Singapore will not be joining President-elect Joe Biden‘s “Cold War–style” coalition against China, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated at a forum on Monday.
Lee, who is continuing his nation’s balancing act in Southeast Asia, dismissed the former vice president’s campaign proposal in favor of what he suggested was a logical desire to continue trade with China.
“I think not many countries would like to join a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom will be China,” the prime minister told the Bloomberg New Economy Forum.
“There will be countries who want to do business with China,” he explained, adding: “To try and make a line-up, Cold War–style, I don’t think that’s on the cards.”
Lee is among numerous heads of state to have been asked his opinion on the upcoming change in leadership in the United States. However, the fifth-term prime minister is unlikely to change the city state’s practical and long-held stance of not taking sides in the U.S.-China tug of war.
In a 2013 interview with The Washington Post, Lee described his government’s policy towards the world’s two largest economies as “have our cake and eat it and be friends with everybody.”
Prime Minister Lee described potential positives of a Biden administration as the likelihood of re-engagement between Washington and Beijing, as well as a resumption of U.S. activities in international bodies, but he stopped short of predicting a full rapprochement.
“It may never come back all the way,” Lee said of America’s relationship with China, which has often hit back with its own strong rhetoric over issues such as Huawei and multibillion dollar arms sales to Taiwan.
He called Trump’s four years in office a “tumultuous ride” and said the president’s most memorable slogans “America First” and “Make America Great Again” were a “narrow definition” of the United States’ historical interests overseas, especially for stability in Asia.
“I think there are some elements in the administration who definitely did want to make moves which would be very difficult to reverse by the subsequent administration, and which will set the tone for the relationship for a long time to come,” Singapore’s third prime minister said.
“Once you impose punitive tariffs, once you put them on, whatever their merits, no successor government can just say those were the wrong things to do and I take them away,” he continued.
“You have to deal with it, but you are dealing from a new starting point,” he added, in an apparent reference to President Trump’s latest executive order banning U.S. share ownership and investment in 31 Chinese firms with ties to the People’s Liberation Army.
While there was an “unquestionable” bipartisan consensus in America about China as a strategic threat, the two superpowers were unlikely to come to blows, Lee said.
“I don’t think the Chinese want a collision, because I think they know they are not ready for a collision,” he argued, while also calling them “hard bargainers.”
At a separate forum for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation on Thursday, Lee said he hoped the Biden administration would have a “more coherent, systematic” approach to foreign policy and international cooperation compared to the current White House incumbent.
At APEC CEO Dialogues 2020, hosted by Malaysia, Singapore’s prime minister blamed Trump’s zero-sum game perspective on trade for stymieing the forum’s progress in recent years.
“The attitude of the Trump administration is that this is a win-lose proposition,” he explained. “If I have a trade surplus with you, that is good for me. If I have a trade deficit with you, that is bad for me.”
“Trade is not like that,” Lee said. “Trade is win-win. I may have a surplus with you; I have a deficit with somebody else. But it does not matter as long as overall it balances out.”
“Taking care of America’s interests does not mean having to ride roughshod over other countries’ interests,” he added. “But that has been this administration’s view, and this administration is still in charge until January 20.
Lee also praised the conclusion on Sunday of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a free trade agreement eight years in the making.
RCEP’s 15 members include regional giants like China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, who are now all part of the world’s largest trading bloc.