’s going on with both the Japanese and Chinese. You face challenges with these two big regional powers. Clearly, that raises the question of what role the US can continue to play in the region.

You have very important relations with both Japan and China. With Japan, you have a security alliance that has been (in place) since World War II.It is both a reassurance to Japan and a restraint because, with that security alliance, it means Japan has a nuclear umbrella and does not have to think about providing its own nuclear capabilities. I think that is a stabilising factor for the whole region.

With China, your relationship has grown very considerably. China is one of your biggest trading partners. The interdependence goes both ways — the Chinese invest in America, just as you invest in China. They buy your treasury bonds, treasury bills and US government securities. They depend on America as a source of technology and ideas as well as a destination for many of their most promising young people to go to study.

So, you have a lot of positive elements in your bilateral relationship and have to manage your difficulties that come up, whether it is territorial and maritime disputes, exchange rates or human rights, in such a way that does not skew the whole relationship in the wrong direction.

You talked recently about the problem of the South China Sea and Beijing’s territorial claims there, not wanting to assert the privilege that basically can prevail, over-ride and that they should be settled within the framework of international laws. Do you see any reasonable prospects for that occurring any time soon?

I think it is something that is going to take a very long time to resolve because no country will likely give up its territorial claims. It is politically very difficult to do and, so, you end up with an impasse ...

On the other hand, you have to live with the situation where it is leading to friction or encounters and incidents as well as escalation on the ground that can easily happen. Ships bump into one another, a boat sinks, sailors are killed or aeroplanes bump into one another. Something can easily go wrong.

Therefore, there has to be some code of conduct by which we all abide. So, until such a time when we solve the problem and agree where to draw the lines, we exercise restraint, manage the problem and prevent it from flaring up.

It feels as though we have reached a new point where we do not actually know what the rules are going to be.

If you look at it over the past two to three years, tensions have risen, both in the South China Sea and on the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands. That is a bad thing and ASEAN is quite concerned about it so is Singapore.

So, we have been counselling moderation and are managing this until you can resolve it in accordance with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

When you see what is happening on the other side of the world with Ukraine and Russia, and the idea that the Russians basically seized a portion of another country’s territory, (do you think it) has any kind of spillover effect in Asia? Do people look at this and say there is an unravelling of the international order?

Well, we think it is a bad precedent. It is not the right thing to do when a country can march in and take over a piece of somebody else’s country and, particularly, in contravention of international agreements that have already been reached, which they were party to. Because, in this case, there was an agreement guaranteeing Ukraine’s boundaries that the Russians were party to.

So, for that not to count for anything, I think that is a very bad international precedence. And it has implications all around the world.

Looking at the big picture of the region, you have China which we have discussed. In Japan, there has been a rise in nationalism. You talked about the rising tensions with South Korea, for example, the constant reopening of World War II and its tragic history. How much of a negative consequence does that have on the region?

I think it is not helpful. We ought to be able to put these historical facts behind us and move forward. Nobody would or should forget them, but neither should you be trapped by them.

And you should be able to move forward and cooperate with each other despite this, as the Europeans, (such as) the French and Germans, have succeeded in doing.

Well, the war was a brutal and nasty business, but they are now allies, (although) not without many areas of argument. But nobody can imagine them going to war.

But, in Asia, we have not had that coming to terms with the past and that ability to move forward.

China obviously is going through a period of great transition. It still has a relatively new leadership. What is your view of the path it is on right now?

I think it is working hard. I think the new leadership has established itself faster than people expected. They have worked out a comprehensive scheme for the reforms they want to carry out, which they adopted at the third plenum last November. They know what they need to do domestically. I think they have some idea of where they want to be internationally.

Whether they can do it is difficult to say, because it is a very big system and there will be inertia and push-back. But I think they are quite clear what they want to achieve, especially on the economic path, where you can have a good road map. When there are social and political reforms, they will have to feel their way forward, but I think they know the status quo is not tenable.

For the international angle, the challenge is: On the one hand, they want to defend what they see as a legitimate interest of theirs; on the other hand, they also know that, if they assert themselves by might rather than through acceptance by other countries, in the long term, this is not good for China or the world.

How they find that balance, we are still waiting to see. It is not going to be an easy balance to strike because it is not only the leadership, but also the whole mood of the society, the population.

Nowadays in China, there is public opinion to worry about. They have the Internet and people have the equivalent of Twitter — Weibo — and netizens in any country are seldom a moderating force.

You talked about the status quo not necessarily being tenable in the long term for China politically. There was the recent anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident, which, of course, was much discussed in the US and around the world, not so much in China, which went out of its way to make sure netizens weren’t able to have a free discussion of the tragic event.

Do you see a more peaceful version of the kind of movement towards free speech and democratic reforms that really has been squashed since then?

If you look at it in objective, absolute terms, there is a lot more speech and free discussion in China than there ever has been. There are restrictions, the Internet is censored and there is a great Chinese firewall.

But the average Chinese citizen has many more sources of information and opportunities to express his views and participate in debate than even five years ago. There are some no-go areas — you cannot question the rule of the Communist Party, you cannot debate whether Tibet can be independent or autonomous, or Taiwan.

But other than these, on many issues in fact, the Chinese have been very open and it is a very diverse society. It is not a monolithic totalitarian system that some Westerners sometimes have an impression of.

Now, how do you take the next steps that will lead to channelling these views and mass attitudes into the political system, so the leaders respond to them in a more formal way? That is what they have to work out.

What are some of the most common misconceptions you hear when you come to Washington about what’s happening in Asia right now?

You do not always realise how much goodwill there is in the region for America. You have been there for a long time, you have been there doing business, you have been there with the Seventh Fleet, you have been there diplomatically. The President has visited. It is not always the hot part of the world, so it is not always at the top of your mind.

But, while it is peaceful and developing, you need to know there are many people in Asia, many countries in Asia, who greatly appreciate what the US can contribute in terms of stability, prosperity and soft power, and who depend on America to do that. And, if you did not do that, you are missing out and probably going to do less well than you should out of a story that is going to be a very big part of the 21st century.

When you go to Beijing and other capitals in the region, what do they misunderstand about the US? I think there is a question about whether China is betting on American decline, for example.

Many of them do not realise how resilient the US is and they think, after the global financial crisis, you are done for and suitable obsequies will be spoken, then the new power will rise.

But I have told them, when I had a chance to, that it is not so and it is a very resilient country and has tremendous energy, creativity as well as drive and it is going to bounce back. It may now be tired of wars and battles, but it will come back. It has done so before.

I think there is also a perception, in China particularly, that America is trying to circumscribe, restrict and even contain it and this will thwart it from taking its rightful place in the world. I do not think any American leader wants to do that.

But I believe there will be anxiety in America, wondering what the rise of China portends, how it will fit in and how it will affect American power and influence.

So, there are confidence-building steps that need to be taken in order for America and China to have a stable long-term relationship.

Yes, no doubt that is at the heart of the misconception. Do you think containment is the wrong way of thinking about it?

No, I think Americans know that is not going to work because nobody is going to help you contain and you cannot do it yourself.

All the Asian countries want to work with China, prosper with it and take advantage of the opportunities it is offering them. America, too, is deeply engaged with China.

How can you contain them? It is not doable but, nevertheless, that lack of confidence in the other, that lack of trust in the other, is there and is an issue that has to be addressed.

I think it is being addressed because the President has spent time with Mr Xi Jinping and, last year, had a Sunnylands summit in California. And you have got the strategic economic dialogue between your Treasury and State Secretaries and their counterparts in China.

And you have to have these top-level engagements but, actually, it would also be helpful to have engagement lower down the line in government services, in armed services.

In particular, the military?

Yes, in particular, the military, so you do not get a mis-measure of each other that can lead to wrong assessments and missteps ...

That is a gap that needs to be addressed somehow. I think there is apprehension and reserve on both sides — maybe on the Chinese side more than the American one. But we should encourage them to open up and come forward.

There has been a lot of questioning and criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy ... about whether we (should) continue to assert a kind of leadership role that, obviously, we were trying very hard to pull away from the militarised foreign policy over the past few decades.

It is not easy to lead in the world today. On the one hand, people want America to take the initiative; on the other hand, when America moves, they say: “There you are, you are squashing people”.

And, on the part of the American population, they want to see leadership, but do not want to see entanglement and are not keen to be involved in new adventures. So the psychology is conflicted and Mr Obama has a very difficult job.

But, there is really no substitute (to Americans engaging) in the world whatever the difficulties because, if you do not do that, it is going to be a much less hospitable world for you and many other countries all over the world.

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