PM Lee Hsien Loong took questions from the media during the Press Conference at the 32nd ASEAN Summit on 28 April 2018 at the Shangri-la Hotel, Singapore.
You can watch videos of the Q&A session on the PMO YouTube channel here: https://bit.ly/2jd9Eze.
PM Lee made opening remarks at the start of the press conference before the Q&A session.
Q: [Nam Yunzhou from Lianhe Zaobao] First of all, thank you for having us. This is the first summit in Singapore’s chairmanship year. Could you quickly give a wrap up of the meetings you have had with other ASEAN leaders and general sentiments on regional issues and touch on the notable progress that Singapore has made since taking over as Chairman. In addition, we have a question on the Korean peninsula. What is your assessment of the developments on the Korean peninsula following the meeting between North and South Korean leaders yesterday? Could you share with us how ASEAN will further push for denuclearization on the Korean peninsula? On that same note, Singapore has been floated as one of the possible venues for the Kim-Trump meet. Will Singapore, as ASEAN Chair, entertain such a possibility? I would like to find out whether any invite has been extended to Singapore.
PM Lee Hsien Loong: First, I think the meetings have been focused and productive. We had a session last night when we talked about the outcome documents which would be released today, the Leaders’ Vision Statement, ASEAN Leaders’ Statement on Cybersecurity Cooperation and also the ASEAN Smart Cities Network, as well as specific initiatives which I announced this morning, volunteered by Singapore supporting, ASEAN. Today, at the retreat, we had a good discussion. We talked about regional issues including Rakhine state, trade, because it is on everybody’s mind. We see the tensions between China and America, and we worry about the implications for ASEAN. We discussed what we could do about it and in particular, how we could move faster on the RCEP and conclude something valuable by this year. We also talked about the Korean peninsula because it is current news and it is a very major security development in the region. On Korea, our assessment is a positive one. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers put out a statement yesterday. You have seen the statement and I also covered it just now in my opening remarks of how we feel about the recent developments. It is positive, it is good that the North and South Koreans have met. It is good that President Donald Trump is about to meet Mr Kim Jong Un. The question is how things move forward. This is an issue with a very long history, a very long record of discussions, agreements, agreements not fulfilled, recriminations, further attempted agreements and a cycle of tensions and mistrusts, which has built up over long period of time. It is a very deep concern on each side that the other side does not mean well. Therefore, to overcome that, you do have to take a first step but the first step is the first of many and the subsequent steps will not be easy. It is not just a matter of trust, it is a matter of decisions which have to be made and commitments which have to be undertaken which are not at all straightforward either to commit or to deliver upon. They involve many parties whose interests are not completely aligned. Everybody says they would like Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearisation (CVID). What does that mean? What are the conditions? How do we verify it? How do we enforce it? Is it enforced? What happens if it is breached because you really cannot prevent a breach but what do you do in that event? There are many very difficult issues to be dealt with along the way, even assuming the best of faiths on both sides. It is a positive step. It is better than firing missiles and testing bombs but how does it go, that is something which we will wait and see and which we can only hope for the best. What can ASEAN do? ASEAN does not have levers. We can comply with UN Security Council resolutions. We can do our part to make sure that sanctions which are agreed by the international community are enforced and complied with. We can make sure we add our voice to the international discourse to add moral pressure. Beyond that, our leverage is limited. I think the first thing we need to understand is that that is the reality. Given that reality, we state our position but we have to accept that the situation will evolve in the way the major participants push developments. As for the venue, we have also read the same reports as you in the newspapers about the possible places where the US-North Korea meeting can take place. We have had no formal invitations or requests from any of the parties. It has to be something agreed by both North Korea as well as the United States. I doubt very much they have come to any landing yet.
Q: [Jason Koutsoukis from Bloomberg] Can you give us a bit more detail on what progress was made at this Summit towards concluding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)? What obstacles remain to concluding the agreement? Would you consider moving forward without all of the countries participating, if that is what it takes to get an agreement as we just saw with the Trans-Pacific Partnership? Secondly, how concerned are you at the prospect of a trade war between US and China and can you spell out what the consequences of such trade war would be for ASEAN?
PM Lee: We discussed the RCEP today, I think everybody agrees that it is something urgent which we do want. The fact that we do not have a TPP, we have a Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) has made it more urgent that we proceed with this as a sign that the countries in Asia-Pacific are pressing forward with trade liberalisation and are committed to trade liberalisation. It is a position which we have been at for a while because we have been discussing it at repeated Summits. In fact, at our previous meeting which was in January with India, we discussed this together with India which is also a member of the RCEP negotiations. All the ASEAN countries stated their position that this was something which was urgent, that we would like to have a substantive conclusion and time mattered and we very much hoped that we would be able to do it this year because otherwise, events will supervene and there will be elections and the matter will fizzle out somewhere. I think the January Summit was productive in having everybody express their views and India which is a very important participant and which has significant reservations on the idea of goods and services liberalisation without correspondingly liberalising movement of peoples as part of trade liberalisation. I think they understood the message and they will consider their position. We also discussed it when we met the Australians in March. We had a Summit with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and we made the made the point that the best should not be the enemy of the good. You want a substantive agreement but we want an agreement which is politically reachable and it is important in this case to have the composition right because the RCEP involves the footprint which is the footprint of what we desire to be the Asian pattern of regional interdependence and cooperation. It includes Southeast Asia, ASEAN, Northeast Asia – China, Korea and Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and also India. You can have other smaller footprints and if you have fewer participants, of course it is easier to make agreements but there was a reason we entered into this agreement with this shape because we wanted to bring all the participants together and to have the trade agreement reflect the regional architecture of cooperation. I would say that this is different from the CPTPP. I cannot say that if there is no RCEP, no smaller groupings will emerge. But as far as effort is concerned, we will work very hard to get an RCEP outcome with this present grouping of 16.
Q: [Olivia from Channel NewsAsia] I have a question about the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. Also, could you give us an update on the progress of negotiations with regard to that? What are some of the challenges or areas that still need to be ironed out to achieve that early conclusion that you mentioned? Also, has the decision been made on whether this Code of Conduct will indeed be legally binding? Also, could you share with us what we can expect to be on the agenda at the next ASEAN Summit?
PM Lee: I think it is early days yet, the negotiations have just started in March. I expect it to take some time. It will not be easy to do because, I think parties agree that it is binding, whether it is legally binding, different parties have different views. The key difficulty is, whether it is binding or legally binding, once you have a document like that, you have to define what exactly you are disagreeing about, which are the areas to which it applies, what is the conduct to which it applies, and in the South China Sea, what is in disagreement is itself not in agreement. That is the nature of the dispute because what is mine is indisputably mine, what is yours is being disputed. Let us discuss yours, and vice versa. So to agree on what is being disagreed upon and define that as being within the framework of the Code of Conduct will itself be very difficult. And then if it is going to be binding or legally binding, how are different disagreements or issues going to be arbitrated, where, what is your authority, what jurisdiction do we subject ourselves to. I think these are all very difficult issues, they will take a long time to crystallise, never mind to agree upon. But it is better that we spend our time talking about the Code of Conduct constructively and trying to keep the temperature down than that we do not try and then just take unilateral measures which lead to escalation and unpredictable consequences. As for the future of the year, the ASEAN Leaders Vision Statement has set out the things we want to do. It is a long agenda, not everything will be done this year. Certainly, the Smart Cities network, we hope it will be done, will have progress and will have some tangible results this year. Cyber security cooperation, I think should start this year but that is again, a work for a continuing period of time. Our MAET, the Model ASEAN Extradition Treaty, that is done, you now need just to formalise that and to start negotiating an actual ASEAN extradition treaty amongst the ASEAN countries. I think that can be done and that should not take so very long because the model is already there, it is a matter of tweaking and making sure you make it into a complete document. There is enough agenda for us to do over the next eight months of our Chairmanship, and leading into November. By November, I hope we will have some of that progress to review. I think we will also have our ASEAN partners who are here for the different ASEAN+3, ASEAN+6 or ASEAN+8 meetings, the East Asia Summit. We look forward to having a productive exchange with them. ASEAN is in the position where we want to develop more, further our relations with the emerging economies, with China, with India, but at the same time we want to maintain and strengthen our ties with the established economies in particular with the United States. So in November, that is when the pieces come together and I look forward to another productive meeting.
Q: [Simon Roughneen from Los Angeles Times] On the South China Sea, were there any difficulties coming to the wording that is in the outcome document that has just been sent out? Was it a lengthy discussion? Were there any dissenters or anything like that, as you put together the wording? Also, as a side question, Timor Leste is a candidate to join ASEAN. Has there been any discussion of its membership candidacy during the Summit or is it on the agenda for the later in the year during your Chairmanship?
PM Lee: ASEAN works by consensus. The language on the South China Sea commands the consensus of the ASEAN countries. It is the same language which we have used before so there is nothing very earth-shaking about it. But it is significant that the language stands and has not been modified. Timor Leste has expressed its interest in applying. I think there is a committee, a working group which is looking into this matter. Singapore’s position is, we look forward to Timor Leste meeting the requirements to be able to be a member and that is something which is to be assessed and which we are happy to work with Timor Leste in order to make sure that they are able to meet those requirements. It was mentioned but there was no extended discussion of the matter in this meeting.
Q: [Shanghai Media Group] This year marks the 15th anniversary of the strategic partnership between China and ASEAN. How will ASEAN take the relationship forward?
PM Lee: We are doing various things. First, we will declare this as the ASEAN-China Year of Innovation and that fits in very nicely with our theme of resilience and innovation and we have projects to work on that. Also we are working on updating our strategic partnership vision statement because this is the 15th anniversary and those are things which are being worked on by both sides. I would say that between ASEAN and China, we have a very deep and substantive cooperative relationship. It covers many areas – human resources, trade operations, we have ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement. We have got education cooperation, cultural cooperation, environmental projects, and all sorts of things, covering all of the countries. It is a very broad and substantial agenda, and ASEAN is very happy that China has always put a lot of emphasis on its relations with ASEAN, and now with the Belt and Road initiative and with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, we are sure that it will enable us to do more with China and we look forward to doing so this year. When Premier Li Keqiang comes to Singapore in November for the ASEAN Summit, we will be holding a 15 years’ strategic partnership commemorative summit with Premier Li in Singapore.
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