The United States may be growing tired of its foreign policy engagements as the strains of being the top global leader take their toll, but the country will eventually rally again, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
This is because the historically resilient US "has been through these ups and downs before", he noted in an interview with Washington-based news magazine Politico published yesterday.
"After Vietnam, you had a period of withdrawal and being tired of the sacrifices and the pain and difficulties of the world, but you bounced back and I am quite sure you will bounce back this time," he said, referring to the heavy commitments of the US to the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s.
The interview, which spanned a range of foreign policy issues from South China Sea maritime disputes to turmoil in the Middle East, was conducted last week during Mr Lee's week-long US trip.
He visited Washington, DC and New York and met with top US political leaders there to drive home the importance of the US to Asia. In his interview with Politico, PM Lee said the US still has much goodwill in the region.
He urged the superpower to stay engaged even as its many global concerns, including in Iraq and eastern Europe, have thrown doubt on its so-called "strategic pivot" to Asia.
"Asia is vital to you... pending all the other issues, please bear in mind that in Asia you have interests, you have friends, you have investments, and you have to pay due attention to them," he said.
Unfolding "long-term, secular, crucial trends" in Asia such as China's rise and countries' growing interconnectedness are going to change the world, he said.
They could affect US interests in the region unless it plays a more active role, he said, and this can be done even as the US takes care of its concerns elsewhere.
"If you are not part of this, I think you're going to find many of your interests will be affected and maybe even compromised."
One of the major stakes it has in the region is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious free trade pact across 12 nations including Japan, New Zealand and Singapore that would cover 40 per cent of world trade. Mr Lee said there is a "very good chance" of settling the trade pact by November despite the several deadlines missed over the last few years. It is also very important for the US to keep Japan in the TPP, he added, as it is a key strategic partner of the US in Asia.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key had suggested last month that Japan be cut out of negotiations if it refuses to open its markets to more imports of farm products, one of the remaining sticking points of the trade talks.
Turning to China, Mr Lee said that the US and China have grown more interdependent, and difficulties that come up should therefore be managed such that they do not "skew the whole relationship in the wrong direction".
China has to strike the balance between defending its interests and not asserting itself by might rather than acceptance from other countries, he said. This has become more difficult with growing public opinion fuelled by the Internet, he added, noting that "netizens in any country are seldom a moderating force".
Domestically, Chinese leaders "will have to feel their way forward" on sociopolitical reforms, he said, an area in which they know the status quo is not tenable. And with more free discussion than ever before, Mr Lee said, the Chinese leadership needs to take steps to channel these views and attitudes into the political system, and respond to them in a more formal way.
As for the South China Sea disputes between China and some South-east Asian countries, PM Lee said that it is going to take a "very long time to resolve".
Asia must leave the past behind
In an interview with Politico magazine, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also spoke on the need for Asian countries to leave the past behind for regional cooperation, and instability in the Middle East.
Politico: How much of a negative consequence does the constant reopening of World War II and its tragic history have on the region?
PM Lee: It is not helpful. We ought to be able to put these historical facts behind us and move forward. Nobody will forget them, or should forget them, but neither should you be trapped by them.
And you should be able to move forward and cooperate with each other, despite this, as the Europeans have succeeded in doing, between the French and the Germans. The war was a brutal and nasty business, but they are now allies - not without many areas of argument, but nobody can imagine them going to war again. But in Asia, we have not had that coming to terms with the past and that ability to move forward.
Has the wave of instability in the Middle East after the Arab Spring protest movements set back democratisation in Asia?
When the Arab Spring came along, everybody thought that a hundred flowers were going to blossom. And it hasn't turned out to be so simple.
In fact, it's a very difficult business to remove a dictatorship and replace that with something better.
You can pull down the old regime, but how do you make sure that what replaces it is not anarchy or a new authoritarian government? That is much, much more difficult to do.
And I think in China, the fear is not of change but of disorder. And I can understand that, because...
I'm sure that's a concern that you have as well.
Well, every country has to find a way to manage its affairs in this new globalised Internet age. It's much harder, but we have to do it, because the world has changed and we're not going back to where we were 50 years ago.
This article was first published on July 02, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.