(FROM THE EDITORS OF ASIA MEDIA: THIS COLUMN APPEARED ONE WEEK BEFORE THE SINGAPORE SUMMIT, IN THE SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST)– BY TOM PLATE: Next week, it now seems, the American President will be in Singapore, along with the North Korean leader. Both are famously quirky. Is Lee worried? We pay a call on the city-state’s prime minister, host of a monster summit that – on the off-chance all goes well – could trigger a process for taming the tenor and amending the geopolitical shape of East Asia. Lee Hsien Loong, only the third PM since the city-state’s founding and the elder son of the late Lee Kuan Yew, parried my questions from his office in Istana, the official mansion preserved from British colonial times.
My interview goal was to understand his take on Sino-U.S. relations, even though, at this writing, North Korea’s ally Beijing wouldn’t be officially attending the Korean summit. “I suppose [the choice of Singapore] shows that we are friends with them [North Korea and the U.S.] and they believe we can do a good job of it. And it’s politically acceptable to them to be here…. [But] they have a very difficult task. This summit is taking place at not very long notice, and without … extensive preparation or contact between the two sides. It is not easy to make a sudden break-through, but it is the first step towards both sides resuming a dialogue.” Diplomatically, Singapore tries as hard as anyone to fashion a happy-face for all, far and near, not least the U.S. and China. Some might like to see China collapse; others would like to see the U.S. flop. Singapore is not a member of either group. The reason: It practices ‘smart power’.
PM Lee is happy the leaders of the U.S. and North Korea are taking this giant step. He believes binary thinking in international relations is a poisonous double-edged sword. While it simplifies foreign policy formulation, the ‘they bad/we good’ cleaver chops common sense down to pea-brain proportions. Lee: “It is up to you how you want to see the world. The question is what conclusion you will reach. Do you conclude that the Chinese have to be like you, in order to be your friend? Or do you conclude that they do not have to be like you, yet you can still do business with them? We do hope that you [Americans] can come to the second conclusion, because it is not necessary for you to be enemies just because you are different from them. They do not think less of you just because you do not have a Communist Party of the United States.”
Despite its Lilliputian size, developing nations see wealthy Singapore and say, why not us? Its glittering success has all but revised economic development textbooks, inspiring other nations to look to it – or Brobdingnagian China – as a model. By contrast, the American way is not so much in fashion. “You [Americans] do feel that you have an idea how the rest of the world should be run…. That is very worrying, because if you take a negative attitude to [Beijing] there will be a reaction. They are already suspicious of you, that you intend to frustrate their ambitions to greatness…. The Chinese do not feel they should be sat upon in judgment.” Lee quickly adds: “The Chinese model is not our solution either, and we have to feel our way forward too because I don’t think our model automatically works [that well] as you move forward.”
When Singapore’s third prime minister talks of China, I imagine I can sense his late father’s coruscating, pragmatic spirit hovering in the corridors, cutting through so much pretentious baloney when I first started writing about Asia decades ago. Today, just like his father, Hsien Loong mixes realism with respect and worries the U.S. may not get what history is up to: “When Mr Trump did his trade sanctions on the Chinese, it may have been initiated by Mr Trump or his Administration. But my feeling from our people and just reading the papers, is that it actually has quite wide support in the US. Even [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman feels so….He is not a natural hawk. … So there are people who do not have a lot of time for the Trump Administration, who agree with him on this matter…. That is very worrying, because if you take a negative attitude to them, there will be a reaction. They are already suspicious of you, that you intend to frustrate their ambitions to greatness.”
Does the PM buy the argument that quirky American leadership can make the Chinese look more cosmopolitan? “Some Chinese think so… saying this is a strategic opportunity for China as long as Trump is President…. I would not be surprised if some Chinese officials might have such thoughts as well…. At the same time, they (China) are thinking strategically, whereas I am not sure whether America is thinking strategically about its relationship with China, or its role in the wider world.”
The PM is spot-on about that. I ask if in the short term the relationship is going simply to yo-yo back and forth, as in the past, or whether a fundamental cleavage is starting to push China and US further apart? “It does not have to go that way. But from the trade frictions, it can easily develop into a wider mistrust. Because now, it is not just trade, exchange or currency exchange rates, but you are also blocking their investments, more than before. If you do not want to run a trade deficit with them, yet you do not want to sell them what they want to buy – either companies or strategic goods – then what is the outcome?”
Lee deserves to be listened to carefully, as was his thoughtful father. Ignore their wise input on China, and disaster beckons, even if the upcoming summit by itself is a roaring success.
Before the 12 June summit on Korea, Columnist Tom Plate visited Singapore and Jakarta. Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies authored ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew.’
Pictured is Prof Tom Plate as guest speaker at the Young China Watchers club in Singapore on 5 June.