The nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant has damaged Japan’s reputation as a “careful, thorough planner,” said Lee Kuan Yew, recently retired minister mentor of Singapore, in an exclusive interview with The Asahi Shimbun.
Although Lee is positive that Japan will emerge from its reconstruction challenge “stronger as a united people,” he believes the negative impact on its economy may linger for several years or even longer.
As for Singapore, as it faces the emerging strategic reality of a rising China and a weakening Japan, it seems to be pursuing a policy of further strengthening its defense ties with the United States. Lee fully endorsed this option, emphasizing, “Singapore and the U.S. share a belief that a strong U.S. presence in the region enhances regional peace and stability.”
But at the same time he also predicted, “There will be important changes in the power balance in the next 10 years with a growing China.”
The answers from Lee were provided in a written statement.
Excerpts of the interview are as follows:
Question: Do you think Japan will emerge from this period of enormous challenge stronger or weaker?
Lee: Stronger as a united people, but weaker in its economy.
Q: You point out in your new book, “Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going,” that Japan is in deep trouble with a number of challenges starting with its shrinking and fast-aging population. The recent devastation of March 11 seems to add to that “trouble.” How do you see the impact of March 11 on Japan’s future?
Lee: Japan’s future is a weaker economy for several years.
The years could drag on unless Japan increases its population either by immigration and/or increased births.
Q: What will be the impact of such changes of Japan on the geopolitics of the region?
Lee: Japan is the region’s second largest economy. Any slowdown will affect all its economic partners in the region.
Q: While the earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, the ensuing nuclear accident contains the elements of human error. Do you think this accident itself and the way Japan has been dealing with it damaged the reputation of Japan’s technological excellence?
Lee: To build a nuclear reactor near the coast where a big earthquake and a tsunami are anticipated to hit without special foundations that can withstand them was damaging to Japan’s reputation as a careful and a thorough planner.
Q: The Japanese government has put off a number of major diplomatic agendas including the decision on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after March 11. Will it not trigger the further self-marginalization of Japan?
Lee: This concentration on the disaster brought about by the earthquake cannot be helped. Japan can catch up on the TPP later.
Q: At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Japan’s Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa disclosed a plan to establish a base for region-wide disaster relief operations in one of the southwestern islands of Japan near Okinawa. What are your views on this proposal?
Lee: Good to explore this proposal to test the region’s response to it.
Q: One big question, which has emerged from March 11, is how we should find the right source of energy, and how we satisfy our energy demands without jeopardizing the security of the lives of the people and the region. The dependence on nuclear power generation has been called into question in many countries. It will also have an extensive impact on the regional security order. What is the right way to think through this enormous challenge?
Lee: This is a difficult question to answer. If no other sources of energy are discovered besides coal, gas and oil, we may have no alternative but nuclear power.
Q: What should we read into the recent disputes in the South China Sea between China and Vietnam/the Philippines in terms of China’s regional strategy and ambition?
Lee: China has proposed the dispute be settled bilaterally. All the other claimants are much smaller than China.
Q: At the Shangri-La Dialogue, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates disclosed the U.S. plan to deploy new littoral combat ships (LCS) in Singapore. Singapore has already concluded the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) with the United States. How much further do you think Singapore needs to enhance its defense cooperation with the United States?
Lee: Singapore will try to meet U.S. needs. Singapore and the U.S. share a belief that a strong U.S. presence in the region enhances regional peace and stability and are committed to further strengthening bilateral defense cooperation in line with the spirit and vision of the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA).
Q: This announcement of new deployment of LCSs by Secretary Gates indicates that the United States believes it is indispensable to enhance its presence and engagement in Southeast Asia to balance out the growing influence of China. What are your views on the strategic balance between the United States and China in the Asia-Pacific region?
Lee: To balance a huge power like China, the U.S. needs partnership with Japan and the co-operation of the countries of ASEAN.
Q: To what extent and how does the Shangri-La Dialogue help Singapore to ensure its security in the region?
Lee: For Singapore to be the venue for discussions on sensitive issues of security is useful to all contending parties. We provide a neutral meeting place where there is no bias in favor of any party.
Q: This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Shangri-La Dialogue, and China finally decided to send its minister of national defense.
Lee: China was doubtful of the value of the exchange at the beginning, probably subjected to questions from the other members of the conference. But they have now decided to send their minister of national defense. They must believe it is a useful venue for dialogue, for an exchange of views that leads to confidence building.
Q: Recently a new geostrategic framework of “Indo-Pacific” has become the currency among policy experts. Do you think it can be more useful than “Asia-Pacific” to address the security and economic challenges that the regional states face?
Lee: India can stabilize the Indian Ocean. I am not sure its navy can effectively extend its reach to the Pacific Ocean.
Q: India has recently been active in showing its presence in the Pacific. Do you think this is beneficial for the security of the region?
Lee: Yes, it is beneficial to peace and stability.
Q: In spite of various efforts by ASEAN countries, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea do not seem to be moving toward a peaceful resolution yet. The recent incidents between Vietnam and China show how volatile the situation still is. What is it that the claimant countries and the major powers in the region can/should do to solve this issue?
Lee: Resolve the issues in accordance with International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
Q: You have mentioned in one of those past interviews the importance of keeping the balance between the United States and China for the stability of the region. What can and should other regional countries including Singapore and Japan do to achieve this goal?
Lee: Japan can be America’s partner for peace and stability. Singapore is playing a much smaller role as an island where the U.S. pre-positions its ammunition and other military equipment.
Q: What do you think of the “strategic chemistry” between the United States and China, especially when China is gaining more confidence in itself as its national power grows? Do you think a bipolar system with these countries at the top can be functional and sustainable?
Lee: Let us wait and see how the relationship develops. There is more benefit for China to have cooperative relations with America. China needs U.S. markets, technology and know-how to grow.
Q: 2012 to 2013 will be the time when a number of major powers in the Asia-Pacific region will go through possible leadership transitions. They include China, the United States, South Korea and Taiwan at least. Some predict instability in the region. What is your view, and what do you think has to be done to prevent any negative impact on the region?
Lee: I do not think the changes in leadership are inherently destabilizing. There will be important changes in the power balance in the next 10 years with a growing China.