China ‘faces challenges within itself’

This is an excerpt from a transcript of a dialogue Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had with senior Chinese party officials at the Central Party School in Beijing on Thursday 6 September.

Bilateral ties between China and Singapore are good, but both countries have differing views on some important regional and global issues.

How do you think we can communicate and work better on these issues?

How do you see the relationship between Singapore and China going forward?

China is a big country growing rapidly.

Singapore is a small country also seeking to prosper in Asia.

We wish Asia to be stable, and the region to be open and prosperous together.

Nobody wants to see a conflict in the South China Sea, but our position cannot be the same as China’s position simply because China is a claimant-state.

Singapore is not a claimant-state.

Therefore Singapore cannot take sides or judge the merits of the different claims to the South China Sea.

But Singapore believes, as I have explained, that disputes should be settled in accordance with international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – and to be settled peacefully.

Freedom of navigation must be preserved whatever the outcome of the territorial disputes.

And Asean has to play a role, one that is constructive, neutral, forward-looking and encouraging solutions of the problem.

This is not exactly the Chinese position but I don’t think this is contrary to China’s position, or to China’s interests.

As for our bilateral relationship with China, it is one of our most important external relationships.

China is a very big factor in the economy, in the security, in the stability of the region.

At the strategic level, we want China to succeed and to prosper because we think that is the best for the world.

On the bilateral level, we would like our cooperation to develop into new areas which are relevant to both sides as our societies change, as new needs emerge.

That’s why we are pursuing new projects like the High-Tech Innovation Park or the Tianjin Eco-City.

That’s also why in our bilateral cooperation, we have been talking about new areas – for example, management of social development and promotion of social harmony.

I think that there will always be new mountains to climb in our bilateral relationship.

Singapore is an important member of Asean, and plays an important role in Asia-Pacific.

PM Lee’s views on regional issues carry much weight too.

Asean countries face developmental problems and there are tensions between China and some Asean members.

Some have questioned Asean’s usefulness and even asked if China should continue to support Asean’s growth.

What are your views?

It is good for the region to have a cohesive and effective Asean.

There will always be some issues between individual countries.

I think that is the nature of international relations or human relations.

Asia needs to build a framework to maintain the prosperity and stability which we enjoy today.

It will not remain as it is, or automatically adjust by itself.

The framework depends on what the foreign policy people call “Asean centrality”, which means Asean is the partner around which all the other major countries gather, cooperate and talk with one another.

Asean is neutral, Asean is friends with all the major countries, Asean doesn’t take sides, and I think Asean provides the basis for an effective regional architecture to form.

Without Asean forming the centre of this cooperation, around which others can participate, I don’t believe that any other country or any other power can play that role.

The United States, China, Japan cannot play that role.

On individual disputes, Asean doesn’t take sides on the merits of the disputes, but Asean can exercise a moderating influence, and provide a framework within which issues can be discussed and, we hope, peacefully managed, if not totally resolved.

If Asean does not play that role, and it is completely on the basis of one versus one, you may be able, as a big country, to have an advantage on that issue.

But I think in terms of the overall strategic balance in the region, the overall atmosphere or confidence and peaceful competition, I think China will lose out.

To maintain a balance over a long period of time is not just a matter of power, it’s also a matter of influence and acceptance.

And also a certain width and depth of perspective that looks beyond the immediate issue.

How do I want this to look like over the next 10, 20, 30 years?

What can I do so that in 30 years’ time, we will still be welcomed and still be a friendly partner to many other countries in the world?

Why is it that after 60 years, the Americans are still welcomed in the region?

Because although they were overwhelmingly powerful, there was room for other countries to grow and to expand their interests, and to compete peacefully with one another.

And so people appreciate the American presence and so they are welcomed.

If it were not so, I think there would have been great resistance from long ago. So there are friendly relations.

The 7th Fleet is present in the region, but the 7th Fleet is not what keeps individual countries in line.

The 7th Fleet is not a key factor why the US has become a Pacific power.

That is what you have to think about when you are dealing with the South China Sea issue.

Shoals are important, oil wells and gas underneath the sea are also important – but the long-term standing of China, not just in Asia but also in the world, I think, is critical.

In interviews before your visit, you said it is difficult for China to understand how it is viewed by others.

How do you and Singaporeans view China?

How does the world view China, and how should China interact with the world?

First, from Singapore’s perspective, there is enormous admiration for what China has done.

There is a certain pride that Asians are able to stand up and show that they are as good as any in the world.

And they look forward to China continuing to progress.

We see China as a great opportunity for investments, for trade, for tourism.

But I think we also see China as competition, because China will do things soon – or are already doing things – which we are doing for a living.

We have to keep on moving forward if we are not going to have our lunch eaten by somebody else.

And this is not just at the national, macro level but at the individual, personal level.

People make friends with Chinese, they marry one another, they work for one another, because many Singapore companies employ Chinese workers or engineers or managers.

But at the same time, they also feel competition from the Chinese.

They feel a threat, that these are people not quite the same as us because we have grown up differently; who are very capable; very hardworking; and who have to integrate into our society in a way which maintains the balance, without pushing us over and changing too fast, and changing our character.

So from the point of view of other countries looking at China, I think it would be helpful if they can understand that China actually has considerable challenges within itself, which it has to tackle:

Whether it’s ageing, agricultural reform, political issues, or structural economic dangers which are deep and difficult.

At the same time, they see China as being a fierce competitor.

As Premier Wen (Jiabao) often says, in China, every good thing is divided by 1.3 billion times, and every problem is multiplied by 1.3 billion times, because it is such a huge country.

And there is truth in that.

From China’s point of view, I think it would be helpful, although it is not easy to achieve, to understand how huge your impact is on other societies, and other peoples.

Look at the anxiety which arises from ordinary people in the US, for example.

If you buy clothes, they come from China.

If you happen to buy your uniform, they come from China, and Olympic uniforms too.

Everything is being done by China.

You are doing research and development, the Chinese do research and development.

You are doing space science, Chinese are doing space science.

So the perception is anything they can do, China can do better.

It’s not completely true, but it’s their fear.

And that’s what you have to address and reassure, and appear human and on the same wavelength, able to work in international community with other countries for common interests over a long period of time.

Source: TST 8-9-2012

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