PM Lee: ASEAN may have to choose sides in US-China standoff

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Photo: YouTube screengrab

As this year’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit came to an end on Thursday, November 15, Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of Singapore said that there may come a time when the ASEAN may have to choose between the United States and China, given the tense situation between the two biggest economies in the world, due to trade.

Lee said this in answer to a question of ASEAN would be forced to choose a side, and why it mattered that it would not.

“If you are friends with two countries which are on different sides, sometimes it is possible to get along with both, sometimes it’s more awkward when you try to get along with both.

I think it’s very desirable for us not to have to take sides, but the circumstances may come when ASEAN may have to choose one or the other. I am hoping that it’s not coming soon.”

The Prime Minister’s answer is a reflection of the growing tension in the Asia-Pacific region, concerning getting caught between the two superpowers amidst their trade and security skirmishes.

What has added to the tension is the absence of US President Donald Trump, both at the ASEAN summit in Singapore and APEC meetings in Papua New Guinea, giving rise to the question of whether the US has a right to still lead in the region, when China seems overly eager to take its place.

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Meanwhile, the Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence, who is also in town for the summit, assured ASEAN leaders that the US regards it as an  “irreplaceable strategic partner.”

He also took aim at China’s amassing military strongholds in the area, saying, “We all agree that empire and aggression has no place in the Indo-Pacific.

Let me be clear, though: our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that nations treat their neighbours with respect, and respect the sovereignty of our nations and international rules and order.”

Even while the US Vice President was making these remarks, warfare drills were being conducted in the Philippine Sea by the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group and the John C Stennis Carrier Strike Group.

Still, PM Lee also said that ASEAN strives to maintain friendly relations with all nations.

“If you’re talking about economic co-operation, theoretically that’s a win-win. But if the global economy pulls apart into different blocs, and then there are hindrances not just to trade but also to investments… the rules… the technologies which are involved… then Asean will be put into a different position.

“So we will have to deal with this case by case. Asean by itself is not big enough to be a bloc. We have to work with the world as it is, and try and maintain as much cohesion as we can amongst ourselves.”

On Beijing’s part, Li Kequiang, the Chinese Premier, said reassuringly that China is putting the final touches on a code of conduct that would concern disputed water areas within 3 years.

Li also expressed hoped that the members of the ASEAN would come together against the trade policies of the US and finalized the the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is a free-trade agreement between the 10 ASEAN nations and 6 additional Asia-Pacific countries—China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

This would make RCEP the largest trading bloc on the globe, which would account for one third of the world’s GDP (gross domestic product).

Progress on the partnership has been made, and PM Lee said negotiations will most likely be finalized by 2019.  “We would, of course, be delighted if we could have settled the RCEP here, it would have been an excellent little feather in our cap. But we understand the political exigencies, we appreciate that a lot of progress has been made, and that we are very close to the finish line.”