Straits Times: PM Lee goes to Washington with ties on solid ground

By Nirmal Ghosh

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's meeting with US President Donald Trump on Monday offers both leaders an opportunity to understand each other better, and build on an already solid relationship, analysts say.

Mr Lee's Oct 22 to 26 official working visit comes with no awkward domestic or bilateral baggage to thrash out or draw negative US media attention. The US enjoys a trade surplus of US$9.1 billion (S$12.4 billion) in goods and US$9.7 billion in services with Singapore.

Mr Lee will stay at Blair House, the presidential guest house across the street from the White House.

The two leaders first met at the Group of 20 leaders' summit in Germany in July and have spoken on the phone a few times.

The US has also expressed its appreciation for Singapore's assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and following a collision involving the USS John S. McCain in Singapore waters off Pedra Branca.

Mr Lee's visit also comes as Singapore is poised to be the Asean chair and the US President prepares to make his first trip to Asia next month.

Mr Trump will visit Japan, South Korea and China, and will then head to Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit, and to the Philippines for the East Asia Summit and Asean leaders' summit.

"Singapore's position as a regional voice is amplified while occupying the Asean chair," Ms Shannon Hayden, associate director of the South-east Asia Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said in an e-mailed note.

"Ensuring clear US-Singapore communications during the coming year will be essential, particularly during discussions on North Korea, the South China Sea and trade," she added.

The White House meeting may not produce splashy announcements or big deals, noted Mr Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, in an e-mail to The Straits Times. But given the "strong repositories of goodwill, we can expect some very substantive and meaningful discussions", he said.

For Mr Trump, he can use the opportunity to reassure "a key Asian friend that the US intends to remain engaged in the Indo-Pacific".

"Also, to the extent that the Trump administration is trying to build a coalition of Asian states to support US policy towards North Korea, Singapore would be a useful state to have on board," he added.

Washington's foreign policy has been somewhat disruptive, with Mr Trump, for instance, pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and the Paris accord on climate change.

But, in substance, its relationships with Asia have not changed dramatically.

The North Korea crisis takes up so much bandwidth in the US administration that it has often been overlooked that South-east Asia is a positive region for the US, analysts say.

Mr Lee's visit will offer a perspective from a generally friendly region on the role and opportunities for the US.

"There are no crises to deal with in South-east Asia," a Washington-based diplomat noted.

Even though the disputed South China Sea, over which China has been increasingly assertive in recent years, remains a volatile issue, it has nevertheless settled into a more predictable pattern.

The US now has a schedule for its freedom of navigation operations unlike under the previous US administration, which tended to undertake such operations based on what it was trying to achieve in its relations with China, analysts say.

"Stability is neither a headline-grabber nor an accident," Ms Hayden wrote.

"Just as Lee is likely to advise Trump to pay attention to near-term crises and invest time in longer-term issues, the US-Singapore relationship counts on a solid long-term foundation to weather short-term storms."