In a wide-ranging interview given to the Hindu newspaper during his official visit to India, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong suggested that the country should consider contributing to the non-escalation of tensions, like the South China Sea dispute.
When the interviewer asked him if India should be involved in such disputes despite the possibility of its intervention opening up another front other than the one with Pakistan, PM Lee said that it is something the Indian decision makers must consciously weigh and decide.
The following is an excerpt of the interview.
Q: About India’s political role in the region, PM has mentioned about keeping communications open, respecting international legal laws, as a shared priority between India and Singapore. That is a clear reference to the South China Sea, in particular China’s rule over there. Many have spoken about India’s role in helping to ease the situation. The US as expressed its vision. Where do you see India’s role?
PM: The South China Sea issue has many levels and aspects to it. The specific territorial and maritime disputes between the claimant states, specifically China and within the ASEAN countries, there are four of them, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam. It is between the claimant states as to “who owns what”, but other countries in the region and outside of it, have an interest in this issue because of freedom of navigation, international rule of law, including UNCLOS, peaceful resolution of disputes according to international laws and procedures. These are issues that countries have legitimate issues and we hope that the interests of the wider global community will be taken into account in whatever comes out of the resolution of the specific disputes. In that context, India can contribute in the region, just like what the other regional countries can contribute towards promoting a climate managing dispute peacefully, countries are discouraged from escalating their disputes and work towards a solution that is in accordance to international laws.
Q: Is there a diplomatic or military rule in this region as the US has spoken about joint patrol?
PM: The US has conducted the freedom of navigation and operation. I am not aware that other countries have done so. They could have. Each country needs to decide where its focus is. For India, I would say you have an interest in the wider region. Historically, your interest has been in the subcontinent because there were many issues in the subcontinent which you have to deal with. Increasingly, you have an interest in the wider region and it has to be done in a constructive way together in partnership with the other countries in the region which is why India is part of the ASEAN Regional Forum which discusses security issues.
Q: That is exactly what the concern is. If India was to have a role in this region, in the South China Sea in particular, in East Asia, that could lead to tensions, that the impact could be felt back here, and perhaps open up two fronts – there is already clearly a tense front with Pakistan. The last thing you would need is another tense front with China. You see that as a challenge?
PM: I think that is something which your decision makers must be quite conscious of and weighing quite carefully.