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Strain on US-China ties, global multilateral order among implications of Ukraine war on Asia-Pacific: PM Lee

WASHINGTON, DC — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that countries in the Asia-Pacific should think about the path into conflict and how it can be avoided, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (March 30).

Mr Lee stressed that that the invasion violates the United Nations Charter and endangers the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones.

Mr Lee stressed that that the invasion violates the United Nations Charter and endangers the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones.

  • The Ukraine conflict has shown that countries in the Asia-Pacific need to avoid the failure of deterrence that leads to armed conflict, said Mr Lee 
  • The European conflict has also strained US-China relations and the global multilateral order cooperation, he added
  • Mr Lee was asked about the impact of the war on the region at a dialogue hosted by US think-tank Council on Foreign Relations
  • During Mr Lee's working visit to the US, he had earlier noted that the conflict — which was also discussed at a meeting between Mr Lee and US President Joe Biden — has implications for Asia-Pacific 

WASHINGTON, DC — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown that countries in the Asia-Pacific should think about the path into conflict and how it can be avoided, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (March 30). 

This meant considering “what structures can you build, what processes, what engagements, what strategic accommodations can be made”, so as to head off such a "failure of deterrence” that would lead to a situation where defence is needed, said Mr Lee during his working trip to the United States.

Mr Lee was responding to a question by Mr Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a US think-tank, on the implications of the Ukraine conflict for Asia-Pacific nations.

Taking place in between a number of meetings by Mr Lee and US policymakers in America's capital, the hour-long dialogue was watched by an audience of corporate and governmental leaders in-person and online, who posed wide-ranging questions about geopolitics and US-China relations, nuclear proliferation, climate change and energy security. 

Addressing Mr Haass’ question, Mr Lee reiterated several points he made during his visit to the White House on Tuesday, where he met US President Joe Biden.

Condemning Russia's actions, Mr Lee stressed that that the invasion violates the United Nations Charter and endangers the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, especially small ones.

"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," said Mr Lee, referring to the reasons given by Russian leader Vladimir Putin for the attack on Ukrainian territory.

The global multilateral order of cooperation on issues such as trade, climate change, pandemic preparedness and nuclear non-proliferation has become very difficult to work due to the conflict.

“You no longer have a framework in which opponents, rivals, competitors, work together and maybe disagree with one another,” he said.

“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?” 

Such a scenario is a "big worry" for Singapore, because the Republic depends on globalisation to make a living, he said.

Mr Lee then noted how various countries have acted in response to the European conflict, with some countries contemplating having nuclear weapons, because “the implication from Ukraine is that nuclear deterrence is something which can be very valuable”.

Calculations will also have to be made for jurisdictions like Taiwan as to which friendly country would come to their aid if war were to break out. 

Mr Lee noted growing talk about lengthening Taiwan’s draft national service from four months to a year, as well as polls showing declining confidence among Taiwan residents that America will help them.

US-CHINA RELATIONS

“What happens in Ukraine is bound to have a big impact on US–China relations… It has already strained them,” Mr Lee said.

“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.”

Mr Haass then asked whether the global response to Russia for its actions in Ukraine has “sobered” the Chinese, given the unprecedented sanctions against the aggressor.

Mr Lee responded: “I think it presents them with awkward questions. (The Ukraine invasion) violates the principles which the Chinese hold very dearly — territorial integrity, sovereignty and non-interference.” 

For example, if the Donbas, a region in southeast Ukraine that was recognised by Russia to be an independent republic, can be considered to be enclaves, that could have implications on other non-Han Chinese regions of China, said Mr Lee.

The sanctions against Russia have also shown how interrelated countries are. Fracturing these links will hurt both parties, which means that both sides know the price of such a conflict is very high, he said.

GIVING CHINA SPACE ON GLOBAL STAGE

Some attribute the eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) to be an underlying cause of the conflict. While there is no Nato in Asia, there are hot spots, too, said Mr Lee. 

"We do have issues which are difficult to resolve, and we do need institutions which will bring in countries on both sides.”

This also means having a way to bring “rivals” to the table and being able to engage with China and the US, as well as other countries that are closer to one side or the other, he said.

“You have got to move in that direction,” Mr Lee said, adding that there are a number of platforms that are helpful, such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the East Asia Summit, an annual regional forum of leaders.

Mr Lee also gave the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which is mooted by the US as a way to engage the region on a win-win basis, as another example.

Nevertheless, Mr Haass pointed out that there is a widespread view that the decades-long effort to integrate China into global economic institutions largely did not succeed. He said China had “cherry-picked” its involvements and has emerged stronger without moderating its behaviour.

Responding, Mr Lee said China’s momentum is enormous and unstoppable, and that past arrangements and concessions for China are no longer "politically wearable or economically sensible".

So, adjustments are needed, said Mr Lee, adding that the world has to gradually treat China as a developed economy, and "give it some space to influence the global system".

"You do not want to change your whole system of international order, or international law — this is a framework which everybody fits into. But now you have got a big player and they do want to participate and you have to enable them to participate," said Mr Lee.

“You can try to block it and hold them back. In which case, maybe you insulate yourself a little bit, but you set up for a troubled relationship for a very long time to come,” he added.

Related topics

Asia Pacific Singapore United States Ukraine Russia geopolitics

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