US President-elect Biden faces challenge in dealing with China, but Singapore PM Lee hopes for framework for constructive ties

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that US President-elect Joe Biden faces an uphill task in mending ties with China, as there is a consensus within the US administration to see China as a strategic threat. — Reuters pic
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that US President-elect Joe Biden faces an uphill task in mending ties with China, as there is a consensus within the US administration to see China as a strategic threat. — Reuters pic

SINGAPORE, Nov 17 — Tensions between the United States and China are expected to linger as any new US administration cannot “proceed as if the last few years had not taken place”, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. 

But, he said in an interview with Bloomberg News’ editor-in-chief John Micklethwait that he hopes that US President-elect Joe Biden can “focus his mind on developing a framework for an overall constructive relationship with China” despite the many pressing domestics issues which he needs to tackle.

In the interview, which was pre-recorded for the Bloomberg 2020 New Economy Forum today Lee said such a relationship is “one where you are going to be competing, where there will be issues to deal with, but where you do not want to collide and will try very hard to develop the areas of common interest and constrain the areas of disagreement”.

And within such a framework, the two sides would have to deal with “all the many issues” facing them, namely trade, security, climate change, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and North Korea. 

“Amongst those will also be issues which will be of concern to all the rest of us in Asia, who are watching carefully to see how things will develop,” he said.

Still, Lee noted Biden may have a hard time dealing with China because there is a consensus within the US administration to see China as a strategic threat and that this is “almost becoming received wisdom and unquestionable” in the US government.

“It will be very difficult for any administration, whether it is Biden or on the other side, Trump, to disregard that and then just proceed as if the last few years had not taken place.”

During the wide-ranging interview, Micklethwait asked Lee if he was worried that the world was breaking up into regional blocs instead of being connected on an international scale. Lee said this was a possibility, but that it was unlikely that the world will split up.

“The trans-Pacific trade links and trans-Atlantic trade links are too substantial to be cut off, and to divide us into two worlds or three worlds,” he said. However, he said the risk of bifurcation — or division — of technology is there, and has already happened in China. 

He noted, for example, that because the Chinese are unable to access many parts of the internet, such as Google, Facebook or Twitter, they created their own equivalents.

Lee also touched on how incumbent President Donald Trump’s administration has affected the way the US is viewed in the region.

“When you talk about putting America first and making America great again, it is a narrower definition of where America’s interests lie than has hitherto been the way US Administrations have seen things,” said Lee.

He said previous administrations saw the US as having a broad interest in the stability of the region and the well-being of its partners, and were focused on fostering an overall environment where many countries can prosper in an orderly scheme.

“It will take some time for America to come back to such a position, and for others to be convinced that it is taking such a position,” he said.

“It may never come back all the way, certainly in the short term and certainly in terms of its relationship with China.” — TODAY

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