Today's date:
Spring 2007

If US Picks a Fight With China, It Will Be "Very Big Trouble"

Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, was interviewed for NPQ in Singapore by veteran journalist and UCLA professor Tom Plate, who was in Southeast Asia to promote his new book, Confessions of an American Media Man. Excerpts of the interview appear below.

NPQ | What are two or three things in this region that you'd like to see changed over the next 10-15 years for the well-being of Asia?

Lee Hsien Loong | Security is one issue—terrorism and terrorist groups which are in the region continue to be a threat. We're concerned about that, and I think so are the other governments, although it's not easy to deal with. Whether it is Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines in the south or Thailand in the south, we are in the middle of this.

We need to deal with that effectively, not just operationally, not just tactically hitting the bad guys, but also at a strategic and philosophical level. Getting people not to want to become terrorists or think like them, but to live peaceful lives and to tackle the extremists who are purveying this poison.

NPQ | In America when we use the term terrorism, a lot of people think of one cohesive lethal empire. But as you point out, each place has its own issues and problems.

Lee | You are right, but there is some collaboration. The Thais have a different separatist group. The MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) in the Philippines is a separatist group, but they have definite links with the jihadists. They collaborate quite extensively and, in fact, they host the jihadists and provide training facilities and bring the jihadists on missions so that they can practice shooting at real soldiers. We and the Malaysians and Indonesians broke up the Jemaah Islamiyah, the one group which straddled all three countries. In Indonesia, of course, you're talking about many different outfits, different militias. It's a big country.

The second thing is that we want to see a more cohesive ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). We're talking about the ASEAN Charter and working toward signing it this year. We're talking about ASEAN Community 2015. We say ASEAN will have two wings, China and India, which will help us to take off. But to have two wings, you need a strong body. Otherwise it's two wings without a body and we'll fall apart. That means you have to take political decisions to cooperate on economics, on security, on politics, on many issues. That's an urgent matter. It's not easy to put priority on that when you have so many other domestic priorities, but it's a matter of some concern.

Third, we would like to see America continue to play a positive role in the region. Security-wise, it's crucial. The Chinese cannot take over this role. Economics-wise, it's also crucial. The Chinese will be a very big trading partner and powerful economy. But in terms of powerful multinational corporations, using the technology and creating jobs and being able to project investments in the way Hewlett-Packard or Motorola or ExxonMobil can do—that's some distance off.

So we need the United States for economics. In fact, the countries in this region are all very happy to be friends with China and also to have America continue to be in this region. So that's something we would like to continue but, of course, that will depend on the overall strategic trends—America's relations with China and Japan and also America's relations with Muslim countries and Muslim societies.

NPQ | How is the US handling relations with China and Japan, in your view?

Lee | With China and Japan, I think things are going quite well, at least as far as the administration is concerned. The administration is doing the right things. The pressure is there from the ground and from Congress, which reflects the ground.

The trade deficit has become a political issue. It has been linked up with the exchange rate. Economically speaking, it doesn't follow, but that's the politics and you can't unlink that. So that is a problem and if Congress pushes the wrong way, you can have a lot of rough weather as you did with Japan in the '80s. But this will be much worse because China is much bigger and it's a completely different relationship. The US can fight with Japan and it's not going to be your enemy. But if you fight with China, that's very big trouble.

NPQ | The Americans were very upset when China shot down one of its old satellites with a missile. What is your take on that?

Lee | Well, the Chinese didn't explain what they were doing. They have these capabilities, they decided they wanted to show them. The Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling has argued that in fact the Chinese had been trying to get the Americans to work out an agreement on non-use of space for military purposes, but the Americans refused. They wanted to preserve their free hand. This is the Chinese rejoinder.

NPQ | The six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program look like they have moved the situation forward. Do you agree?

Lee | Well, it has looked like that before.

NPQ | Is this six-party configuration good for anything else other than the North Korean issue in terms of future security arrangements?

Lee | No, I don't think so. I think this is a specific group dealing with the Korean Peninsula problem. The security architecture for the region will not depend just on countries in the region, but also on the Americans as part of it, as I explained just now. I think the architecture will evolve over time in multiple forums.

ASEAN is one of the forums for regional cooperation. We've got the forums with ASEAN plus various countries, we have a dialogue relationship with all the major players. We have the ASEAN Regional Forum. There is APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), with links in America and some Latin countries as well as Russia. There's the East Asia Summit, which includes countries on the West Coast of the Pacific, including India, Australia and New Zealand. So I think there will be a range of forums where we discuss (regional) matters, which depend on the alignment of interests. But basically, if we have an open region where many powers can be involved and have a stake, then I think we have a stabler and better configuration.

NPQ | So you don't see the need for any new pan-Asian institution? What you do see is a lot of different institutions?

Lee | Well, I think that new institutions will develop. The East Asia Summit is a new institution—its first meeting was in 2005 in Kuala Lumpur. We've made the argument to the Chinese as well as other countries that it's in their interest to have an open region. Because if it's a closed group, the chances of friction or rivalry with America will be greater than if it is an open region.

That is why the East Asia Summit includes India, Australia and New Zealand, countries with their own ties outside of the region and particularly with the US. That's a better configuration. It is less likely to run into trouble. They hear the argument, but they are pursuing both the East Asia Summit as well as the ASEAN Plus Three (which includes China, Japan and South Korea) grouping, in which, of course, China will play a more dominant role.

For example, China sponsored a study about whether the ASEAN Plus Three grouping could be the basis of free trade agreement, and within a quite short period of time, a report was produced concluding that it's a good basis for a free trade agreement. The Japanese are now sponsoring a study of whether the East Asia Summit can be the basis for free trade agreement. We'll see.