On impact of Ukraine War & ‘Beijing whisperer’: PM Lee’s dialogue with Council on Foreign Relations


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke extensively about the Ukraine War and touched on other regional and political matters at the Dialogue with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on Mar 30, 2022. The hour-long dialogue was moderated by former US diplomat Richard Haass.

Here are some responses worth paying attention to.

On the negative impact of the Ukraine War

“It impacts the Asia Pacific area at many levels. First of all, it damaged the international framework for law and order, and peace between countries. It violates the UN Charter, it endangers the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones.

And if a principle is accepted, that crazy decisions and historical errors are the justification for invading somebody else, I think many of us are going to be feeling very insecure in the Asia Pacific, but also in the rest of the world.

Secondly, because of what has happened and the rend in relations in Europe, between developed countries, and Russia, the global system of multilateral working together —whether on trade, climate change, pandemic preparedness, nuclear non-proliferation—has become very difficult to work. You no longer have a framework in which opponents, rivals, competitors, work together and maybe disagree with one another, but there is a way in which we can do win-win cooperation.

Now it is win-lose, you want the other guy to be down, fix him, crash his economy. So how then do most of the countries, if possible, hang together and cooperate with one another and not fall into disorder, autarky or anarchy? That is a big worry for us in Singapore because we depend on globalisation to make a living.

Thirdly, what happens in Ukraine is bound to have a big impact on US – China relations. It will strain them; it has already strained them. You hope that with contacts between President Biden and President Xi at the highest level, rational calculations will be made, and the relations will hold. In other words, not become worse than they already are. But you do not know. Despite the best efforts on both sides, and if relations between the US and China worsen, that has a bigger implication for the whole of Asia Pacific and the world.”

On China’s reaction to Ukraine War

“I think it presents them with awkward questions. Because on Ukraine, it violates the principles which the Chinese hold very dearly – territorial integrity, and sovereignty and non-interference. And if you can do that to Ukraine, and if the Donbas can be considered to be enclaves, and maybe republics…

Or other parts of non-Han China? So, that is a very difficult question. Also, looking at the sanctions, it shows how interrelated we all are. Because if we do business with one another, we all have accounts with one another, and any one of us – especially the bigger ones – can pull their house down. I may own a lot of US Treasuries, but if the US decides to freeze those accounts, well, that has practical economic consequences. So, we are all dependent on one another. I would put it conversely too – if you cut off China, and say “well, I will do without that”, you do not have accounts in Chinese banks on the same scale, but your economic interdependence, they are one of your biggest trading partners – it is a manufacturing base for many of the US companies.

If those links fracture, it is going to hurt you too. It does not mean that you will not end up in a bad spot, but it does mean that I think both sides know the price is very high.

One more thing: I do not think that in the region, the fact that China refuses to distance itself from Russia, costs it. All the countries in the region — they worry about sovereignty and the principles of the UN charter – but at the same time, they want their ties with China and quite a few of them have significant ties with Russia, for example, India. So, the fact that the Chinese have taken their own position and they consider you a supplicant, asking them to help solve the Russian problem and they are saying, well, to untie the bell you need the person who tied the bell. In other words, solve your own problem.”

On climate crisis

“I am very worried about the climate. You asked me what I think about the mitigation efforts. I think honestly, they will be inadequate. The scientists are quite unambiguous. They are quite polite and hedged in their views. But their directions have consistently been more extreme than their predictions for quite some time now.

For Singapore, we take that very seriously, because we are a very low-lying Island. Our highest point is about the height of the Washington Monument and a bit more.

If the sea levels rise, which they will, we would not be flooded overnight, but we will have floods regularly and it will become like Louisiana.

We are doing our own part to mitigate the measures, but it depends on the global initiatives because we are such a small part of the global output – 0.2 or 0.3 per cent of the global emissions.

We have to do our part and we have to show a good example, and we are hoping to reach net-zero somewhere around the middle of the century.

We are trying to pin down how soon exactly that can be, but it depends on technology, and it depends on carbon markets and those are big question marks.

Also, it depends on the international order. If you are at war with Russia, you will not be able to agree with Russia on reducing emissions, much less apportioning responsibility for cutting carbon. I think that is going to be a big problem even if you are not at war, even with China, where you have got a dialogue and John Kerry works very hard visiting them and talking to them. Because your relations are so fraught, it is very difficult to make progress and you have explicitly said you are not prepared to trade off climate against other issues. Then the Chinese say, well, what is the point of this? I think it is going to be very difficult, and we are going to fall short of their goals – and their goals themselves are not high enough – and we should prepare for that.”

On digital cooperation between countries

“Yes, we do encourage digital cooperation. We have a Digital Economic Partnership Agreement (DEPA) with New Zealand, Chile and Singapore – three (countries). The Chinese have applied to join, Korea too, and we are trying to encourage the US to think about such an understanding between us and the United States. It is necessary because you need the framework, mutual understanding, rules – what information can be shared, where can information be stored and intellectual property questions. There is substance to this. I don’t know if we coined the name, but we decided, we popularised the idea of a Digital Partnership Agreement to bring all these bundle together and treat it separately from traditional FTAs. That is one of the things, which I hope you will be able to do in some form in the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.”

Moderator: I think there is a mis-intention there. In the politically-fraught trade space in this country, there seems to be more space to explore things in the digital domain than others.

PM Lee: “Yes, but even there, I think there is some sensitivity because it benefits the tech companies who are presently in bad odour.”

On whether the Biden Administration had accepted PM Lee’s role as “Beijing whisperer”

I am not a Beijing whisperer.

No, we cannot. We are not part of the family. We are Chinese, ethnic Chinese majority country in Southeast Asia. (We are) multi-racial, multi-religious, with independent national interests and priorities. And they treat us as such, and we remind them that that is so.

Watch the full video here.