Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong warns of US-China ‘mishap’ over Taiwan
- The prime minister said heightened tensions were unlikely to lead to ‘war overnight’, but a ‘miscalculation’ over the island could still occur
- Lee also spoke about Covid-19 in Singapore, the situation in Hong Kong, and the ‘Squid Game’ to succeed him as the Southeast Asian country’s leader
“I think we should be concerned,” Lee said in an extensive interview with Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief John Micklethwait during a gala dinner at the forum.
The 69-year-old fielded a range of questions in the 45-minute session, over regional trade, carbon and wealth taxation, the Covid-19 situation in Singapore, as well as his now-delayed plan to retire and hand power to a successor within his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
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“I don’t think it’s going to war overnight, but this is a situation where you can have a mishap or miscalculation and be in a very delicate situation,” the veteran Singaporean leader said when asked if he was worried about the state of cross-strait ties.
Despite the tensions, Lee noted that the various parties concerned – Beijing, the government in Taipei and the US – were all “saying the right things”.
During the virtual summit with the Chinese leader, Biden had reiterated America’s upholding of the one-China policy, while President Xi said China was “not in a hurry to solve the cross-strait problem”, Lee said.
Lee said he believed officials in Beijing would be more relaxed about “taking time to see how things evolved” if they were “quite clear that the situation was stable and things would not gradually drift against them”.
But the difficulty at the moment is that those anxieties are now surfacing, especially over the attitudes among the people in Taiwan and the international environment. “Then, they may decide that [acting] later may become more complicated”.
HONG KONG’S VALUE
Asked about the situation in Hong Kong – where China has dramatically tightened its grip since 2019’s protests – Lee said it was “hard to imagine” the city continuing with the status quo ante until the 2047 expiry date of its high level of autonomy from Beijing.
“It’s not possible, you can’t govern a place like that, you can’t pass the laws … the government’s writ doesn’t run,” Lee said, adding that there was also a “risk of contagion across the ‘one country, two systems’ border”.
“So they are now in a situation where that problem has been very firmly put down. I think that there‘s a price which has been paid internationally and even internally in Hong Kong,” he said.
Lee said he did not believe China wished to make Hong Kong the same as “any other Chinese city” as that would make it “unvaluable to them”.
“Hong Kong is different, that‘s why it was valuable,” Lee said. “But how different can it be without causing an intolerable problem on the other side of ‘one country, two systems’ – that was the difficulty.”
Asked by Micklethwait if Hong Kong’s loss was Singapore’s gain, Lee countered by saying the city state was “much better off if Hong Kong is prospering and we do business with them and compete”.
Fielding a question on the future world order, Lee rebuffed the suggestion that there could be a world with two economies – following a US-China decoupling – and instead described the two superpowers as “Siamese twins”.
“You are too interdependent on one another, and it is not possible to say ‘I make my own system and you make yours’,” he said.
SINGAPORE’S SQUID GAME
Pressed on the ongoing contest among younger ministers in his PAP to be Singapore’s next leader, Lee did not offer fresh clues on whether any one of the candidates was ahead in the race.
The Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, 48, and Health Minister Ong Ye Kung, 52, are the two prime ministerial contenders in the Covid-19 task force. The duo, along with Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, are seen as the most likely to succeed Lee, who took office in 2004.
Amused by Micklethwait’s Squid Game reference, Lee said “our approach is not to have not to write off any participants because I don’t have spare”.
“I’m not looking for a winner. I’m trying to build a team,” he said.
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He added that the inclusion of ministers in the task force was not a “beauty contest” but for them to make a contribution to a “very important job which needs to be done”.
Lee, the eldest son of Singapore’s late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, was previously expected to hand power to Heng Swee Keat – the current deputy prime minister – but the former central bank chief surprised the country in April by stepping aside as the leader-in-waiting.
Subsequently, a new heir apparent from within the PAP has not been chosen, and Lee has said he will carry on as prime minister until the Covid-19 crisis abates.
On the country’s incrementalist approach to easing Covid-19 restrictions despite having one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, Lee said the government’s plan was to “reach the endpoint without paying the high price which many other societies have paid”.
Asked if that mindset meant the small number of unvaccinated adults – totalling 61,000 of the country’s 5.45 million people – were dictating policy, Lee disagreed.
“Those 61,000 people have more than 61,000 relatives and friends and near and dear ones. If you just write them off, I don‘t think you can make those utilitarian calculations. It’s a human cost,” Lee said, pointing to the trauma populations had undergone in some countries where health care systems had been overwhelmed.