Channel NewsAsia: Singapore, US have 'sound relationship' based on 'basic strategic congruence of views': PM Lee

SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hopes to develop the "very sound relationship" between Singapore and the United States when he makes his official working visit to Washington, DC from Oct 22 to 26.

Speaking in an interview with CNBC on Thursday (Oct 19), Mr Lee said that the two countries have a "deep and multi-faceted relationship" based on a "basic strategic congruence of views about the world and the region" as well as deep cooperation over many years in areas such as trade, investment, defence and security.

During his visit, Singapore hopes to sign an agreement between Singapore Airlines and Boeing to buy more aeroplanes, Mr Lee said.

When asked what he thinks about US President Donald Trump, whom he met on the sidelines of the G20 Summit earlier this year, Mr Lee said that he thought the US president was "confident of himself".

"There are things which he wants to do. He has a very set view of the world and of people. And we will work with him."

"He has been elected, he has a mandate from the American voters and he represents the United States of America," he said.

When asked if he was worried about the US "turning inwards" after Mr Trump's election, Mr Lee said that "we have long depended on an America which has got a clear sense of its stakes in the world and how much it depends on the world as well as how much the world and its allies and friends depend on the United States of America, and we hope this will continue."

On the subject of the US pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) after Mr Trump took office, Mr Lee said that Mr Trump had made his position "quite clear", and that it was not time yet to start new initiatives multilaterally with the US, though this did not mean that existing trade stops.

It will also take several years before the TPP could come back, said Mr Lee, and it would have to take a different form.

When asked if ASEAN countries would now "pivot" towards China, Mr Lee said China was a "big factor in the world".

"I think we are paying a lot of attention to China, one way or the other," he said.

He added that China wants "to grow their influence, and all the countries in Asia want to be their friend and want to benefit from China’s development and success".

He added that he hoped the Trump administration would pay attention to Asia, as it has been "a source of stength and prosperity for America".

"The fact that Asia is stable and prospering, and not a troubled part of the world, I think that is a great relief to the United States, to say the least."

SINGAPORE, CHINA RELATIONS "GOOD" AND "FORWARD-LOOKING"

Mr Lee also stressed that relations between Singapore and China are "good" and "forward-looking".

Both countries are "sovereign countries", so there "will always be issues where we do not completely see eye to eye", said Mr Lee.

"But fundamentally there are no basic conflicts in our perspectives and we both wish to do more together bilaterally and also in the context of ASEAN (the Association of South-east Asian Nations)."

He added: "Every country will have... every pair of countries will have issues where, 'I wish you'd agreed with me. You wish I'd agreed with you.' But we remain good friends, and it is so with Singapore and the US. It is so with Singapore and the People’s Republic of China."

Reiterating Singapore's stance on the South China Sea, Mr Lee said that Singapore's position "has always been that we are not a claimant state".

"We have no claims. So we do not take sides on those claims: Who owns which island," he said. "But we do have an interest in freedom of navigation, in the rule of international law, in the peaceful resolution of dispute, and in ASEAN having a role in an issue which is this important in our neighbourhood."

As ASEAN chairman next year, Singapore is an "honest broker" and not the "commander-in-chief", Mr Lee added, and said that the country's role was to bring parties together to help produce a consensus.

The prime minister was also asked about managing relations between the United States and China.

Mr Lee said that Singapore has "substantial relations" with both countries, and hopes to maintain these.

"It is never easy to be a small country next to a big neighbour," he added.

CHINA HAS "MAJOR ROLE TO PLAY" IN NORTH KOREA ISSUE

China has a "major role to play" in solving the North Korea issue, and the country has "complex calculations to balance", said the prime minister.

He said that brinkmanship has long been part of the North Korea issue, but that what was different this time was that the country has more nuclear weapons, have conducted more nuclear tests and are developing missile technology.

"But the danger is not just the immediate alarums but also the longer term trends, which are set off in Northeast Asia, if things persist in this direction," said Mr Lee, voicing his concern about countries such as South Korea and Japan weighing their security options and the possibility of developing nuclear capabilities.

"But these are thoughts which cannot be completely suppressed. In fact if it goes that way, and South Korea and Japan go closer to be in nuclear power or actually cross the threshold. It means, different strategic and security balance in Northeast Asia."