US-China ties vital to Singapore
In HARDtalk interview, PM Lee says friction between the two superpowers will make it difficult for the Republic
As a friend to both America and China, Singapore can be put in a difficult situation if there is friction between the two giants, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview with British broadcaster BBC.
He made the point when presenter Stephen Sackur asked about rising tensions in the region and perceived unhappiness from China over Singapore's ties with America.
Mr Lee said: "If America-China relations become very difficult, our position becomes tougher. Because then we will be coerced to choose between being friends with America, and friends with China.
"That is the real worry."
He was on the BBC's HARDtalk interview programme aired yesterday, during which he was also asked about the international climate, freedom of expression and the law criminalising gay sex.
On US-China ties, he added: "Right now, we are friends with both. Not that we do not have issues with either, but we are generally friends with both, and the relationships are in good working order."
Mr Sackur, however, noted that with the US, there are problems, including President Donald Trump's antipathy towards global trade.
He asked Mr Lee if the US' move to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact had caused Singapore to review whether the US "has its back".
Mr Lee replied that everyone in the region, Singapore included, was watching the US very carefully. "We have a very deep relationship with the United States. They are our biggest investor. They are one of our major export markets," he said.
Both countries cooperate in defence, security and counterterrorism, and Americans are very welcome here and Singaporeans feel very comfortable in America.
But Singapore would have to watch America's direction and political tone, as well as what its government does, Mr Lee added.
Turning to Singapore-China ties, Mr Sackur brought up Hong Kong's seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carriers on their way back from a military exercise in Taiwan last November.
Said Mr Lee: "I would not say we have major problems. We have had some issues and some incidents. The military vehicles were an incident which happened to both of us and we had to handle it."
Asked if it suggested a lack of trust between them, Mr Lee said: "It was a delicate matter for both sides and I think both sides handled it carefully and there has been a satisfactory outcome."
Mr Lee also clarified Singapore's position on an international tribunal ruling last July that China's claims in the South China Sea are illegal.
He said the court had made a strong statement, but stressed that Singapore does not judge specific claims, and respects the interest of the court.
Mr Sackur suggested Singapore's stance on the case could be viewed by Beijing as a betrayal of friendship.
Further, it had in October 2015 let America deploy Poseidon surveillance planes on its territory.
Mr Lee said Singapore has had this relationship with the US for a long time.
It buys military equipment from the superpower and its air force trains in the US.
Singapore has also hosted US aircraft and ships which pass through and stop here.
Singapore does all this because it believes America's presence in the region has brought about stability and enabled countries to prosper, Mr Lee said.
But Beijing-Washington ties require close and sustained attention on both sides, he noted.
While China is paying attention to the relationship, he said, the US has many other issues to worry about.
"It is not just a matter of making strong statements. You have to... communicate convincingly and to a certain degree, openly with the other side, and develop that strategic understanding so that there is no miscalculation," he added.
When asked about a free trade deal with the United Kingdom, Mr Lee said Singapore would be happy to negotiate one when Britain is ready.
He also said Singapore would sign a new TPP trade pact minus the US if there was consensus from the other countries.
"I would not rule it out, but I think it is not so easy to achieve," he added.