Lee Kuan Yew on Asian Power and Security

Singapore's first premier says Asia will find its own way, but argues for a gradual reduction in the US role in the region

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

LEE KUAN YEW, the former prime minister of Singapore, has not only shaped his island nation from independence but often speaks out about Asian and global issues. He now serves as ``senior minister'' to the government.

Do you think that the US can remain a security broker between Japan and China, or for the region, for a long time? Is it something Americans will accept, or can afford?

It is something the Americans will have to do, and can afford to do, at least for the next 10 to 15 years. You don't have to dismantle the seventh Fleet. It's there. That's good for another 20 years.

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Whether you will continue to do that beyond 20 years ... depends on the balance of economic benefits and defense costs. Even if the US were to scale down or withdraw, a gradual adjustment would have taken place over the next 20 years. A sudden change would be dangerous for everybody.

What kind of structure do you see coming into place to supplement a diminishing US role?

We have to hope that peace and stability can be maintained without one dominant power, a continuing US involvement. In 20 years, Japan will have a higher defense capability; so will China; so will a reunited Korea. I'm not sure about the Russians. It may take them a little longer.

Is one purpose of a US presence in Asia to keep all these countries from each others' throats?

That's putting it pessimistically. But the [US] presence makes it less likely that others [will] want to fill a vacuum. If governments expect a vacuum, they will react.

Do you think the US can play off China against Japan, somehow, so that they don't find a dominant role in Asia, or somehow the US can find some advantage in the competition between Japan and China?

I have no doubt [competition would bring] much benefit for the US. I would not put it as finding an advantage. Advantage implies a disadvantage to China and Japan. The underlying suspicions between them as a result of recent history makes a role [for the US] as a balancer. There is a dividend to be obtained from that role.

An economic dividend?

Yes, of course, of course.... And a benefit in shaping the nature of governments and their relationships with each other in the Asia Pacific and in the world. We have to accept that the world is fragile and requires both cooperation and tolerance for all peoples to survive.

Do you think there is any chance of success for this multilateral security forum, the so-called ASEAN Regional Forum, developing loose alliances, loose confidence-building, that will supplement or replace the US presence?

No. You cannot replace the reality of power by just talk. You may diminish suspicions and fears, and that's a very great achievement. Just being able to discuss our suspicions and fears openly, and create confidence-building measures. For example: Why have you bought five more squadrons of MIG-29s or MIG-31s? What are they for? Why are you building these nuclear submarines?

But you've got to have a security balance of sorts in place so that no party feels that they are at the mercy of another force.

But if we extrapolate into the next 30 or 40 years, the problems that will emerge really require global arrangements, in which the UN Security Council must play a bigger role. It may be far-fetched at this moment, because they can't even manage peacekeeping operations efficiently, or can't even finance them.

The US president says that [the UN] can't even go into [Bosnia-Herzegovina], that NATO would have to go. But I don't see NATO looking after the world. It has to be a world body with the authority and moral force of world opinion to back it.

What is your prediction about the Chinese military, especially the naval projection? Do you think that Southeast Asia needs to be concerned about that in the next 10 years?

Not in the next 10 years. Southeast Asia will have to watch it carefully. Before China feels the need to flex its muscles, a certain understanding and appreciation of each other could have developed. Then China will not see any political and economic advantage from exercising military strength.

Right now, does China see a need to project its Navy?

Right now, they want a capability to support their sovereignty over the Spratlys, under which everybody believes there is a lot of oil and gas.

How concerned is China about the Japanese military potential? Is that something that might create a new direction for China if Japan continues to invest in its military?

I've not discussed this problem directly with any Chinese leader. But in asides, when we talk about security, and often I would ignore the Japanese element, and they point out to me that ``you have overlooked this,'' which shows how much the Japanese loom in their consciousness.

Is that simply memories of the war or is it a hard look at what the Japanese are actually doing?

It is an extrapolation from what the Japanese have meant to China, plus a hard look at Japanese technological and economic capabilities, which if translated into hardware, can be very formidable.

Can China and Japan build any sort of alliance of trust?

They will have to bury their differences if they both face a greater threat. If they don't, they can patch up, and gradually, over one, two, maybe three generations, develop a new relationship which, for those of us who live in Asia and have to share the fate of the region with them, must hope for.

The capabilities for destruction are so enormous, their capacity to destroy each other is so overwhelming, that it just does not make sense.

I don't see the Japanese being capable of capturing China or invading China, not when China has got the nuclear bomb. It's not worth quarreling over the Senkaku Islands [off the Chinese coast], unless there is some huge oil and gas deposits there.

Really, the fear arises out of a different past, in a different world, when occupation of territory and control of natural and human resources meant wealth. That has been overtaken since World War II by [the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the International Monetary Fund] and world trade. Keep this system going, and exchange goods and services, free exchange across borders, and there's no reason for anyone wanting to seize another's territory.

Are there any commonalities in Asia that would pull the region together?

There are two scenarios. One, a fractious world. GATT breaks down. The regions become inward-looking.... Then Asia perforce will have to look for some way to maximize what's left of it. I see that as the beginning of very big international conflicts, because the regions will then collide over areas, such as the Middle East where the oil is, and where the customers are.

Or, a world in which we try to do, on a bigger scale, what the US and Britain did at the end of World War II, to build an open system (which was offered to the communists who refused it) in which everybody benefits by joining.

The moment has arrived with the end of the cold war. These closed economies have collapsed and want to join [the club]. And we have this absurd, completely irrational situation. There is no leader in the West willing to seize the chance to avoid major war by establishing a system which offers everybody membership [in] an international economic community, if not immediately, then in the future.

If you are going to avoid a third world war, you cannot exclude Russia, or China, or India, or the Arab world, from a world trading system. If you exclude them, they will get together and create mischief.

Are there any other changes that have come from the end of the cold war?

It happened all so suddenly. We have not calculated what all the fundamental changes mean to us - in security, in economics, and in culture....

I'll give a simple illustration. Our traders are in Vladivostok.... Now they fly to Niigata, Japan and take a flight, an hour plus, to Vladivostok. They buy marine products. Because the Russians don't have refrigeration facilities, our traders take it across the border to China and freeze it, and then bring it back to Singapore. This is just the beginning of it.

Beijing used to be at least a two-day journey. Go to Hong Kong, wait for a visa, then train to Guangzhou, then plane to Beijing. Now the trip takes six hours.

And you can be in Vladivostok in eight hours when services begin.

I don't know which way the wind is blowing, but it's a completely new world. The opportunities are enormous, provided we have a system which makes constructive endeavor rewarding, because exchange of goods and services is facilitated by GATT.

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