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
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.