PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Dialogue with the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board (Apr 2022)
Transcript of PM Lee Hsien Loong's dialogue with the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board on Friday, 1 April 2022. PM Lee was on a working visit to the US from 26 March to 2 April 2022.
Please scroll down for the Chinese translation of the English transcript.
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PM Lee Hsien Loong: You wanted to talk about three things, so I will cover them briefly and then open it to you. I sent you what I said at the Council on Foreign Relations a few days ago. You may have scanned it. So, I will not cover the same ground, but just to say on Ukraine, for us it is an existential issue. Sovereignty and territorial integrity is not just one of the principles in the UN Charter, but for a small country like us, it is absolutely fundamental. We have stood up for this principle every time the subject has come up in the UN, which it does regularly. Because from time to time, things happen, and the issue has to be addressed.
We have done that going all the way back to Grenada in 1983 when the US invaded, and Cambodia when it was invaded by Vietnam in 1978, and now in the case of Ukraine. Mostly, we have not acted independently of the UN’s decisions, and we follow whatever sanctions or decisions that UNSC comes up with. But from time to time, the UNSC is paralysed, like here. And in this case, it is such a big and egregious violation of international norms that we decided we had to act on our own, UNSC or not. And so, we imposed some sanctions – export controls on materials which can help the Russians in Ukraine, and also restrictions on financial institutions; some of them are proscribed because funds flow is part of the problem.
Ukraine has implications for the way events develop in Asia. Some rash people have talked about a NATO-type situation developing in Asia, but Asia is different. How do we handle it so that in Asia we have the right institutions in the long term, that we are able to develop mutual interest and interdependence across potentially hostile lines and prevent a fracture? It is something which exercises us. In addition, individual countries are calculating their own responses and what Ukraine means for them, in terms of defence capability, nuclear even. In terms of who will come to their help, and what the prospects are of something hotting up, on Taiwan, for example. My own take is that Ukraine does not influence Taiwan’s prospects greatly one way or the other, that has its own dynamics and historical frame, but we can talk about that.
Secondly, on US-China, it is one of the things which will be complicated by Ukraine. America asks why China does not stand with it. You have to be very careful not to define the problem with Ukraine in such a way that automatically, China is already on the wrong side, for example, by making this a battle of democracies against autocracies.
We all have a problem in Ukraine. I think if we talk about sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity, a lot of countries can come along. Even China would not object to that, and would actually privately strongly support that. But if you say it is democracies versus Putin’s autocracy, I think that already is difficult. If you say democracies versus autocracies – plural – that already defines China into the wrong camp, and makes things even more difficult.
And already, things are difficult enough. There is very little trust on both sides. It is not so easy to find the right level empowered to engage so that you can tee up to reach rapprochement to reduce the tensions, gradually to build up trust, and to work towards accommodations which are necessary, if you are going to coexist with them. In a situation where 80 per cent of the relationship is adversarial or conflictual, you cannot really segregate the remaining 20 per cent and say “Here, I would like to win-win, cooperate on pandemics and climate change”, or for that matter, trade.
How to do that is something which should preoccupy the US administration, and I think it does. They know that beyond Ukraine, which is taking up their bandwidth now, Asia is where they have to get their strategy and game plan right.
Thirdly, you asked about US credibility. There are two aspects to this – one is whether people are able to do business with the US, and to rely on the commitments made. And it is at least a complication that arrangements made at one administration may or may not endure into the next. Sometimes, the way to entrench a commitment is to settle it in Congress and have a treaty that is ratified, but if you cannot get it ratified, and the President makes an order, the next President may make a different order, which is what happened on climate change.
It is not a prescription to not do business, but it does make things more complicated. There is some stability and consistency to US positions – sometimes it is good, sometimes it is bad. One stable aspect which I think is unfortunately not helpful is in the bipartisan mood on US-China relations. Whether it is Democrats or Republicans, whether it is on the Hill, in the think tanks or even in the media, a very deep sense has settled in that this is a challenger that is different. And if I do not challenge him now, when do I challenge him? The Biden administration handles foreign policy very differently from the Trump administration, but in terms of this fundamental attitude, I think the shift has not been so great. So, you do have credibility on that count, but I would have much preferred credibility in being able to make a commitment that even if we cannot co-habit, to at least co-exist in this world. It is a co-existence for a very long time, and we do have to work together to make sure that we do not end up causing harm to one another continually.
The other aspect of US credibility is your standing in the world – to be seen to be confident, to be on top of your problems, to be abreast of developments and able to play an active role as a very significant power. You may no longer be the hyper-power, but you will still be close to the biggest economy and one of the most advanced, vibrant and dynamic economies and societies in the world; able to attract talent, able to generate new entrepreneurship, growth, ideas and reinvent yourself. It may be a very painful process, but you can do that.
But that is not a universal perception. There is strong perception in some parts of the world, including in China, quite explicitly – that the East is rising, and the West is declining; that you do not have a bright future because the world is changing too fast for a system like the United States, a democracy with checks and balances.
I do not believe this at all. I know you have a lot of problems and you are very preoccupied with them and you do not see a ready solution to them, but to conclude that this a country with no future is a very, very rash assumption to make. It is a bet which if proven wrong – which is very likely – is going to cost; cost in overly ambitious plans, cost in overly complacent assumptions, cost in being aggressive in ways which are going to cause a problem, not just to the US but with the rest of the world.
But there is not much the US can do about that perception by arguing about it. You can only solve that problem by progressively being seen to overcome your problems. And to be looking outwards and to be playing the part which so many countries in the Asia-Pacific would like you to play. And I hope that you will be able to do that, mid-terms, and Presidential elections notwithstanding. I will stop there so that you can ask questions.
Wall Street Journal: Thank you. That was very helpful and frank. I will just start it off with everybody getting to it. You are a very close watcher of China. And I wondered if you can give us your perspective about where you think the leadership of China, with their attitudes are towards the United States – you suggested there is at least part of the view is that America is in decline but that Xi Jinping is going to consolidate his power for another term, presumably later this year – what do you think his overall strategy is in the Pacific and more broadly?
PM Lee: I think they treat the Pacific, in a way, like a near abroad. It is their region; they have intense interactions with it, and not only in terms of trade. Most countries in the region have China as their biggest trading partner. A lot of the countries invest in China – Singapore certainly does. And increasingly China is investing in these countries too, outbound. And they want friends, and they want influence.
President Xi Jinping has said, although it is several years old, he said it when Obama was President – that the Pacific is big enough for both the US and China. But the question is whether it is big enough for countries to be friends with both, or whether it is big enough to be a split down the middle? China has said they are quite happy to have countries being friends with both, and that they do not approve of closed, exclusive groupings. But at the same time, they say that regional affairs should be resolved by regional countries. But there are some regional issues in which countries which are not within the region have a legitimate interest, for example, freedom of navigation and the stability and security of the region, because these can have global implications. And in that case, in fact other countries will be present and will want to participate. And I think many countries in the Asia-Pacific would like to see that happen as well.
So, if you ask what China would like, I think they would like friends and they would like to make friends and influence people. And they have the resources and the focus, and they do so in many ways. Every country in the region has a broad relationship with China, and would like to take advantage of the opportunities in China to do business with it, but at the same time, they would also like to retain freedom of manoeuvre and agency in a multi-polar world.
WSJ: Two things I am particularly interested in the Pacific, we have been able to have the chance to see in these few years. One, in a broad sense, the COVID-19 experience – how the Chinese view the Americans’ handling of COVID-19 and how we view their handling of COVID-19 are very different kinds of narratives – but from the US perspective, the disease comes from China, the lock-downs were not most successful as we are seeing now, the Sinovac was not the best vaccine. There are very conflicting areas. What is the regional view of China’s handling and response to COVID from the beginning and has that had any lasting effects? That is the first question.
PM Lee: I would say the region is a lot more respectful of what the Chinese did than the Americans are. The US blames it heavily on them that right at the beginning they did not promptly detect, declare and wipe out COVID-19. But within a month they did bring it out in the open and countries scrambled to react. Some responded quickly, while others like the United States regret not reacting faster. But you put a lot of emphasis on that possible mis-handling and non-transparency, and specifically questioning whether the virus escaped from a laboratory.
I am sure that the Chinese could have been more transparent at the beginning and could be more transparent now about what happened at the beginning. But to demand proof that the virus did not come out from a lab, when there is not a lot of basis to suspect that the virus did come out from a lab, if I were a Chinese, I would ask: why should I open my lab just to dispel this unreasonable demand and suspicion? Many other things may go on in the lab which the Chinese legitimately do not want to reveal.
I think in the region, Australia would take the US perspective. Most of the other countries in the region would say well, this has happened, let us deal with the problem where it is now.
As for the course of the pandemic, countries in the region have had our challenges dealing with the virus, but for most of the last two years one place where we could receive visitors from without having to test, quarantine and isolate them stringently has been China. Now it is not clear that that will still be the case, but it has been.
WSJ: Thank you for that. My other one is a bit regional, but as the economic relationship between the US and China changes, as supply chains retreat or as the US pursues more manufacturing. Can you talk a little bit about how you think the changing nature of the trade manufacturing relationship between the US and China might play out across the region for the other countries?
I am specifically also interested in one piece of that, for our perspective, how has the changing climate in Hong Kong affected Singapore, in particular, in terms of western companies. Are you really seeing dramatic movement and people shifting to Singapore, but I would say, the whole footprint in general, in the region as it changes?
PM Lee: I think it is two separate problems. On decoupling, the impact on us depends on how deep it goes. My analogy is that we started off with what was more or less a flat world as Thomas Friedman said. Now, there is a chasm which has opened, a crack, and the crack is propagating. We do not quite know how far the crack will extend and whether it is possible to stop it – all right, this part we agree to stay at arm’s length but in other parts we do business together. I hope it will be possible and we at least still have if not a whole cloth, at least one connected world, and that means you have investments in China, technology in China, production in China and exports and interdependence. And more or less, life can still go on.
Hopefully it is so, although we cannot be absolutely sure about that. If it is so, then I can imagine that we will be talking about partly reshoring, partly making more secure supply chains. Then Southeast Asia can be part of the strategy, which is something we have been promoting for many years. Telling people not to put all their eggs in one basket. That while China is very good for MNCs, we in Southeast Asia are not so bad and perhaps you should put something in this part of the world to hedge your bets.
Some MNCs were starting to do that even before the latest troubles. Partly because as China developed, their wages have gone up, and their competitive position has changed. Vietnam has done it quite well. Indonesia has good potential but they have not gone quite as far. Even Bangladesh was growing its textiles and garments industries.
So, if we preserve one international system, we can still make a living. We will try to enhance our trust indicators and develop our networks. That way, our supply chains can connect and operate, and we will be part of a trusted network, part of the world strategic resilience.
If the crack propagates further than that, and we all decide that we each must have our own national resilience, and everything must come home and iPhones instead of having components from forty different countries must now be 80 per cent made onshore in America, then we are in a completely different world.
Countries accuse China of state intervention, subventions, and distortions. But if you decide that for strategic reasons, you must put a lot of things onshore, then you will in effect be taking similar actions. And then what are the rules?
Up till now, the basic rule is that countries are allowed to deviate from strict free trade and no subsidies, but can do so only within legal limits. The WTO establishes a set of fair trading rules and arbitrates them. But now you are going to go quite a lot further. If it is not going to be the law of the jungle – do or die I must have everything in my country, and I am willing to pay a lot of money to bring the activities here – then we do need new rules as to what is a reasonable and acceptable, what are the limits and how do we agree on them. So that is something we have to work on. Everybody is saying that we must have national resilience but if we all push that without limits then we will end up with law of the jungle again.
Hong Kong is a different problem. Their first and immediate issue, which I think is a short term one, is that the expats there are tired of the COVID-19 restrictions. They cannot travel, they cannot do their business very easily – so what is the point of being there, if you cannot go into China or go into the region? Therefore they want to move. Some of them may want to come to Singapore. We are happy to welcome them, but actually we would be more pleased if they were happy to remain in Hong Kong. It is competition for Singapore, but it will make for a vibrant, dynamic region and Singapore belonging to the region will benefit from that.
The longer-term issue for Hong Kong is after 2019, after the student demonstrations, China changed the rules and made new laws. The environment has changed and now the companies have to decide: in this environment, what business can they do?
They can still do business. A lot of companies are in the mainland, on the other side of one country two systems, doing business quite successfully. But what can they do in Hong Kong which is still unique and valuable and different? And do they need to be in Hong Kong still or can they be elsewhere, where there may be other advantages? It could be that some of them will move. Some may come to Singapore. Some may go elsewhere. We will have to see.
Before reunification, Hong Kong and the mainland started off very different. The hope was that as time passed, they would converge, and in a good way, so that at the end of fifty years, when the one country two systems arrangement ends, it is not such a shock to bring the two together. The mainland would become closer to Hong Kong and Hong Kong would become closer to what it is like on the mainland. This year will be the halfway mark. I believe Hong Kong can still make a living, and more than make a living, even as the environment gradually changes.
WSJ: When you were at the Council on Foreign Relations, you said that you did not think that turning China into a democracy was ever in the cards, nor was it the reason why we brought China into the WTO or engage with China. Then you said that we would do it on our own merits, it has been good for Americans. But it seems to me that the whole idea of engaging with China was to actually bring it towards something more democratic, and even if it was not democratic, that it would be less aggressive and expansionist. That has not happened. It has basically been funding dictatorships like in Cuba, in Venezuela, in this hemisphere, and dictatorships that do a lot of work in destabilising US interests in the region.
Later on in that same remark, you said that what we need to do is bring in China, give it more influence, like with the WTO and the IMF. Why should we do that when China is acting in an aggressive, or passive aggressive way, in our own hemisphere. Basically, helping prop up countries that are engaged in things that are basically totally against our interest, and I am not talking about whether they have democracy or not, but I am talking about issues of stability and national security.
PM Lee: We all have our idea of what is improper interference in other country’s people’s political affairs. And certainly, Singapore takes the view that Singapore’s politics is for Singaporeans, and if you are not Singaporean, you have no business either engaging in it or funding it. I think most countries would think like that too. But it is a fact of life that a lot of countries do try to influence the domestic affairs of other countries. Influence operations happen in a lot of countries in the world.
I would say the counterfactual is, if you did not bring China in and you kept them out of the system – with the objective of making them poorer off and less able to be a destabilising factor in the world – are you sure that this would be less destabilising? The bet was that as China developed, as the population became more affluent, they would grow a middle class, they would develop a vested interest in the status quo and in the international system, because that is the system which they profit from. China needs the international finance system; they own several trillion dollars of US Treasuries. They need the world trade system because they export, they do business around the world. And it is better that they be part of this system than not be part of it.
WSJ: One quick follow up – I accept all that, that is reality. But I am not sure why the US should want to welcome China, for example, into the IMF.
PM Lee: They are already members of the IMF and World Bank.
WSJ: To expand their influence, I guess.
PM Lee: The IMF and the World Bank were set up after World War II at Bretton Woods, at a time when the US was dominant. And they were so set up that basically the IMF had a European Managing Director and the World Bank had as President somebody whom the Americans would approve of, and the voting shares reflected the weight of the economies at that time. The shares have been somewhat modified over time, but only very partially. So, the question is not why you want to give China more influence, but what is the legitimacy of an institution, which was created at a time when the balance of the world economy was quite different, and what is the implication of letting that remain the status quo, when you cannot really prevent the Chinese from being part of the world economy?
You can say, okay, I keep the World Bank like this, I always would like to have a big say on who its President is. The Chinese say, alright I will set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It is not quite the same, but it is another way they can engage. Is it better for the world? Probably it would be even better if all of us were operating within one global framework. But is it possible for us to say, no, you must not do that, that is wrong? The Chinese want to engage, they want to invest and do business, other countries also want to do business with them, this is a mechanism by which they can do so.
Once upon a time it was different. In the 1980s, we had the same conversation about the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the precursor of the WTO, and it was not China, but it was the Soviet Union. They were not members of GATT. GATT had maybe 150 members then, and we had GATT Rounds and each time we made progress, bringing down tariffs and allowing freer trade. And the question was whether or not to bring the Soviet Union into the tent. And at that time the argument was made that it is better to keep them out of the tent, because if they come in, we will have a general gridlock and nothing will be settled, because every argument will become so complicated. But in that case, the Soviet Union was a negligible part of world trade and we could work it like that. But with China being a substantial share of world trade now, if they are out of the tent and not subject to the same rules, I think you will find it more complicated.
WSJ: Also, on the topic on foreign influence, I had seen that Singapore last year passed legislation on foreign influence, and I wondered if you could elaborate specifically on what countries it (Singapore) perceived as being a threat in this way, and what specific conducts or behaviours were the basis of concern?
PM Lee: We are very exposed to the world. First of all, we are multiply connected with multiple terabits of capacity on the Internet. Secondly, Singaporeans all speak English and read English. Thirdly, our population is multi-racial – we have Chinese, we have Indians, we have Malays and sprinklings of others as well. And in every case, we are not like the Japanese. If you are an ethnic Japanese, you probably live in Japan. But there are big populations of Chinese, Malays and Indians elsewhere in the region, and we can never say that these connections are not useful to Singapore, or that these connections do not matter to Singapore.
Therefore, we look very apprehensively at influence operations which have been done on the US, at other countries which have experienced similar problems, sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, often pervasive, and we ask what reason we have to believe that it will not happen to us. Just look around the world. There are any number of reasons why somebody might want to influence our attitudes and political opinions – either to push us in a certain direction or to cause differences in views amongst our population.
It has happened repeatedly in our modern history. Recently one French think tank did a study about influence operations, and devoted one whole chapter to a case study about Singapore. They saw us as being a target because of ethnic connections, and yet saw how we have been trying to immunise ourselves by building a Singapore identity and standing up differently from other countries with similar ethnic compositions. And they gave some examples of incidents where such things could have happened.
WSJ: We are all obviously trying to guess what is the impact of the war on Ukraine on China’s thinking about Taiwan in particular, (among) other regional issues. I am wondering what impact it is having on your thinking about the strategic arrangements in your region, you and other governments and in particular, what conversations you are having about perhaps strengthening the security architecture of countries in the region related with the United States? You said in your remarks that obviously there is not an Asian NATO and there is not going to be an Asian NATO, but we have heard in other countries in the region – Japan, Korea – that this is perhaps sharpening their sense of the strategic security in the region that should be in Asia. What are your thoughts on that and how is it changing how that may evolve given the challenge that China presents?
PM Lee: All the countries in the region must be calculating what it means for their defence. I said it does not just stop with conventional, but goes on even to nuclear questions, and I was talking about Northeast Asia particularly. Mr Abe has raised the question explicitly which has been just under the surface for some years already. And the South Koreans also have considerable views in favour of developing their own nuclear capability. If that happens in Northeast Asia, I am not sure if that is as far as nuclear proliferation will go.
Then, what about the security architecture? Some of the Asia Pacific countries are allies of the United States, like Japan, South Korea and Australia. Others are not allies of the United States, but we have security cooperation which has gone on for a long time, like Singapore. Singapore even has a special title for our relationship. We are a Major Security Cooperation Partner – it is the only one you have; the others are allies or friends.
Singapore and the US cooperate closely, we think it is good that you are participating in the region, but that does not mean we fight your wars or that we are expecting you to ride to our rescue should something happen to us. There is a certain flexibility to it, I think it is best to keep it like that, because the countries in the region, we are not lined up eyeball to eyeball. I have my friends, you have your friends, and we both have some friends in common, and we both do business with one another, a lot of business with one another. So, what the architecture we want for the region are structures which will bring the region together and make you pause a little bit longer before deciding to go for an extreme solution.
The Chinese engage the region by many economic and other schemes. Singapore has an FTA with them, ASEAN has FTA with them, and now we have formed the RCEP, and China has even applied to join the CPTPP. That started off with a few small partners – Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand and Chile, and then it expanded into the TPP when America got involved, and that changed the game. And we made the argument that this is how America can have one big chip on the table. This is one strategic move which will show that you are in play, deepen your engagement with the region, and give the countries in the region a reason also to say, “I’m standing with the United States”.
But your politics made it impossible, you had to walk away from that, and you left the door open, and somebody else is now knocking on the door. What the CPTPP members are going to do is one question, what the US is going to do is another question. I cannot ask the US to come back through the door because that is not on the cards for your domestic reasons, but you should be present and playing the game, and working towards improving market access and deepening your economic relationship with the region.
The Biden administration understands this. They talk about the IPEF – Indo-Pacific Economic Framework. The difficulty is how to make this framework tilt towards facilitating market access, without needing to get Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) or ratification from Congress. But begin to have that conversation, begin to get countries together on this, and do it in a way which is inclusive, meaning this is not something which is meant to be ‘everyone but China’, this is ‘various countries for the time being not yet including China’. China will not be part of it soon, but one day it can happen.
In the case of the CPTPP, for example, for a long time people did not believe that China would ever want to come into this. And the way that it was negotiated by the US, it was, if I may interpret an intention, specifically to make the rules so strict that it would be difficult for certain other countries to participate. The Chinese watched closely. First, they saw it as a threat; they denounced it as a devious plot. Then, they studied it, and one day, they asked the US at a very senior level “what would you think if we asked to join?” This was some years ago.
And then last year, after you did AUKUS they made their move and said, “I am putting up my hand, can I accede?”. So, they are making these sorts of engagements, and I think to say that the region should reject that, is wrong. It is not just unrealistic, it is wrong. We do want China to engage, but we want to engage it in such a way that it is not the only partner, and we would like the United States, we would like Europe as well. Europe declares that they have got a strategic interest in the Far East. Every now and again, the British sail out their new aircraft carrier, the Queen Elizabeth, to the South China Sea. They have just done that. And every now and again, the French sail out the Charles de Gaulle and before that the Jeanne d’Arc, just show the flag and be present. And we welcome that.
But you want to have an overlapping and constructive engagement in the region, so that you do not have a frontline and the need to say “well, this one is my buffer state”. A few states are a bit like that, like North Korea, and maybe some of the Indo-Chinese countries, not all. But by and large, the countries in the region since the war have been your friends, some of them your allies, and that has not been a threat to anybody and long may that remain so.
WSJ: Mr Prime Minister, you move forward with a certain historical consciousness, I think. You think about the broad meaning of things. The broad historical implications of what is going on. And I wondered as you spoke, you have been Prime Minister since 2004, have you in that time seen or think America changed in some ways, do you think it has a sense of its own historical intentions and do you think they are the right intentions? And in the same sense, Mr Xi of China as a historical figure with certain intentions and meaning. How do you read him? Not things like immediate TPP, but what is his meaning and what does he want, and what is America’s meaning right now and what does it want and what should it want?
PM Lee: For a long time, you not only held yourself out as a city on a hill, but you saw that it was in your interest to be open, to be willing to carry the obligations of being a policeman in the region, and you saw the stability and the prosperity of the region as being a plus to you, a great boon to you. And in fact, it has been, because you have a lot of problems in a lot of parts of the world, but for many decades, the Asia Pacific has not been your hottest potato. In fact, it is a region where you have invested, where your MNCs have profited, your people are there, and many friends are there, who have spent time here, studied here, and developed fondness and links for the US.
Over time, as the balance has shifted, and particularly, as the Chinese have developed, but the other partners too, like South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, a counternarrative has developed in the US, which is “Why should I bear this burden? My share is smaller than it used to be. The others are not as poor as they used to be. And can I not now bear less of the burden, and gain more of the benefit, and you pay more of your bill?”
Certainly, that was the narrative of the previous administration. This administration takes a broader approach towards your friends and partners, but the strategic and economic balance has shifted, and adjustments do need to be made in terms of what the other countries in the region will do.
I think one big part of your mind is on how do you deal with China. You are trying very hard, you understand the stakes, but you find it very hard, if not to have a meeting of minds, at least to start to have a connection, which can help both sides manage this problem and take it forward in a more constructive direction, and to find a partner on the other side who wants to do that, and do it with consistency and predictability over more than one US election term. And that is a big issue for you and for the region. It preoccupies you.
On China’s part, I cannot read Xi’s mind, but I believe he feels a sense of mission. They explicitly use this three-part formulation – stand up, get rich, get strong. 站起来，富起来，强起来. Mao has done站起来 (stand up), Deng has done 富起来 (get rich), and now Xi wants to accomplish 强起来 (get strong). What does it mean, the two-100 years? They have just passed the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China, and they have declared an end to extreme poverty in China. And for their next centenary, that is 2049, 100 years of the People’s Republic, they aspire to be a modern, great nation.
And your challenge is, is it possible for you to manage the relationship with China, so that they get there in a way which is constructive and not destabilising to the global system?
In the early 2000s, 20 years ago, they commissioned a study of how great powers rose and fell. The study was reported to the Politburo, and they made a video series out of it – 12 programmes, I think, of all the great powers in history, starting with the Portuguese, and then the Spanish, and they talked about the French and the Soviets, and the United States. And at the end, they brought it all together and drew the lessons which they learnt, which was that all the powers which rose by might of arms eventually ran into trouble, and it has to be done in a more sustainable way. And they broadcast the series domestically. So, it was a very interesting insight into the way they thought of how they would arrive in the world, at that time.
WSJ: Could I ask you to elaborate a little bit on nuclear weapons, because one of the lessons of the Ukraine crisis seems to be that a country that does not have those weapons or gives them up, is vulnerable to invasion, and an aggressor who does have them very much limits its opponents’ freedom of action. There are some who might argue that “I understand the concerns about proliferation, but increased deterrent would be a stabilising force, not a destabilising force.”
PM Lee: If you take literally strategic game theories, then you could make an argument and maybe construct a mathematical proof of that. But in real life a lot of accidents can happen, and people are not necessarily rational even on the most existential things. You do have to ask as the number of players proliferate, are you absolutely sure that all of them understand the nuances of mutual assured destruction (MAD)? I do not think Kim Jong Un is crazy; he certainly does not want to commit suicide. But supposing nuclear weapons proliferate in the Middle East, are you sure that those restraints will apply? And even in Northeast Asia, even with restraints, are you sure that accidents will not happen?
During the Cold War, there were many times when you came far closer than people knew, and closer than you ever wanted to, to catastrophic accidents. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for one. And not just the overt things like General Curtis Lemay wanting to “nuke them till they glowed, but tense tactical engagements which could have escalated into disastrous exchanges. And you had other incidents, near misses like the Able Archer Exercise in 1983 which could easily have ended up in sudden devastating grief. So, I really do not think proliferation is a good idea, but it will be very hard to prevent. All you can hope to do is to slow it down.
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华尔街日报: 这几年间，我们在太平洋看到了两件事，让我特别感兴趣。广义而言，其一是2019冠状病毒疾病（COVID-19）的经历─ ─ 中国人如何看待美国人处理冠病疫情的方式和我们如何看待他们处理疫情的方式都是截然不同的叙述。但从美国的角度来看，这个疾病源自中国，而且如现在所见，封城锁国不是最好的方法，科兴疫苗也不是最有效的。这些都具有很多争议。我的第一个问题是，区域对中国从一开始对疫情的处理和应对有什么看法，而这是否造成了什么持久性的影响？
那么，安全架构呢？一些亚太国家是美国的盟友，例如日本、韩国和澳大利亚。另一些国家如新加坡虽然不是美国的盟友，不过长期以来和美国有进行安全合作。新加坡甚至给我们的关系起了特别的名称 – – 新加坡和美国是“主要安全合作伙伴”，这是个专属新加坡和美国之间的关系，因为其他国家都是美国的盟友或朋友。
至于中国方面，我无法知道习近平的想法，但我相信他有一种使命感。他们明确提出“站起来” 、“富起来” 和“强起来”三大目标。毛泽东让中国“站起来”，然后邓小平再让中国“富起来”，现在习近平要让中国“强起来”。那“两个一百年”又是什么？他们刚庆祝了中国共产党成立100周年，宣布中国解决了绝对贫困的问题。他们也立志在下一个百年，也就是2049年中华人民共和国成立100周年那年，成为现代化强国。
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