What would Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew say about ‘old friend’ China’s current ties with US?

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Former US president Richard Nixon once said that had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have “attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone”.

When Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping exhorted his countrymen in 1992 to learn from Singapore, he said: “We ought to use their experience as an example. And we ought to manage things even better than they do.”


As Singapore commemorates the 100th anniversary of his birth this year, it is fitting to ask: what would Lee Kuan Yew make of the world now, and how might he advise political leaders what to do?

Lee Kuan Yew (front, left) welcoming then Chinese Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping in Singapore in November 1978. Photo: Xinhua
The first stop has to be China, which was his lifelong fascination.

He had been a keen observer of the country, making his first visit in 1976 and travelling there regularly, at least once a year, to acquaint himself with the latest developments. He met every Chinese leader from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, and was described by the latter as an “old friend”.

Deng made the biggest impact on Lee, who credited him with the momentous decision to open up China’s economy and the speed at which it was able to do so.


In Lee’s book, One Man’s View of the World, published in 2013, which was based on several interviews I had with him together with a group of journalists from Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper, Lee noted that there were doubters among China’s Old Guard leaders but Deng was able to brush aside their objections because he was “the only one with the Long March credentials”.

For Lee, it was inevitable that with China’s growth, competition with the United States would intensify in all areas – economically, politically and militarily.

China: friend or foe to Singapore? How a wily Lee Kuan Yew made it both

China was still the weaker contender then, but he saw it catching up with the US by 2030 to 2040.


In one of the interviews with him, Lee sketched out how this might play out militarily, with the Chinese forcing the US out of its 12-mile eastern seaboard to free it from American spying.

Next step: push it out of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

“Once they can do that, they become the most influential power in the region,” he said in the book.


But Lee did not believe a military conflict between the two nuclear-armed superpowers was inevitable, as both sides knew the consequences would be disastrous.

He contrasted competition between the two with that between the US and the Soviet Union, noting that “there is at present no bitter, irreconcilable ideological conflict between the Americans and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the free market”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with US President Joe Biden at the G20 summit in Indonesia in November 2022. Photo: AP

Was Lee too hopeful then?

I think he would have been alarmed at how rapidly relations had deteriorated and the language being used by each side against the other.


There is a distinct ideological undertone now in their public posturing with the US condemning China for its illiberal, autocratic regime intent on changing the rules of the international order, and Beijing decrying Washington as an international bully trying to thwart China’s rise by containing it to preserve the status quo.

After the book was published, we had several rounds of interviews with him to take into account more recent events. By then, China had become more assertive in regional meetings, especially over its claims in the South China Sea, which were opposed by several Southeast Asian states.

Asean warned of ‘damaging’ impact of a non-response on South China Sea

I detected a slight hardening of Lee’s position towards China, amid its muscle-flexing moves in the South China Sea, which alarmed claimant states.

What worried him was the younger generation who believed “they had come of age before they have”, and overeager to assert China’s rightful place in the world.

He thought the older generation, having lived through the civil war, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four episode and various other upheavals, knew the pitfalls ahead and the importance of internal stability and external peace.

But the young imbued with a restored sense of patriotism and nationalism might not be so circumspect.


US-China relations depend on strong economic ties, says US commerce chief during talks in Beijing

US-China relations depend on strong economic ties, says US commerce chief during talks in Beijing

What can states do to counter a more aggressive China?

For Lee, the answer lies in ensuring continued American presence in the region.

Smaller countries have more room to manoeuvre when there is more than one player in the room, and he was adept at creating this space for Singapore through its connections with the rest of the world.

But he also believed that China knew that the more it pressed other states, the more they would move closer to the US, offering it facilities, for example, for its aircraft carriers.

Specifically, he had this advice in dealing with a more assertive China: “Well, we have to pay more attention to what they think, as much as, or even much more than what the Americans think. The Japanese and Koreans are already investing very deeply and extensively in China, while keeping their security ties with America.

“How long can that continue? As you become more and more engaged and involved and invested in China, how can your security ties prevent the Chinese from using economic forces, which they now control over your enterprises, to twist your arm?”

US and Philippine vessels sail through waters west of Palawan in the South China Sea on Monday. Photo: AFP/Armed forces of the Philippines

The question today is, even with those ties, how reliable and lasting US commitment in the region is.

When we put that question to him, he had one simple answer: it depended on the strength of the US economy going forward, as projecting military power 13,000km across the Pacific Ocean was a hugely expensive proposition.

The good news for Washington’s friends was that Lee was a diehard fan of its enterprise, energy and creativity.

He believed the US was not in decline and would always have one telling advantage over China: its ability to attract the best and brightest from around the world.

Despite its many flaws, it was still the preferred destination of those seeking a better future for themselves and their children.


Chinese premier touts cooperation with Asean amid controversy over China’s new ‘10-dash line’ map

Chinese premier touts cooperation with Asean amid controversy over China’s new ‘10-dash line’ map

But he was concerned about American resolve to be engaged in the region.

Even though successive US presidents had articulated their commitment, intent was different from actual capability.

He recounted to us what he told a US congressman about why it was vital for America to have a free-trade agreement with Asean. This was soon after China surprised everyone by proposing a deal with Asean in 2000.

It was a strategic move by Beijing to develop strong economic ties with Asean states so that they would not see China’s growth as a threat but an opportunity for more trade and investment.

Alas, that was more than 20 years ago, and Asean is still waiting for an FTA with the US.

Given Washington’s domestic political situation, the wait is likely to be forever.

Navy soldiers on an assault boat conduct manoeuvre training during a military drill in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan, in January. Photo: AP

What about a conflict over Taiwan?

Lee was dead sure mainland China would go to war if Taiwan were foolhardy enough to declare independence, but that otherwise peaceful reunification was a matter of time.

At the time, China-Taiwan relations were improving under President Ma Ying-jeou, and nowhere near as fraught as they are today.

But even if the independence movement in Taiwan grows stronger, as it has today, Lee did not believe the US would go to war over a small island 12,000km away.

“It doesn’t pay. You can fight and win the first round. But are the Americans prepared to fight, and fight, and fight again? … Even if they lose the first round, they will come back for a second round, then a third round and a fourth round – incessantly until they win. It’s not worth it for America.”

Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew during an event in August 2004. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Eight years on, the Taiwanese situation looks more dangerous than it has ever been.

When I discussed this with an American think tank scholar last year, he was adamant that the political mood in the US was so anti-China, his country would take up arms if China invaded the island.

Were Lee alive today, he would be appalled.

But I doubt he would change his view. Americans are tired of fighting unwinnable wars.

Lee’s world view was shaped by more than 50 years of being in government, leading a small country navigating the sometimes treacherous waters of international relations, meeting countless leaders and learning from their experiences.

His was a generation that faced tumultuous upheavals, unimaginable deprivations and horrific acts of wars and mass murders in the last century.

It accounted for his hard-nosed, realistic approach that takes the world for what it is, rather than how one might wish it were.

If he were alive today, he would commend this approach to understanding what is taking place today.

Reflecting on Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy

For him, nation states are in a relentless pursuit of power and supremacy over others as they seek access to resources to maximise their capabilities.

Self-interest is the primary driving force.

But he also believed in another primeval force that determines the behaviour of nation states – their tribal instincts, or DNA, if you like, which makes them cooperate with another of similar genes against foreign types.

In the book, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, which I co-authored in 2011, Lee said that he came round to this view from empirical observations including during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II.

It was only later that he read about Edward Wilson’s work, in which the sociobiologist described it as an innate, inherited gene that exists in a group and which seeks to multiply itself.

In this reckoning, if two tribes are fighting each other and a third joins in, it is likely to be on the side of the one it shares genes with.

Pedestrians in the central business district of Singapore. Singaporeans are familiar with Lee’s views about DNA and their inheritability. Photo: Bloomberg

Singaporeans are familiar with Lee’s views about DNA and their inheritability, but to hear him talk about how it also applies to relations among states was revealing, and a little disconcerting.

But it was entirely in keeping with his forthright, no-holds-barred approach to problem-solving.

Using this genetic lens, he predicted that the power shift from the US to China would cause more disruptions than that from white Britain to white America.

Such a view might sound apocalyptic in a world now witnessing rising US-China tension on many fronts.

Lee would be concerned but he did not think they would fight to the bitter end as long as both possess enough hydrogen bombs to annihilate each other.

The contest would therefore be at the edges.

What Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew learned about political renewal from Hon Sui Sen

Strategic thinkers like Lee making decisions based on carefully calculated moves and who desire peace and stability make the world a safer place.

They are less prone to reckless behaviour and fatal miscalculations.

They understand raw power and self-interest but they also know that self-preservation often means learning to live with one’s enemies rather than destroying each other.

Living is better than dying, he once said.


EMEA Tribune is not involved in this news article, it is taken from our partners and or from the News Agencies. Copyright and Credit go to the News Agencies, email [email protected]

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