As President Donald Trump prepares for a 10-day trip to Asia, his first to the region since taking office, one of the region’s leaders brought to Washington last week insights that potentially represent sentiments held not just by his government.
Lee Hsien Loong — eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, and a successor to the position his father held for decades — told audiences in the U.S. capital that the emerging geostrategic landscape of the Asia Pacific depends not only on internal dynamics, but also on U.S. intention and action.
At a White House ceremony, Lee told Trump that Singapore, “like many other countries,” watches U.S.-China relations “very closely.”
Trump leaves for the region Nov. 3.
Presence and preparedness
Lee, Singapore’s prime minister since 2004, alluded to the geopolitical competition between the U.S. and China while speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington think tank.
He stressed the importance of the U.S. to maintain a strategic presence where such presence is called for.
“If you’re not there, everybody else in the world will look around and say, ‘I want to be friends with both the U.S. and the Chinese, and the Chinese are ready, I’ll start with them,’” he told the audience.
Lee, who is fluent in English, Mandarin Chinese and Malay, three of Singapore’s four official languages, visits Washington often, and also makes periodic trips to Beijing, including one just last month.
Lee said Chinese officials perceive the current U.S. administration as demonstrating gong-li-zhu-yi, a term that may be best translated as placing an overriding premium on profitability. While the phrase sounds slightly derogatory, it may also indicate that Chinese officials see Trump as wanting to see results, not just empty talk.
‘Westerners can be inscrutable, too’
In another observation he shared, Lee said the Chinese don’t quite know what to make of Trump or of U.S. foreign policy under the current administration.
“They’re not quite sure how to figure you out, they’re looking for a way to understand you,” Lee said of his counterparts in Beijing. “If you find them inscrutable, you must realize Westerners can be inscrutable, too!”
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) drew worldwide attention with the 19th Party Congress.
During the weeklong event, which marked the end of Xi’s first five-year term, the CCP agreed not only to give Xi a second term, but to add his political “thoughts” to its constitution, putting him on par with the country’s founder Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, who set China on a path for economic reform.
Western media covered the event in depth. President Trump even took note of Xi’s “extraordinary elevation” (via a tweet).
Xi seeks to extend influence to 2050
“The era he [Xi] envisages extends to not just the next five, or even 10, years, [encompassing] two terms, but extending to 2050, and taking China to 100 years after the revolution,” Prime Minister Lee said, referring to the time that will have lapsed from 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party officially defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) Party in a drawn-out civil war.
Xi’s illuminations, together with those of his predecessors, now bear the historical responsibility of ensuring China’s enrichment and empowerment for decades, if not centuries, to come, if all goes according to the party’s plan.
How China’s Xi will wield his newly sanctioned power at home and abroad is being watched closely from a variety of vantage points, not the least of which being Taiwan.
In November 2015, Singapore hosted a meeting between leaders of China and Taiwan. Asked if his country may once again facilitate such a dialogue, Lee said, “We have a very limited role.” He described Singapore’s hosting of the 2015 meeting between Xi and Taiwan’s then-President Ma Ying-jeou: “Our job was to provide the room and tea cups, that’s it!”
Given the seemingly unbridgeable gap between Taiwan’s current ruling party and their equally intransigent counterparts on the mainland, Lee said his opinion was: “The best you can hope for is a standoff.”
‘In politics, no party remains in power forever’
During Lee’s discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, one audience member, who had praised Lee’s knowledge of details, asked, “You stated that ‘in politics, no party remains in power forever,’ does that apply to Singapore?”
“I’m sure it does. I don’t know when it will happen, but I will not want to make it happen sooner than it needs to,” he quickly said, before shifting his gaze and attention to the next questioner.
Lee, 65, has been at the head of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and has been prime minister since 2004. His late father, Lee Kuan Yew, co-founded PAP in 1954 and was prime minister of the Southeast Asian nation-state from 1965 to 1990 and remained a powerful figure until a few years before he passed away, in 2015.