Straits Times: Bright future if Asia pulls together: PM Lee

If not, it will be less rosy scenario of fractious region fraught with tensions

BY FIONA CHAN SENIOR ECONOMICS CORRESPONDENT IN TOKYO

ASIA can enjoy a bright future in the next 20 years if the region's major players - China, Japan and the United States - work together and accommodate one another, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Tokyo yesterday.

If not, a less rosy scenario might arise: one where a fractious Asia is fraught with territorial and nationalistic tensions.

Mr Lee, in sketching these two potential scenarios in a speech on what could happen in Asia in the next 20 years, said that on balance, he is confident Asian countries will cooperate to achieve the happier outcome. In such a scenario, there would be a stable and prosperous Asia, where countries work together "to advance their shared interests", he said.

The US, which would remain the world's top superpower, would continue to engage Asia in not just security matters but also trade, investments and education, he said in his keynote speech marking the 20th anniversary of the annual Nikkei conference, which Mr Lee Kuan Yew used to attend.

The US would also reach a new working arrangement with China, which by then would have established itself as a status quo power that adheres to international law and norms and gives smaller countries space to thrive, PM Lee said.

Meanwhile, Japan would revitalise its economy and work with its neighbours to put the shadow of the wars, like the Sino-Japanese War, behind them, he added.

Against this stable geopolitical backdrop, regional economic cooperation would thrive and Asean would continue to play a central role in the region as "an effective neutral platform for major powers to engage one another".

But this is not a foregone conclusion and a "less benign" scenario is also possible, Mr Lee said.

That could result if "the tremendous growth in China's size and power prove too much for the regional order to accommodate".

Should that happen, US-China ties would be marked by distrust, China's influence in the region would be "merely tolerated" by smaller countries, and friction would fester among Asian countries amid "unresolved historical issues, territorial disputes and nationalist populism". It would be a setback to economic integration and force Asean countries to choose sides, he said. "Everyone loses in such a scenario."

Which scenario awaits Asia will depend on two main factors, Mr Lee said. The first is the evolution of US-China relations - "the most important bilateral relationship in the world", Mr Lee said.

"On both sides, there are those who doubt and distrust the other's intentions," he noted. "It will require great restraint and wisdom to overcome this distrust and reach a workable and peaceful accommodation."

The second factor is how nationalism develops in the region: whether as a source of national pride and beneficial competition across borders, or as a virulent sentiment fuelling defensiveness and insecurity, he added.

Individually, the US, China and Japan also face challenges, Mr Lee said. The US is steeped in a mood of "angst and withdrawal" from the strain of having to play the world's policeman, while China has to transform its society and politics to meet the needs of a new generation.

Both China and Japan also have to tackle their ageing populations and manage relations with their neighbours, he added.

But the positive scenario is more likely, Mr Lee concluded. "I am confident the US will not relinquish its decades-long position as an Asia-Pacific power, and I am hopeful that as China's power grows, it will find ways to continue integrating smoothly into the international system."

Both scenarios, however, assume there will not be war in the next 20 years; otherwise, "all bets are off", Mr Lee said. He warned that war in Asia was not impossible, saying growing tensions over territorial disputes and the Korean situation remain flashpoints.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, in his keynote speech at the event, called on Asian leaders to promote economic integration, tackle rising inequality and ensure regional tensions are dealt with through diplomacy.

Mr Lee said in a Facebook post last night that he stayed for Datuk Seri Najib's session. "It was good to catch up with him again."

fiochan@sph.com.sg

 

BACKGROUND STORY

ON JAPANESE LEADER SHINZO ABE'S MOVE TO REINTERPRET JAPAN'S CONSTITUTION TO ALLOW COLLECTIVE SELF-DEFENCE:

I can understand what Mr Abe is trying to do, because the war is now almost 70 years in the past and we all have to move beyond that.

I think that in South-east Asia, where Japan has made accommodation and settled the war history with the countries, it is something we will watch with some objectivity and dispassionate detachment.

But with other countries, particularly with China and Korea where this history has not really been put behind you, there will be considerable reactions. You must expect that.

And the more you can work with these countries in order to settle that war history, I think the easier will be your path to move Japan towards becoming a normal country.