Grow opportunities for countries to work together to reduce risk of hostilities: Singapore PM

TOKYO (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Asian countries should think how to be better prepared if a conflict arises, but also how to work together before trouble happens, so as to maintain peace and stability in the region and reduce the chances of such crises, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (pic) said in Tokyo on Thursday (May 26).

"We should maximise the opportunities for countries to work and prosper together, and minimise the risk of tensions worsening into hostilities," he said.

Doing this would require a dual approach - re-examining defence strategies while building tangible and mutually beneficial economic cooperation - so as to "form an open and inclusive regional architecture", he said.

Lee was speaking at the 27th International Conference on The Future Of Asia, themed "Redefining Asia's role in a divided world". The Straits Times is a media partner of the event, organised by Japanese media group Nikkei.

Lee said Japan has a major role to play in regional affairs, noting that it is a leading investor in Asia and has strongly advocated for trade liberalisation.

But he added that Japan could do more in security, given that "the history of the Pacific War has led Japan to adopt a low-key posture".

"With the passing of the years and generations, and in a new strategic environment, Japan should consider how it can come to terms with the past and put to rest these long outstanding historical issues," Lee said.

"This will enable it to make a greater contribution to regional security cooperation, and participate in building and upholding an open and inclusive regional architecture," he added.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has taken an assertive stance on defence, warning that "East Asia might be the Ukraine of tomorrow" and vowing in a meeting with United States President Joe Biden this week to "radically enhance" Japan's defence posture.

On the table are a significant increase in defence spending, as well as the procurement of so-called "pre-emptive strike" capabilities that will enable Japan to launch a first strike on enemy bases if it deems that an attack is imminent.

The latter has been controversial as some critics argue that it marks a shift from the post-war pacifist stance, and a breach of its war-renouncing Constitution.

Lee noted that sensitive issues are being raised publicly in Japan and South Korea, including whether to allow nuclear weapons to be deployed on their soil, or even go a step further and build capabilities to develop such weapons.

"Each will surely consider the need to strengthen its own defence capabilities to protect itself," he said.

But he warned: "But if we only look at regional security from... individual national perspectives, we may end up with an arms race, and an unstable outcome."

It is in this light that collective security frameworks - including the Quad, involving the US, Japan, Australia and India; and Aukus, involving Australia, Britain and the US - are necessary, but countries must go beyond such groupings.

Engagement, confidence and trust-building arrangements with potential adversaries is also important, he added, noting the quiet channels of communication between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

"Such channels need to be worked out and established between the US and China, and between other countries which have disputes with each other," Lee said.

"They help to reduce mistrust, clarify misunderstandings, and manage acute incidents, which are bound to arise from time to time."

Further, economic cooperation can help blunt the risk of conflict, as countries with stakes in one another's success have a greater incentive to work together and overcome problems between them, he said.

Lee said for major powers like the US and China, "economic cooperation with Asian countries demonstrates convincingly that their engagement is not just to enhance their own power and reach in the region, but also to yield tangible, win-win benefits to their partners".

While geopolitical tensions have led countries to emphasise resilience and national security considerations, Lee said that extreme measures like disconnecting from global supply chains should be avoided.

"Such actions shut off avenues for regional growth and cooperation, deepen divisions between countries, and may precipitate the very conflicts that we all hope to avoid," he stressed.

This is why Singapore has supported the US' Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which Biden launched in Tokyo this week, as well as China's Belt and Road Initiative, while joining the Group of Friends of China's Global Development Initiative.

"It is far better that China's economy be integrated into the region than for it to operate on its own, by a different set of rules," he said.

Still, he added that preventing complex issues from taking an untoward turn - in potential flashpoints such as the Korean peninsula and the Taiwan Strait - is far from straightforward given the strategic implications and domestic political pressures involved.

"It will require deft diplomacy, political judgment and statesmanship of the highest order," he said.

"But the stakes are high, and countries must be willing to show restraint, accept differences and live with compromises.

"Because if these flashpoints are mishandled, a miscalculation or mishap could well trigger an escalation and serious consequences."

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