US must engage Asia to maintain global power: Lee

P. Parameswaran

Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew has warned the United States it risks losing global leadership if it did not remain engaged in Asia to “balance” China’s military and economic might.

The influential Lee called on President Barack Obama, whom he meets for talks in Washington on Thursday, to ensure that the United States “stay engaged not just in China but in the whole of East Asia and India.”

The United States, he said Tuesday, had to strike a balance for the region when China transformed into a top power unrivaled by the rest of Asia.

“The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 or 30 years,” he said.

“So we need America to strike a balance,” said the 86-year-old Lee at the presentation of a “Lifetime Achievement Award” to him by the US-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Business Council.

“I think if the US does not recognize that the Asia-Pacific is where the economic center of action would be and it loses that economic superiority or lead that it has in the Pacific, then it would lose it worldwide,” Lee said.

Lee, an adviser in his son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s cabinet with the title minister mentor, seemed concerned over China’s military buildup, which he said might not necessarily be aimed at a conflict over Taiwan.

He pointed to sophisticated China-made weapons paraded by Beijing at its 60th national day on October 1, saying it was a “surprise” and raising the specter of a modern high-tech People Liberation Army in two or three decades.

“A blue water fleet with aircraft carriers cannot just be to deter foreign intervention in a conflict between Taiwan and the Mainland,” he quipped.

Closer to home in Southeast Asia, Lee said China could also flex its military muscle over overlapping territorial claims to islets and sand banks in the Paracels and Spratlys.

Chinese maps, he said, showed these islets and most of the South China Sea as under Chinese ownership and there have also been disputes over fishing grounds between China and various ASEAN states.

“The Chinese have built on several islets fishing outposts, and coastguard vessels patrol them,” he said. “Later, behind these small patrol craft will be blue-water fleet.”

Blue-water is used to describe maritime forces capable of operating across the deep waters of open oceans.

Lee has been a key US ally nearly throughout his iron clad rule as prime minister from 1965 to 1990. He continues to provide advice to US administration officials on Asian strategic and economic issues.

Obama is scheduled to leave on his first official Asia trip on November 11, including attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit and a meeting with ASEAN leaders in Singapore.

He will also visit China, South Korea and Japan on the eight-day trip.

Lee said the United States must be “an important part” of any new East Asian grouping, adding that “it would (be) a serious mistake for the region to define East Asia in closed or, worse, in racial terms.”

China, he said, was not ready or willing to assume equal responsibility for managing the international system.

“In the end, whatever the challenges, US core interest requires that it remains the superior power on the Pacific,” he said. “To give up this position would diminish America’s role throughout the world.”

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