Commentary: Why PM Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to the White House is of exceptional significance

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SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will be visiting Washington, DC from Oct 22 to 26 at the invitation of US President Donald Trump and will meet Mr Trump on Oct 23 at the White House.

PM Lee’s official working visit to the US and his meeting with President Trump at the White House are of exceptional significance not only because of the current strategic dynamics of the Asia Pacific, but also because Mr Lee Kuan Yew made the first visit to the US by a Singapore Prime Minister during this same period 50 years ago, from Oct 16 to 27, 1967.

A CHANGED WORLD

The world was very different 50 years ago when the late Mr Lee made his visit to the US.

In 1967, the US was embroiled in the Vietnam War, Britain had announced plans to withdraw troops from Southeast Asia, and Singapore was newly independent. It was the height of the Cold War.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s visit focused on persuading Washington to persevere in the fight against communism, make use of former British ship repair facilities on the island to establish a presence in Southeast Asia, and bring American manufacturers and investors into Singapore.

Mr Lee had voiced his blunt and unvarnished perspectives on the region to American leaders during his meetings.

The sitting US President Lyndon B Johnson was keen to listen to advice on Vietnam and the region amid a growing threat of communism. A credible Asian voice in support of American troops in Vietnam was critical to balance the anti-war protests in the US.

The strength of US-Singapore relations and the economic impact of American businesses in Singapore today are testaments to the success of Mr Lee’s visit and the subsequent success of efforts between both sides to advance their shared interests.

The security dynamics in Southeast Asia are vastly different from 50 years ago. Today, the Soviet Union has disintegrated and the Cold War has ended. Nevertheless, the Asia-Pacific region continues to face security challenges.

China’s economic rise and military expansion in recent decades pose serious concerns for US strategic dominance in the region.

The Korean Peninsula remains a flashpoint. Even without a nuclear war resulting between North Korea and the US, tensions can lead to unchecked escalation and weakened alliances, adding strain to existing Sino-US competition.

Cross-straits relations between China and Taiwan are returning to the spotlight under Tsai Ing-wen.

Adding to the complexity of these tensions are the South China Sea disputes that involve China and its Southeast Asian neighbours. Singapore is not a claimant in the disputes, but currently coordinates the ASEAN-China dialogue and will be in the hot seat when it takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN in 2018.

Tensions between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea came to a head in 2014 when Beijing moved an oil rig into waters claims by Hanoi. (Photo: AFP)

WHAT TRUMP WANTS

The US government understands the key role Singapore plays in these contexts. Like in 1967, the US government today will need partners in Asia to offer an assessment on how the US is doing.

The US, if not President Trump himself, then surely his policymakers and members of the Cabinet and Congress in other meetings, must expect Singapore to deliver its unfettered assessment of the future of geopolitics in Asia, the potential for conflict and how the US can continue to maintain a meaningful presence in this context.

Fresh off his recent visit to Beijing, PM Lee will likely also be asked for his views on the Chinese leadership and China’s recent initiatives to engage the region, including the magnitude and sustainability of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

There will be unavoidable awkward moments. President Trump’s rationale for pulling the US out of the TPP, an initiative so strongly championed by Singapore to facilitate the US’s economic engagement of the Asia-Pacific, as well as any suggestions he may have for a replacement, will be interesting talking points between the two leaders.

Observers will be watching what comes out of that White House meeting and if President Trump’s perspectives on the Asia Pacific and the US’s role in it have shifted.

We can at least expect President Trump to make some positive statements, through tweets or otherwise, about Singapore’s chairmanship of ASEAN and US engagement of the region.

The real test is what President Trump will say and agree to during his Asia visit and attendance of APEC and key ASEAN-led meetings when he visits the region in November.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last met with US President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Hamburg. (Photo: Kenneth Lim)

ENHANCING US-SINGAPORE COOPERATION

Beyond the conversations that promote mutual understanding of the Asia-Pacific region, PM Lee’s visit is a chance for US and Singapore officials to explore areas that can enhance current partnerships.

For defence, Singapore and the US have signed the enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement in December 2015, which updated the Strategic Framework Agreement signed in 2005. Having just entered into an agreement two years ago, there is no strong impetus for a new defence deal between both countries.

But emerging areas of mutual concern including terrorism and cybersecurity can provide renewed interest and a momentum towards security cooperation.

And Singapore’s recent assistance to the US during Hurricane Harvey may be a useful reminder of the contributions the Singapore Armed Forces training in the US offers.

Economically, the 2004 US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (USSFTA) undergirds robust economic and trade relations between the two countries.

Given that the USSFTA has not been updated for more than a decade and that China has made significant progress in engaging Asian nations through its economic charm offensive, President Trump may decide to enhance current US-Singapore economic cooperation that facilitates greater American economic presence in Southeast Asia.

Airmen from the RSAF working closely with soldiers from the Texas Army National Guard to load supplies onto the RSAF’s CH-47 Chinook helicopter in relief efforts during Hurricane Harvey. (Photo: MINDEF) 

More importantly, PM Lee’s visit is also an opportunity for leaders of both countries to get to know each other better and establish working personal relationships.

It is particularly important for PM Lee’s Singapore delegation, many of whom are likely to be Cabinet Ministers who will form the core of Singapore’s fourth generation leadership, to meet key officials in the Trump Administration.

TIMELY VISIT

It is not just Singaporeans who will be watching PM Lee’s visit to the US closely.

It is ironic that President Trump’s rhetoric of America First and Make America Great Again may have given Southeast Asian leaders cause for concern that an isolationist US foreign policy is in the dawn.

Nevertheless, apart from withdrawing from the TPP in the first week of Trump’s presidency, the Trump Administration has not taken action that hints at a reversal from Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia.

PM Lee’s timely visit to Washington is an opportunity to provide a voice for the logic and imperative of a strong US commitment to this region, and enhance Singapore’s partnerships with the US.

Daniel Chua Wei Boon is assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of Singapore and is author of the newly published book, US-Singapore Relations, 1965-1975: Strategic non-alignment in the Cold War.

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