By Philip J. Heijmans and Rebecca Choong Wilkins
(Bloomberg) — Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong downplayed the likelihood of an imminent conflict over Taiwan, saying China isn’t “trigger happy” about taking over the self-governing island it has long viewed as its territory.
“They would like Taiwan to be part of ‘one China,’” but aren’t sure how to make it happen, Singapore's leader said Wednesday at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore. Unless Beijing is provoked, the world isn’t “going to wake up one day and find that they’ve decided to launch D-Day,” he added.
Referring to a brutal World War II battle between the US and Japan over another Pacific island, Lee said that “Attacking Taiwan is not like doing Iwo Jima, and Iwo Jima was bloody enough.”
Lee’s comments about Taiwan underscored a touch of optimism about one of the biggest sources of tensions in US-China relations ahead of an expected meeting between Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden next week in California — their first face-to-face encounter in about a year. Those talks are a positive development but won’t resolve all the challenges in the relationship between the world’s two biggest economies, Lee said.
“You need a meeting to head in the right direction but you don’t expect a meeting to make everything sweetness and light or something,” Lee said in the interview with Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait.
Southeast Asian nations have grown concerned over the prospect of a conflict as the US-China relationship deteriorated in recent years over a wide range of issues including Taiwan, human rights and access to advanced technology. Leaders have urged both sides to avoid having competition splinter critical supply chains and destabilise the region.
Looking at another regional hot spot, Lee said Southeast Asian nations seek to calibrate their response to Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
Tensions in the waterway escalated recently after Chinese vessels collided with Philippines ships on two separate occasions near a Filipino military outpost in Second Thomas Shoal – which both nations claim as their own. China went on to accuse the US – a Philippine treaty ally – of encouraging provocations by other countries in the disputed maritime area, where nations including Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have also staked claims.
“Four ASEAN countries have claims in the South China Sea,” Lee said. “All of them want to work an arrangement out between themselves and with China, but at the same time all of them have other stakes with China.”
In his interview, Lee also touched on issues from the Israel-Hamas conflict and the risk of terrorism in Southeast Asia to the development of artificial intelligence and Singapore tax policy.
Lee decried the Hamas attack on 7 October and the loss of civilian life in the month since. He said there’s no alternative to a two-state solution to ensure peace between Israelis and Palestinians, warning they otherwise risk endless conflict. A one-state solution would mean that “one side or the other has to be squeezed out and that is unimaginable.”
Lee said he still sees a risk of terror attacks in Southeast Asia, citing radicalized teenagers who were arrested recently for allegedly plotting attacks in Singapore and the existence of terrorist groups in the region such as Jemaah Islamiyah.
“It can happen in this part of the world,” Lee said.
Criticism of US
Lee appeared to take aim at US legislation offering subsidies and other benefits for domestic production of semiconductors and green technology, suggesting it’s better to rely on internationally-negotiated agreements rather than unilateral policies.
“You’re deciding that we need to make rules for ourselves and not rules that are negotiated multilaterally,” Lee said. “And if we’re talking about a rules-based order, it becomes difficult to understand exactly how the rules are being made. And if everybody takes that approach, then in effect, there will not be any rules and we will all be in difficulty.”
Rise of AI
“We need to get experience operating with it,” Lee said when pressed about the risks and benefits of artificial intelligence. “And understanding what the pitfalls are so that we can make smart decisions to regulate it as we go along. But right now, I can safely say that the government and my government, most governments, the tech people know more about this than the government.”
Rising Singapore Taxes
Pressed on whether he’s become more of a leftist during his two decades in government, Lee said he’s reacted to shifting events, helping navigate Singapore “to a more comfortable place,” and addressing the needs of an aging society. He said part of that process has been recognizing the need to raise the city-state’s good and services tax to help bolster social services.
“We will make it happen,” Lee said of the plan to raise the GST to 9% in 2024 from 8% this year. “We are in a phase where we have to do more together, where we have to help each other and the government has to be there. And we have to try very hard to avoid the government being a sole solution to all problems.”
The New Economy Forum is being organised by Bloomberg Media Group, a division of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
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