A Conversation With Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong discusses Singapore's perspective on current geopolitical developments, the United States engagement of the Asia-Pacific, and U.S.-China relations.
HAASS: Well, good morning. And it’s great to be back in person. This is one of the first meetings we’ve had in two years, Prime Minister, where we have not just a virtual audience in the hundreds, but we have a physical audience. So this couldn’t be a better time.
LEE: Happy to see faces face-to-face. It makes a big difference.
HAASS: It does. So it’s great. This is a conversation with Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore. Mr. Prime Minister, it’s on the record, I’m told.
HAASS: So be aware. We’re going to—the prime minister and I are going to talk for roughly twenty-five, thirty minutes. Then we’ll take questions. I’ll probably go back and forth between people in the room and people afar around the country or, in some cases, even the world. But first and foremost, sir, thank you for being with us. I’ve known the prime minister for many years, even decades. And I would just simply say, he is not just one of the most experienced but really one of the most thoughtful leaders on the world stage. So it’s a real pleasure and a real honor to have you with us today, sir.
LEE: Happy to be back.
HAASS: I want to begin with the joint statement that you—that was issued on the occasion of your meeting with President Biden earlier this week. I want to quote one line in particular. “The war in Ukraine has a negative impact on the Indo-Pacific region.” And just to begin, I would love to hear your explanation as to why that’s so and how. What specifically are you alluding to there?
LEE: It impacts the Asia-Pacific area at many levels. First of all, it’s damaged the international framework for law and order and peace between countries. It violates the U.N. charter, it endangers the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones. And if a principle is accepted that crazy decisions and historical errors are the justification for invading somebody else, I think many of us are going to be feeling very insecure in the Asia-Pacific, but also in the rest of the world.
Secondly, because of what has happened and the rent in relations in Europe between developed countries and Russia, the global system of multilateral working together—whether on trade, whether on climate change, whether on pandemic preparedness, whether on nuclear nonproliferation—has become very difficult to work. You no longer have a framework in which opponents, rivals, competitors work together and maybe disagree with one another but there is a way in which we can do win-win cooperation. Now it’s win-lose. You want the other guy to be down, fix him, crash his economy. So how then do most of the countries, if possible, hang together and cooperate with one another, and not fall into disorder, autarky, or anarchy? That’s the big worry for us in Singapore, because we depend on globalization to make a living.
Thirdly, what happens in Ukraine is bound to have a big impact on U.S.-China relations. It will strain them. It has already strained them. You hope that with contacts between President Biden and President Xi at the highest level, rational calculations will be made and the relations will hold. In other words, not become worse than they already are. But you don’t know, despite the best efforts on both sides. And if relations between the U.S. and China worsen, that has a big implication for the whole of the Asia-Pacific, and the world.
Then there are the country-specific responses to what’s going to happen in Ukraine. Every country is now going to ask, what lesson does this hold for me in terms of my defense, in terms of who can I trust to come to my help when I need it? And you can see, particularly in Northeast Asia, Mr. Abe in Japan saying we should think about hosting U.S. nuclear weapons. And I’m sure the Japanese have some—Japanese involved in strategic issues have been thinking these thoughts before, but now Mr. Abe has put it on the table. The government, of course, has said: No, we will never do that. But the thought is planted. And it will not go away, because the implication from Ukraine is that nuclear deterrence is something which is—can be very valuable.
I think South Korea also, if you read the opinion polls, have a majority of the population who believe that their country should develop some kind of nuclear capability. Not just host American weapons, which it used to do, but some kind of its own nuclear capability. So if it goes in that direction, you can—if you’re an optimist you say, now North Korea has it, South Korea has it, Japan has it, PRC has it. And we have a stable equilibrium. And if Iran has it, and Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and some other Middle Eastern countries, you have an even bigger equilibrium, and you hope it’s still stable. But I think we’re heading into a very dangerous direction.
Then in terms of who is going to come to your help, I think calculations are going to be made that the framework in Asia-Pacific is different from the framework in Europe. In Europe, you’ve got NATO. You’ve got Article 5. You’ve got the former Warsaw Pact countries, the former Soviet Union republics. And so the context is where the lines are drawn, where the redlines are is different. In Asia, you don’t have that, but you have Taiwan. You have a One China policy. You have a Taiwan Relations Act on the U.S. side, but between the U.S. and China you have three joint communiques. What does this mean for how these structures will be interpreted, how things move?
I think if you look at what’s happening in Taiwan in terms of their own defenses, they are now talking about pushing their draft, national service, from four months to twelve months. I don’t think it’s going to happen because it’s not so easy just to call up everybody for that much longer. But at least that’s a public mood at the moment. And there was a poll on Taiwanese opinion as to whether they have confidence which country will come to their help should the situation arise. And it’s now at the point where they 40 percent believe that the Japanese will come to their 30 percent, or one-third, think that the Americans will come to their help. And in October of last year, it was two-thirds believing that the Americans would come to their help. So I think these calculations will be made—will not change the scene overnight but all these are significant strategic recalibrations.
I think beyond the response to the immediate situation in Ukraine, we should also think in the Asia Pacific about the path into conflict and how it can be avoided. What structures can you build, what processes, what engagements, what strategic accommodations can be made in order to head off such a failure of deterrence and then you’re into a defense situation?
In Europe, there’s a big debate, amongst academics anyway, between the realists like John Mearsheimer who says if NATO had not expanded into Eastern Europe, then this would not have happened, and those who said, well, this would have happened anyway; just as well you’ve not got Poland and the Baltics inside NATO. In Asia, you don’t have NATO, but we do have hotspots, we do have issues which are difficult to resolve, and we do need institutions which will bring in countries on both sides, rivals, and engage the U.S., engage China, engage countries which are closer to one or the other, and enable an adjustment which is very difficult to make, which is how to accommodate China, which is going to become more developed, larger, more advanced in the technology, and yet not become overbearing on the rest of the world and acceptable to the U.S., which currently is the dominant military power worldwide, and you’ve got to move in that direction.
We have APEC. It’s very helpful. It’s focused on economic issues. We have the East Asia Summit, which brings all the participants in and talks about strategic issues, but it doesn’t go a lot beyond that into substantive implementation. And now the U.S. talks about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework as a way to engage the region and not just on a strategic or security and potentially hostile basis but on a win-win basis, and I think you need to give thought to this and steer things in a direction which does not lead you to a hot conflict.
HAASS: You’ve put a lot on the table, sir. Thank you. By the way, in the room here I see a lot of my former colleagues. We’ve all been involved, one way or another, in writing or signing off on joint statements. This one’s worth looking at. There’s a little bit more substance to this than, let me say, many of the joint statements I was associated with. I won’t speak for several of you, but I do recommend it. Every once in a while, government delivers and this was one of those times.
You said something I was going to raise but I want to follow up on it, sir, which is regional views of the United States. And so my question is, in this crisis, the United States has provided what I would describe as indirect support for Ukraine, significant military help, diplomatic help, intelligence help, obviously the economic sanctions, and the rest, but not direct military support, either—it’s rejected the no-fly zone idea, quote/unquote, “boots on the ground,” so that’s one data point. We’ve obviously had—this administration is very different than its predecessor in important ways. So when people look at what the United States is right now, look at what it’s doing and not doing in Taiwan, in Ukraine, does this increase confidence that the U.S. is there, because you—essentially, you were suggesting maybe not.
LEE: Well, I think the situations are different. As I said, in U.S., in Europe you’ve got NATO and you know where you draw the line on NATO and in Asia you don’t have NATO; you have the three joint communiques and you also have a policy of strategic ambiguity on what you do in Taiwan. And I think what we would all like to see happen in Taiwan is that the status quo continues and changes—if there are any changes, they must not take place forcibly or non-peacefully. And that takes—that’s very difficult to manage because it’s not just economic issue, it’s not just a strategic issue, but also to do with the politics and the sentiments of the population, and so it is something which you can only manage over a long period of time.
HAASS: Is there, though, a concern that because of the reemergence of what you might call a significant Russian threat to European order that plans for the pivot to Asia will not materialize and instead the United States is almost going to require a detour on the way to its pivot to Asia to pivot back to Europe?
LEE: Well, America has always had worldwide preoccupations. I mean, if it had not been Ukraine, it would have been Iran or something else would have come up somewhere else in the world; Latin America, from time to time, preoccupies you too. So I think we accept that you have worldwide, far-flung interests, but the Asia Pacific is one of those areas where you not only have China, whose relationship you must manage, but also so many other partners of the United States, some of them your allies, others of them your friends, many of them with very substantial economic ties to the United States. And you’ve developed this relationship and these interests and this region of relative stability and peace in the world for nearly eighty years since the war, so whatever your other far-flung interests, this is something which you cannot walk away from. And I think that U.S. presidents understand this and they all have given personal attention to this, but I can’t see them focusing on this to the exclusion of everything else. Neither do I think they are very likely to neglect their relationship with China because they are preoccupied elsewhere. What we do worry is as—while dealing with China, whether there’s also bandwidth and appetite and possibility to develop relations with Southeast Asia and other countries in the regions.
HAASS: Let’s talk about China for a second. Several people—I’ll admit I’m one of them—have put forth the argument that this has been a sobering experience for China, the fact that the sanctions introduced by the United States and its partners, including your country, have been wide and deep, really unprecedented, and China is much more of a(n) investing and trading country than is Russia, so potentially vulnerable. Plus, all this was done mounting an indirect defense of Ukraine, and as you said, our position of strategic ambiguity in no way rules out a direct defense of Taiwan.
HAASS: So sitting in Beijing, do you get the sense that the Chinese have been somewhat sobered by this and that they indeed paid something of a political price in the region and beyond for so closely associating themselves with a war that’s truly identified with one individual and has been carried out in an extraordinarily brutal way?
LEE: I think it presents them with awkward questions because on Ukraine it violates one—it violates the principles which the Chinese hold very dearly: territorial integrity and sovereignty and non-interference. And if you can do that to Ukraine and if the Donbas can be considered to be enclaves and maybe republics—
HAASS: What about Taiwan? (Laughs.)
LEE: Or other parts of non-Han China. So that’s a very difficult question.
Also, looking at the sanctions, it shows how interrelated we all are, because if we do business with one another, we all have accounts with one another, and any one of us, especially the bigger ones, can pull the house down, so I may own a lot of U.S. Treasurys, but if the U.S. decides to freeze those accounts, well, that has practical economic consequences. So we are all dependent on one another, and I think—I’ll put it conversely too: If you cut off China and say, well, I’ll do without that, you don’t have accounts in Chinese banks on the same scale but your economic interdependence, they are one of your biggest trading partners, you know, is a manufacturing base for many U.S. companies. If those links fracture, it’s going to hurt you too.
LEE: It doesn’t mean that you won’t end up in a bad spot, but it does mean that I think both sides know the price is very high.
HAASS: You raised the Indo—
LEE: One more thing.
HAASS: Oh, sorry. Yes, sir.
LEE: I don’t think that in the region the fact that China refuses to distance itself from Russia costs it. All the countries in the region, when they worry about sovereignty and the principles of the U.N. Charter while, at the same time, they want their ties with China and quite a few of them have significant ties with Russia, for example, India.
HAASS: India. Yeah.
LEE: So the fact that the Chinese have taken their own position and they consider you a supplicant asking them to help solve the Russian problem and they are saying, well, to untie the bell you need the person who tied the bell. In other words, solve your own problem.
HAASS: We noticed that. (Laughter.) You mentioned the Indo-Pacific economic framework. I have two questions associated. What is your sense of what it should do? It’s been articulated but not really fleshed out. And to what extent can it be or will it be seen as an alternative for U.S. participation in the CPTPP? Is this in any way seen as a substitute or is this seen as, at best, a distant second best?
LEE: What was your first question?
HAASS: What could or will the Indo-Pacific economic framework prove to be?
LEE: Well, what it should do is to be a positive agenda for the U.S. on economic cooperation with countries in Asia Pacific, an agenda which is inclusive, agenda which is forward looking, and an agenda which has something in it of an upside for both parties. Ideally, you have the TPP. That’s water under the bridge.
HAASS: Carla Hills is shaking her head yes. (Laughter.)
LEE: That’s water under the bridge. It’s become the CPTPP, which means that you are not in it. But now the Chinese have applied to join.
LEE: And what are you going to do? What are we going to do? We, meaning the members of the CPTPP, will have to reach some consensus as to how to handle this application. Taiwan has also applied, by the way. And what is the U.S. going to respond by way of demonstrating that it is engaged in the region?
Ideally, the U.S. would respond with a trade liberalization market access type move to develop links with the region. You can’t rejoin? Well, some other scheme. But I think even some other scheme would be too difficult in the present political climate. So what the U.S. has come up with is the Indo-Pacific economic framework.
It’s not what—all the things which you need to do, but if you can do these things they are positive items, and I would say if you could make this as substantive as possible, so short of having FTA elements—market access—at least imagine having some digital economy cooperation or green sustainable economy cooperation.
Let’s take some baby steps towards market access and trade liberalization short of needing to get TPA from the Congress or needing to ratify something. Begin to move there and hope that over the next few American elections there are more changes and it becomes more rather than less feasible, and then you have a path forward.
Meanwhile, well, it’s—the politics is the art of the possible.
HAASS: As we say in another part of the world to what you just said, inshallah. (Laughter.)
If you ask people—if you had word association and you said globalization—country associated with globalization—Singapore—
LEE: We’re at top of the list.
HAASS: Exactly. But right now the word that increasingly is being bandied about is deglobalization because of sanctions, because of constraints, you know, freezing central bank assets, because of supply chains, because of COVID, U.S.-China frictions. What is your sense of how this balance between globalization and deglobalization is going and what concerns you here?
LEE: I mean, to us, ideally, we’re all in one flat world. Tom Friedman used to write books like that. But it’s not one flat world. There are not only hills and valleys but deep chasms which you cannot easily cross and some of which are being deepened, and we have to make a living trying to belong to the biggest, flattest, and safest part of that world.
I cannot see countries going back, each one doing completely their own thing. You cannot make an iPhone totally in America any more than you can make a Boeing airplane completely in America. You do need international trade. You do need commerce. You have—need to have processes to make sure you trust your partners and that you can rely on one another and there’s redundancy in case the lines fail.
But international interdependence and economic cooperation, I think, will have to continue. The challenge is how do I talk about reshoring and rebuilding U.S. manufacturing and all these good things without it being captured and going overboard and becoming another name for protecting nonviable economic activities, impoverishing your own workers, including the middle class. And that’s your challenge.
To us, the question is in this world what can we do to make sure that we are part of trusted supply chains, that we can continue to work with you and to maintain that relationship and you can continue to trust us and we can do business together, not just two of us but that there’s an inkblot which is big enough so that many countries in the world can cooperate and where you have countries which are beyond the border some kind of filter so that you don’t completely shut them out. Because I think if you say you’re going to shut out the Chinese completely you won’t kill them but you are going to hurt yourself considerably.
HAASS: I agree with that. I prefer the word distancing at times—selective distancing to decoupling.
One other piece in the joint statement I wanted to refer to—and we’ll open it up to questions in a minute then—when it came to North Korea there was rather familiar language. There was the call for complete denuclearization and permanent peace.
Now, I’m as optimistic as the next guy. But I would think the odds of complete denuclearization and permanent peace on the Peninsula are something less than high. So what’s a realistic agenda short of that? Even if that’s a long-term goal, what’s a realistic near and medium-term goal with North Korea?
LEE: Whose goal?
HAASS: OK. Well, what would you like to see?
LEE: I think—this is on the record and I don’t think any politician on the record would acknowledge that North Korea is entitled to nuclear weapons. I think what is conceivable to happen is that there is deterrence and there is a situation where the status quo does exist but countries continue to not recognize it, because if you do recognize it then there are many consequences and everybody else will straightaway say, well, if he’s entitled to and recognized what about me? Why am I standing around? If he is not entitled to, he has it, one day the situation may well be put right, may possibly be put right. Well, perhaps there’s some possibility to slow down proliferation and much, much wider spread. Maybe.
HAASS: But in the—I hear what you’re saying and—
LEE: I don’t think the North Koreans are crazy. I don’t think they—what we have seen is that nuclear weapons have considerable deterrence capability and they sure as hell are not going to give that up, either for North Korea or for the regime.
HAASS: Do you—you actually alluded to that in the beginning—and I’ll make this my last question—whether that’s one of the unintended consequences. You have the Budapest agreement, the assurances given to Ukraine. They give back the nuclear systems they inherited from the former Soviet Union. Ukraine has now twice been invaded, 2014 and now.
Saddam Hussein is history. Muammar Qaddafi is history. Do you worry that even though we all subscribe to nonproliferation policy too much of our foreign policy seems to be making the case for proliferation?
LEE: We do worry about that. But that’s the reality of the world.
HAASS: On that sober note, let me open it up to questions. Just wait for a microphone, identify yourself and we’ll—I’ll probably play a little bit of badminton or ping pong or whatever—maybe pickleball, given the age of the audience here—going back and forth between people in the room—
LEE: Not to mention the speakers.
HAASS: (Laughs.) Yeah, not to mention—oh, that’s true. (Laughter.) Fair point.
Q: It’s good to see you again, Prime Minister. Last time I saw you I had a lot more hair.
I’d like to ask you about the South China Sea, and whether you think what’s happened in Ukraine and the division you’ve spoken about, and the consequences you’ve spoken about are going to make any difference in what’s going on in the South China Sea. In other words, where do you think that’s going? Is it just going to continue as it is, or do you see any possible changes?
LEE: I think facts have—facts exist in the South China Sea. Different countries have different atolls or islands occupied. Some have been reclaimed, enlarged, fortified. And the claims overlap in many complicated ways. China’s a claimant. Four ASEAN countries are claimant states. Singapore is not one of them. Between ASEAN and China, there’s an ongoing, longstanding dialogue on how to manage this. We have a declaration of conduct. We are negotiating a code of conduct which is supposed to be binding. It’s taking a very long time.
We have got a negotiating text. We’ve got the preamble settled. But to settle a code of conduct is very difficult, because to define the problem is already to grapple with the problem. Which parts are in dispute? Mine are not in dispute. Yours are in dispute. So I think this is going to be a long process. From our point of view, freedom of navigation is important. International law is important. U.N. convention on the law of the sea is also important. And peaceful resolution of disputes, so that you avoid some accidental conflict, which—or, collision, which can escalate.
I don’t think many of the claimant states want this to go to the extreme because all of the ASEAN countries have got substantial accounts with China. And the South China Sea is important, its sovereignty, but it’s only one item in their broader accounts. So I think that some accommodation can be worked out. Our concern is freedom of navigation and the interests of international community, because a large amount of international global trade goes through the South China Sea, energy as well as many other supplies. So to link it back to Ukraine, I think that has a dynamic of its own. And I don’t think it is very, very closely tied to the Ukraine developments.
HAASS: Let’s take a virtual question, Carrie.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the first virtual question from Michael Mosettig.
Q: Good morning, sir.
Your foreign minister has called for active mediation and for China to be invited in as a mediator on the Ukraine situation. Can China be an independent mediator, given its thickening ties with Russia and the fact that many observers think that China now has a real stake in making sure that Russia is not humiliated in Ukraine?
LEE: I think you are quoting from a Bloomberg headline, which put what my foreign minister said in a rather lurid spotlight. I don’t think he meant that. I don’t think it is very likely that the Chinese will volunteer for this task. I think they would much rather somebody else stand up to it. And I don’t think that lack of a mediator is the problem in Ukraine.
HAASS: Agreed. Steve Biegun.
Q: Prime Minister, good morning.
Singapore is a leading member of some of the most important institutions in Asia—ASEAN, APEC. But there are additional institutions and even new institutions that are coming to the Indo-Pacific region. There’s AUKUS, there’s the Quad, which isn’t so new but is definitely transforming. There’s Five Eyes, which is also not new but is a significant platform.
LEE: Sorry, what was the last one?
HAASS: Five Eyes.
Q: Five Eyes.
LEE: Five Eyes! OK, yes.
Q: Prime minister, I’m just curious the view of Singapore. And do you welcome the new institutions in particular that are coming in? And how do you see the role of Singapore perhaps not in but with some of these new institutions?
LEE: We understand why these new institutions have come into being. The U.S. has strategic interest in the region, and they want to advance these. And you make common cause with countries who will group with you in different configurations. AUKUS is one. The Quad is another. The Five Eyes has existed for a very long time. And they are part of the landscape. ASEAN remains part of the landscape. We talk about ASEAN centrality. And if ASEAN is able to be cohesive and to play a useful role hosting the discussions and bringing parties together, then all the other pieces have their place. But that is up to ASEAN. And these are ten disparate countries with a long spectrum of geopolitical situations and with corresponding geopolitical strategic views. So it takes a process to bring the ASEAN consensus together and to assert itself. But I think that is what is necessary in order to have the region have a center of gravity which brings players together rather than push players apart.
There are other things which bring the countries together. I talked about APEC just now. The East Asia Summit is another one, which is associated with ASEAN but includes Russia, China, America, India. And the Indo-Pacific economic framework, if that—when that is created, we hope it will also be at least the basis one day for being an inclusive structure. And if you have those inclusive structures, then other groupings exist, well, that’s the way of the world.
HAASS: Carrie, another Zoom.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Tim Ferguson.
Q: Prime Minister, I used to spend a lot of time as a business journalist in Singapore. It’s good to see you again.
The Straits Times index has more than recovered from the COVID dip in Singapore, like many of the Western markets, but unlike the Chinese markets both on the mainland and in Hong Kong. Do you see going forward that Singapore, financially at least, might benefit from greater separation from the difficulties in the Chinese financial markets?
LEE: Sorry, how do we separate ourselves from the Chinese markets?
Q: Or would you benefit from greater separation?
LEE: No, we are not separated. We do business with them. They are our biggest trading partner. They have investments in Singapore. We have not small investments in China and in Hong Kong too. And we wish them well. And a lot of analysts explain why the U.S.—why the Chinese stock market has come down. And it has to do with policy decisions which the Chinese government have made. I think they want to establish a new set of rules in the tech space. And they’ve decided that the stock market performance is a secondary consideration. And as far as their economy is concerned, so far, despite COVID, the economy has done quite robustly. And if you take a long-term view beyond COVID, we believe it has the potential to continue to be a growing, developing economy with many opportunities, which we would like to continue to work with.
Hong Kong is a different specific problem, because they are in a transition. And it’s partly the broader China context which influences their market, but also specific situations and conditions in Hong Kong, which will take some time to be resolved. We hope they will. From a narrow point of view, with Hong Kong’s problems, some of the companies or the people who are there will think of moving elsewhere in the region and may want to come to Singapore. And if they do, we will be happy to take them. But from a broader point of view, it is not to our advantage to have Hong Kong languish. It would be far better for us to have a robust competitor. They thrive, we thrive. We will make a living, and so will they. It’s not hurt (any of this ?).
HAASS: I want to follow up on one thing that that question raised. In the United States, I would say in the foreign policy establishment or even beyond it, there is the widespread judgement that the decades-long effort to integrate China into global economic institutions largely did not succeed. If the hope was to make China more open and rules-abiding economically, more open politically, less aggressive in its foreign policy, that rather China cherry-picked its involvements and has emerged stronger but not more moderate in its behaviors. And that leads to a sense here that we therefore ought to become much more restrictive. Do you believe that we are learning the right lessons of history here, or we are overlearning them?
LEE: I think you have to see this in context. China is going to develop. China is going to grow. I think the momentum is enormous and unstoppable. Question is, how can this be integrated into the global system? You can try to block it and hold them back, in which case maybe you insulate yourself a little bit, but you set up for a troubled relationship for a very long time to come. Or you can try and work with them and fit them into the global system. They benefit from it. You benefit from it. And over time, you hope that a constructive evolution will happen.
I don’t think that turning China into a democracy is—was ever on the cards, nor was it the reason why we brought China into the WTO or engaged with China on many fronts. On its own merits, U.S. economies, the U.S. economy, U.S. consumers, U.S. MNCs have benefitted enormously from what you have done cooperating with China. So from the Chinese point of view, they will say, we benefitted. We grew. You benefitted. Your companies prospered. There’s nothing to improve. But while it is true both sides benefitted, but the balance has shifted and what used to be an economy one-tenth the size has how become an economy, on some measures, as big as the U.S., or maybe even bigger if you look at PPP.
And then what used to be viable arrangements, concessions, are no longer politically viable or economically sensible. And adjustments have to be made. And you have to adjust to this situation. First, gradually to treat China more and more as a not so developing but more closely developed economy. But secondly also to give it some space to influence the global system. For examples, shares in the IMF or influence in the World Bank. You don’t want to change the whole system of international order or international law. This is a framework which everybody fits into. But now you’ve got a big player, and they do want to participate. And you have to enable them to participate.
And if you don’t, they say, well, I’ll have my own show. I can’t get into the World Bank and have a bigger vote share, I’ll have my AIIB. And many countries would like to join. And I would like to cooperate with my neighbors, let’s have the Belt and Road Initiative. In principle, these are all right things to do, because this is a big country, we are going to want to cooperate. What is the mechanism of the win-win cooperation? In practice, what is the difficulty?
The difficulty is when a very big partner cooperates with a very small partner, it is very difficult to find that point of balance where both are equally happy. And it’s very difficult for a big country to realize how huge its impact can be on the rest of the world, even when it doesn’t intend it. And it’s very difficult for the small country to maneuver and to gain from the cooperation and the opportunities and yet not from time to time be made proposals offers which you cannot refuse. The Mexicans have a phrase, the U.S. is our best friend whether we like it or not. (Laughter.) And that’s the dilemma.
HAASS: Yes, ma’am.
Q: Kim Dozier with Time magazine.
I wanted to ask if the Biden administration has accepted your proffered role as Beijing whisperer? And also, on Capitol Hill—
LEE: Sorry, I’m not a Beijing whisperer. (Laughter.)
Q: Could you be?
LEE: No, we cannot. We are not part of the family. We are—we are Chinese—ethnic Chinese majority country in Southeast Asia, multi-racial, multi-religious, with independent national interests and priorities. And they treat us as such. And we remind them that that is so. (Laughter.)
Q: Then, as a follow-up, there is a lot of anger, from the White House to the bipartisan anger on Capitol Hill, over China’s practices of IP theft, or investing in U.S. companies and then pulling out and taking the ideas with them. Where is—how as Singapore managed to do business with them, when you are one of the least corrupt planets—countries on the globe, with the most transparency? Like, so how do you say to Congress, you can do business with them, and here’s how?
LEE: Well, I think there are two separate questions. Corruption is one problem, but intellectual property left is a different problem. I know that for quite—for some time in the past, U.S. companies and others too have had issues with intellectual property, either formally being dispossessed of them or informally they turn up down the road in different forms. If you talk to the companies, they do tell you that the problems haven’t disappeared, but they have become more manageable because the Chinese have now got a greater interest in protecting their own intellectual property. But I think what the Chinese will want to do, from other countries, is what the U.S. tried to do very hard in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that is to pick up technology and ideas from others who have got these technologies and ideas. Just as you did it from Europe, and you benefitted from any number of emigrees and visitors from Europe who brought in ideas. And sometimes you have your own quiet channels to obtain the information.
And the Chinese do that too. But I think what gets the U.S. Congress very upset is when you find very egregious examples which appear to have come from actors which trace back somewhere onto the mainland, and then you are unable to get any recourse on that, or any sympathy. Or you get told, yeah, I have the same problem. And you really don’t believe that answer, but you are unable to do anything about it. And I think that on that sort of issue, you—I don’t think sanctions will get you very, very far. What you will need to do is have a very serious conversation at very senior levels to make it quite clear that to have stable relations you must have trust. And if things are done which undermine that trust between the two countries—I may not be on the same page with you. I may not like you. But I need a certain basis of trust in order to do any business with you and to solve problems together. As George Shultz says on his hundredth birthday, trust is the coin of the realm. And you have—that is gravely lacking now. And one of the reasons is this question of intellectual property theft and cybersecurity. It’s a problem.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next virtual question from Kara Tan Bhala.
Q: Hi. This is Kara Tan Bhala from Seven Pillars Institute, and I’m a former Malaysian.
Mr. Prime Minister, in light of the climate crisis, how do you think Singapore will fare? And how do you think the world will fare in—based on mitigation efforts so far? Thank you.
HAASS: I’m actually going to piggyback on that and just say, are you at all worried in that context of climate that this renewed emphasis on energy security, that’s grown out of the European dependence on Russian gas exports in particular, has somehow relegated climate—pushed it off the agenda a little bit? Are you—are you worried that we’re losing valuable time here?
LEE: I am very worried about the climate. You asked me what I think about the mitigation efforts. I think, honestly, they will be inadequate. The scientists are quite unambiguous. They are quite polite and hedged in their views, but the directions have consistently been more extreme than their predictions for quite some time now. And for Singapore, we take that very seriously because we are a very low-lying island and our highest point is about the height of the Washington Monument and a bit more, and that’s it. And if the sea levels rise, which they will, we won’t be flooded overnight, but you will have floods regularly and it will become like Louisiana.
And we are doing our own part to mitigate—to mitigate the measures, but it depends on the global initiatives because we are such a small part of the global output—like 0.2 or (0.)3 percent of the global emissions. So we have to do our part and we have to show a good example, and we are hoping to reach net zero somewhere around the middle of the century, and we’re trying to pin down how soon exactly that can be. But it depends on technology and it depends on carbon markets, and those are big question marks here.
Also, it depends on the international order. If you’re at war with Russia, you will not be able to agree with Russia on reducing emissions, much less apportioning the responsibility for cutting carbon. And I think that’s going to be a big problem. Even if you are not at war, even with China where you’ve got a dialogue and John Kerry works very hard visiting them and talking to them, because your relations are so fraught it’s very difficult to make progress. And you’ve explicitly said you are not prepared to trade off climate against other issues. So then the Chinese say, well, what’s the point of this?
So I think it’s going to be very difficult and they’re going to fall short of their goals, and the goals themselves are not high enough. And we should prepare for that.
Now, getting—cutting off dependence on Russia will, in the first place, impact Europe. But unless the Russian oil disappears from the world and they themselves don’t consume it, it is going to pop up somewhere else. And from a climate of view, that does not solve the problem. From Europe’s point of view, I speak out of turn, but I think without nuclear it’s very difficult for them to go to net zero. But it is not politic to acknowledge that.
HAASS: When you say that mitigation is never going or is unlikely to be—I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but we can’t put all of our eggs in that basket. It’s unlikely to succeed. Where does that, then, leave you as a—as a government in terms of your policy? Does that mean you put, then, a much greater emphasis on adaptation?
LEE: Well, first of all, mitigation, we do our part but we know that we do not determine the outcome.
HAASS: And the world is clearly not mitigating.
LEE: And the world will not do enough.
LEE: Therefore, we have to work on adaptation. And if you are talking about a hundred-year timeframe—I have one hundred years to solve the problem and I have the wherewithal to do it. And before we went into COVID and before we went into the Ukrainian war, I spent some time in my annual broadcast to Singaporeans talking about climate change and why it mattered to them. And I said, you’ve got one hundred years. If it rises eighteen inches or even double that, we can live with it. You can do polders. You can do dikes. You can reclaim, raise the level. And we have the resources. And I said, $100 billion over one hundred years, it won’t—we can afford that, and if we do it consistently we will be able to survive. And I still believe that, and we will do that.
But please understand that one hundred years is not the endpoint; it’s just the first milestone. This is going to continue for centuries.
HAASS: Would you be open to supporting research and experimentation on various new technologies that would one way or another try to cool the planet, so-called—
HAASS: Yeah. Are you open to—would Singapore be open to at least greenlighting certain experimentation there?
LEE: We don’t have an official position, but I would—personally, I would be prepared to do some pilot projects. I think that it is a very dire situation. It’s one of those things where you are boiling the frog, and therefore no political system is able to respond vigorously enough because today’s problems are always more urgent than the climate change challenge. And you have no solution based on today’s technology and today’s international infrastructure, so you do have to find new solutions. And if you have to experiment with geoengineering and put up some mirrors in the sky or even aerosols, I think that you have to think very carefully about it. You should not rule it out without thinking about it.
HAASS: In the back. I can’t see that far. I apologize.
Q: Thank you, Dr. Haass. Shaarik Zafar with Meta.
Continuing the theme of technology, sir, I had the privilege—I was still in the State Department when I had the chance to visit your country several times—
LEE: I’m sorry, can you speak a bit more clearly?
Q: Sure. Sure. Shaarik Zafar at Meta.
Q: And I wanted to follow up on your—on your point about digital cooperation. Are there are some specific steps that you’d like the United States government to encourage with respect to digital cooperation in Southeast Asia? My company has headquarters—
LEE: Sorry, about cooperation?
Q: Digital cooperation.
LEE: Digital cooperation.
Q: Yeah. How—
LEE: Yes, we do encourage digital cooperation. We have a digital DEPA, we call it—Digital Economic (sic; Economy) Partnership Agreement—with New Zealand, Chile, and Singapore, three. And the Chinese have applied to join. (Laughter.) And Korea, too. And we are trying to encourage the U.S. to think about such an understanding between us and the United States. It is necessary because you need the framework, you need the mutual understanding, you need the rules—what information can be shared, where can information be stored, intellectual property questions. There is substance to this, and we—I don’t know if we coined the name, but we decided—we popularized the idea of a digital partnership agreement to bring all this bundle together and treat it separately from traditional FTAs. And that is one of the things which I hope you will be able to do in some form in the Indo-Pacific economic framework.
HAASS: Yeah. I think there’s intention there. I think—
HAASS: In the politically fraught trade space in this country, there seems to be more space to explore things in the digital domain than others.
LEE: Yes. But even there I think there’s some sensitivity because it benefits the tech companies, who are presently in bad odor.
HAASS: We won’t go there. (Laughter.)
Carrie, we had another virtual question?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Kira Kay.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
I was a Fulbright fellow in Singapore in 2001. I taught journalism at NTU. Very glad to be attending today.
I wanted to ask you about the other war, in Myanmar. I appreciate the call today to release political prisoners and to implement ASEAN’s five-point plan. But Singapore is the largest foreign investor in Myanmar, including commercial ties with military-owned businesses. Singaporean banks handle revenue from the oil and gas sector. It would seem that a resolution to the crisis would benefit Singapore, besides the humanitarian need. So what more could we expect from Singapore on the sanctions front? Thank you.
LEE: Well, we—I think with Myanmar none of us have got enormous influence on what happens within that country. These are domestic developments. They are domestically driven. There’s a deep conflict between the military and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. And it has been going on for several decades now.
Singapore, you say we have investments there. Actually, they’re not doing anything. All our people wish to get out, but they are stuck there. They can’t sell and can’t get out. Our banks handle Myanmar accounts. Some of them we have proscribed. The rest of them we watch very carefully and we are quite—we make quite sure that if anything untoward happens an STR is filed—a suspicious transaction report—and we will look into the matter. You know perfectly well that looking for bank accounts is very difficult as a strategy to force policy change in a country—and particularly in the case of a country like Myanmar, which is actually only too happy to turn inwards and close off from the rest of the world.
So we do not have a lot of aggressive options, but we do try to continue to speak and to encourage. And the last time we did this, it took a long time, but with patience we eventually—Myanmar eventually came onto a path which led to elections and to a civilian government, which lasted for some period. And it may be necessary for us to walk that path again, and I hope the second time will not be harder.
HAASS: Prime Minister, we’re at the appointed hour. I apologize; I know there’s quite a few hands in the room and I expect virtually I haven’t gotten to. I accept the blame.
I want to thank you for not just being with us today, but for being so open and candid and thoughtful about many of the challenges facing not just your country but the region and the world. The video and the transcript of this session will be posted on CFR.org for those who want to return to it, or it can be recommended to those who couldn’t participate. Again, we look forward to welcoming you back here some future trip, and wish you and your delegation and the people of Singapore only the best. So thank you, sir.
LEE: Thank you. (Applause.)