Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking to journalists in Washington on May 13, 2022. (Photo: Ministry of Communications and Information)
WASHINGTON: The ASEAN-US Special Summit shows that US values its partnership with Southeast Asia amid a “very significant moment” in world affairs, said Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (May 13).
“We have the war in Ukraine, Russia has invaded, we’re post-COVID, coming out from COVID. We also have issues in the region. US-China relations are complicated and difficult.
“And in the midst of all this, for the US to focus on ASEAN and to bring the ASEAN leaders here and cultivate that relationship and develop it further, I think it shows that the US values its partnership with ASEAN, Southeast Asia, and that they would like to do more with us … That’s good for the region and good for us.
“Singapore’s view has been for a long time that the US plays a constructive impact, indispensable role in our region. Nobody else can replace them in that role and the regional balance is shifting, but all the more we appreciate the US continuing to remain engaged.”
Mr Lee was speaking to Singapore journalists at the end of his visit to Washington DC to attend the ASEAN-US Special Summit.
In a joint statement released after the summit, ASEAN member states and the US committed to establishing an ASEAN-US Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in November.
The countries also reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security and stability in the region.
At a meeting with US President Joe Biden on Friday, Mr Lee said Singapore welcomes the upgrade of the ASEAN-US Strategic Partnership to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
“We look forward to a meaningful, substantive and mutually beneficial Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, one that allows us to explore further cooperation in important areas such as public health goods and infrastructure, and renewable energy infrastructure,” he said.
The joint statement also addressed the situation in Myanmar, over which ASEAN member states and the US said they remain “deeply concerned”.
Urging Myanmar to implement the Five-Point Consensus in a “timely and complete” manner, the leaders committed to support ASEAN’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful solution.
“We reiterate our commitment to peace and stability in the region and continue to call for the immediate cessation of violence in Myanmar and for the release of all political detainees, including foreigners,” the statement read.
In the meetings, Singapore discussed bilateral cooperation with the US, and the US “put some new ideas on the table”, said Mr Lee, noting Mr Biden’s announcement to commit US$150 million to the region.
“And of course, talking about the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is not strictly US-ASEAN, but US with many countries in the region and quite a number of ASEAN countries, are interested in this,” he said.
Some ASEAN countries are likely to pick up interest and will participate in the launch of the economic framework, he added.
While Singapore had hoped that the US would join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Mr Lee noted that former US president Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the partnership when he came into office.
“But we know and we hope, and the US also knows, that US participation in the Asia Pacific cannot be only limited to security and defence. It must also consist of economic cooperation, and also include other areas such as on environmental issues,” said Mr Lee, speaking in Mandarin in response to a question from a Lianhe Zaobao journalist.
“The ideal situation is for the US to rejoin the TPP, but US’ domestic politics does not allow them to do so. So the US has come up with an alternative construct, which is the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework).”
While there is “not much substance yet” in the framework in terms of investment and trade, “it has its own value” from “another angle”, said the Prime Minister.
“It is after all a new start. Although the US is not ready to participate in trade or investment cooperation, hopefully with the IPEF, we will be able to work from there and eventually restore economic cooperation fully.”
Mr Biden also announced on Friday that he would nominate his chief of staff and executive secretary at the National Security Council Yohannes Abraham to serve as ambassador to ASEAN.
ASEAN has not had a US ambassador since January 2017.
On Friday, Mr Lee also met Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry for a bilateral meeting, and attended a working lunch hosted by Ms Harris focused on maritime cooperation and pandemic recovery.
Mr Lee responded to questions from journalists about the ASEAN leaders’ engagement with Mr Biden on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
While ASEAN has taken a stand and issued a statement “as a whole”, the statement is “not as strong as it could be” because different countries have different views, he said.
For example, when the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council, Vietnam and Laos abstained, while the other countries voted for it, Mr Lee noted. Singapore also abstained from the vote.
“If you look at the national statements and the national actions, I think Singapore’s is the most forthright statement, which we issued and we also had some targeted sanctions on Russia,” he said, adding that Cambodia also took a strong stance on the issue.
“I think Prime Minister Hun Sen was quite unambiguous and emphatic in his explanation of his position that there must be absolute rules against violating territorial integrity and sovereignty and independence of other countries. Otherwise, where do small countries stand?” said Mr Lee.
The Prime Minister also told journalists he may make changes to the Cabinet in early June.
Mr Lee was responding to a question on whether there were any updates on Cabinet movements and succession plans, about a month after Finance Minister Lawrence Wong was chosen as the leader of the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) fourth-generation, or 4G, leadership team.
The announcement, made on Apr 14 in Singapore, paves the way for Mr Wong to become Singapore’s next Prime Minister. He was the first choice by an “overwhelming majority”, said retired minister Khaw Boon Wan at the time.
“I’ve had to focus on this trip and I have another trip coming up in two weeks’ time going to the Nikkei conference (in Japan),” Mr Lee said. “But I’m working at it. I hope I shall be able to do it once I’m done with my trips, which means early June.”
At a press conference after Mr Wong was named as the 4G leader in April, Mr Lee had said that whether he or Mr Wong would lead the PAP in the next election was a decision that would be made later.
“I will discuss with Lawrence, and we will decide later what the best strategy is for us to fight the next general election,” the Prime Minister told reporters at the time, adding that it will depend on “how things evolve”.
The next General Election must be held by 2025.
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