Singapore PM Lee backs US as ‘guarantor’ of security in Asia as Harris grilled over Afghanistan chaos
- Kamala Harris emphasised US commitment to the region and demurred when asked about Afghanistan withdrawal, insisting Washington was ‘singularly’ focused on evacuations
- Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore was ‘grateful’ the US had prevented terrorist groups using Afghanistan as a base, adding that Washington’s response to the unfolding crisis would shape perceptions in Asia
The US has been criticised over its withdrawal from Afghanistan – by China and by its allies alike – but Lee struck a sympathetic tone, saying countries must make “recalculations and adjust their positions from time to time”.
The Singaporean prime minister, who is regarded by Washington as an important sounding board on Asia policy, said the US would be judged by its response to the unfolding Afghan crisis.
“What will influence perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region will be what the US does going forward,” Lee said, adding that countries will pay close attention to how the US repositions itself, engaging friends, partners and allies while continuing to fight terrorism.
The US, Lee said, had been in Asia since World War II and had borne witness to dramatic transformation in the region. Those changes were helped on by the “benign and constructive influence of the United States as a regional guarantor of security and support of prosperity”, Lee said.
He said US intervention in Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks prevented terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda using the country as a base.
“For this, Singapore is grateful,” Lee said. “We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicentre for terrorism again.”
“The US had invested considerable blood and treasure in Afghanistan,” he said. “But it was an intractable task given the complex history, geography and tribal rivalries of the place.”
Evacuations from Afghanistan continue and Lee offered the US the use of Singapore’s Airbus 330 aerial refuelling tanker.
Harris said security cooperation was a “long-standing source and reason” for the two countries prioritising ties.
Singapore and the US are not formal treaty allies but the city state has in recent years emerged as one of Washington’s most important regional partners.
The US is Singapore’s largest source of foreign direct investment, worth about US$315 billion. In turn, Singapore is the second-largest Asian investor in the US, with direct investment stock worth US$65 billion.
Harris and Lee also discussed the possibility of reopening travel between the US and Singapore, which was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Singapore has in recent weeks begun a phased if cautious reopening of its economy and its borders as its vaccination rate approaches 80 per cent, one of the highest in the world.
The government last week opened vaccinated travel lanes with Germany and Brunei and expanded a limited programme allowing unilateral quarantine-free arrivals from Hong Kong and Macau.
Lee said his government had discussed vaccinated travel lanes with other countries and would pursue conversations with the US.
“It will depend on the vaccination progress in those countries,” he said. “It will depend on the prevalence of Covid in those countries [and the] state of the pandemic.”