Singapore PM Calls for U.S.-China Truce After ‘Tumultuous’ Years

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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden should look to develop an “overall constructive relationship” with China following “quite a tumultuous ride” over the past four years, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview.

A new framework between the nations would allow both countries “to develop the areas of common interest, and constrain the areas of disagreement” on issues such as trade, security, climate change, North Korea and non-proliferation, Lee said in an interview with Bloomberg Editor-In-Chief John Micklethwait at the New Economy Forum. Singapore’s leader also rejected any attempt to divide nations “Cold War style.”

“We all want to work together with the U.S., we all want to work together with other vibrant economies, we would like to cooperate within the region,” said Lee, who has already offered his congratulations to Biden. “I think not very many countries would like to join basically a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom will be China.”

Lee has been one of the most vocal global leaders calling for the world’s biggest economies to avoid a destructive clash that could force smaller countries like Singapore to choose sides on everything from trade and technology to Covid-19 vaccines and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. A city-state dependent on trade, Singapore supports a strong American presence in Asia by allowing the U.S. to use its military facilities while also counting China as its top trading partner.

Lee said while Beijing doesn’t want a “collision” with the U.S., Chinese officials may not be prepared to cede much ground. At the same time, he said, President Donald Trump’s “America First” view of the world has changed perceptions both within the U.S. and overseas about how broadly the world’s predominant superpower has an interest in maintaining global stability.

‘It May Never Come Back’

“It will take some time I think for America to come back to such a position, and for others to be convinced that it is taking such a position,” Lee said. “It may never come back all the way, certainly in the short term and certainly in terms of its relations with China.”

Citing the punitive tariffs Trump placed on China that were maintained in the “phase-one” trade deal reached in January, Lee said it would be difficult for any successive U.S. administration to take them away.

“There’s some elements in the administration who definitely did want to make moves which would be very difficult to reverse by the subsequent administration, and which will set the tone for the relationship for a long time to come,” Lee said.

Singapore was among countries that resisted U.S. pressure to ban China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from its 5G networks, with its regulator letting telecom operators decide which vendors to choose. They ended up picking Huawei rivals Ericsson AB and Nokia Oyj to be their main 5G network providers. “If I say I want absolute security, that’s not to be had in this world,” Lee said.

Anti-China Sentiment

The Singapore leader, who along with his father Lee Kuan Yew has run the Southeast Asian nation for much of its existence, also noted that anti-China sentiment in the U.S. has gained deep bipartisan support beyond Trump.

“The consensus to see China as a strategic threat is almost becoming received wisdom and unquestionable in the U.S.,” Lee said. “And so it will be very difficult for any administration, whether it’s Biden or on the outside chance, Trump, to disregard that and just proceed as if the last few years had not taken place.”

The New Economy Forum is organized by Bloomberg Media Group, a division of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.

Here’s what Lee said on other key issues:

Vaccines

  • While larger countries have ensured they’re first in the queue, Lee said the World Health Organization also makes a “very valid point that the best way to get the Covid-19 under control is to have a rational scheme of priorities, to distribute the vaccine to the places where it will make the most difference to the outbreak.”
  • “I don’t think you would have finished protecting the world’s population within the next year. Furthermore, you’re not sure what risks and problems may arise. And you have to learn as we feel our way forward. So we are not in the best case situation, but at least with where we are now, it has been possible for the science and the technology and the production to come up with a number of vaccines in record time.”

Trade

  • The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership “is a significant step towards reducing trade barriers and facilitating trade between these economies, and also a significant statement that in Asia, whatever happens in the broader world, we would like to promote regional integration and we do believe in a model of cooperation and win-win trade, rather than in going it alone and beggar thy neighbor, which in these troubled times is worth quite a lot.”

Succession

  • The pandemic has presented a “huge challenge for Singapore,” Lee said. “It’s existential, really, both economically as well as from a public health point of view, and I think it’s my responsibility to see us through this crisis before I hand it over in good shape — into good hands, and I hope that will be before too long.”

— With assistance by Faris Mokhtar

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