The prime minister of Singapore – one of America’s most reliable partners in Southeast Asia and its 11th largest trading partner – is in Washington this week delivering a cautionary message: We want the United States and its leadership and stabilizing power in the region, but you are falling behind China, especially in terms of economic relations and trade.
“Over the last decade, China has become the top trading partner of almost all Southeast Asian nations, including US allies such as the Philippines and Thailand,” Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a Washington dinner Tuesday night sponsored by the US Chamber of Commerce and the US-ASEAN Business Council.
A first step the US should take to begin addressing China’s rise, according to Mr. Lee: “The US must adopt a more active trade strategy with ASEAN,” the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “In Asia,” he added, “trade is strategy.”
Lee’s Washington visit – the third by an Asian leader in the initial weeks of Mr. Obama’s second term – comes amid a ratcheting up of tensions with North Korea and as the Obama administration makes a conspicuous effort to demonstrate that the “Asia pivot” is more than just rhetoric.
Obama invited Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to be the first foreign leader to visit the White House in the president’s second term. The sultan of Brunei visited in March, and South Korea’s new president is scheduled to visit the White House in May.
The foreign minister of the Philippines, Albert del Rosario, is in Washington this week and had an unscheduled meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Tuesday when the Pentagon chief dropped in on Mr. del Rosario’s meeting with Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter.
The point? Underscore the importance to the US of its strengthening security relations with a key Southeast Asian partner.
Secretary of State John Kerry, who also met Tuesday with del Rosario and was to met Wednesday with Lee, will make his first trip to Asia as Obama’s chief diplomat late next week. He’ll make stops in South Korea, Japan, and China.
The administration has also made trade with Asia a centerpiece of a second-term focus on securing ambitious new trade agreements. Obama is calling for completion by the end of the year of a Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade accord among 11 Pacific-bordering nations that the US hopes could serve as the prototype for a much larger Asia-Pacific free-trade area.
Obama repeated his goal of completing the TPP this year when he greeted Lee at the White House Tuesday. Obama also underscored the key role Singapore plays in keeping the US active in the region’s defense and security when he thanked Lee and Singapore “for all the facilities that they provide that allow us to maintain our effective Pacific presence.”
The US is to start rotating Navy vessels into the strategically located city-state by the end of this month.
Singapore maintains strong relations with both Washington and Beijing, and it is perhaps as a result of that strategic positioning that Lee felt he could use his Washington visit to advocate for stronger and more trusting ties between the two giants in Asian security and economic affairs.
Noting in his speech that China’s rise constitutes a “major shift in the balance of power,” Lee said that “China and the US have to strengthen mutual confidence in order to manage this shift in the global balance of power wisely and prudently.”
Despite the serious issues facing Asia and the US role there, Lee also sought to demonstrate that, despite his wealthy state’s reputation for a no-nonsense approach to business and social issues, Singapore knows how to laugh.
Revealing himself to be an equal-opportunity tweaker, Lee ribbed both of the superpowers bearing down on his region with light-hearted jabs.
Referring to China’s serious environmental issues, Lee said the residents of Beijing joke that they can get a “free smoke” just by opening their windows and breathing. And in a reference to recent news of hundreds of pig carcasses floating in Shanghai rivers, Lee said Shanghai residents could get pork soup “just by opening the tap.”
Careful not to leave the US off the hook, Lee boasted of a new high-speed rail line being built between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur that will soon reduce the trip between the two cities – about the same distance apart as Washington and New York – to 90 minutes.
The punch line? Lee said he would take a train Wednesday from Washington to New York, and he’d been advised the trip would take him at least 2-1/2 hours.
[Editor's note: The headline has been changed to more accurately reflect the prime minister's statements.]