- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2001

Senior statesman Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore has been active in every major Asian event for 40 years, a staunch Cold War ally of the United States and close friend ever since and an unofficial mediator between China and Taiwan. He rejected Western-type democracy in favor of authoritarian government to build Singapore into the worlds largest port and an ultramodern city-state of 4 million. He retired as prime minister in 1990, but is still Singapores dominant political figure with the title of Senior Minister. Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large of The Washington Times, interviewed him in Singapore.

Question: On Taiwan, which President Bush said the United States would defend by any means necessary, what do you think would be the wisest policy at this juncture?
Answer: The strategic question for America is: Do you want to encourage a situation in which the Taiwanese government, relying on American support, decides that there is no need to discuss eventual reunification with China? In that case the danger of armed conflict between Taiwan and China is greatly increased and America will be drawn in. Americas allies and friends in the Asia Pacific do not see any advantage in a drift toward armed confrontation.
The U.S. has expressed its strong opposition to China using force to reunite Taiwan with the mainland. China genuinely wants dialogue and negotiations, but on the basis that Taiwan acknowledges the "one China principle" — one country with two systems, or three with Hong Kong. But the present Taiwan government has not accepted this. President Chen Shui-bian, whose DPP party stands for independence, says the one-China principle is a subject for discussion. He does not accept that talks with Beijing should be about how to reunite the mainland and Taiwan, even though the U.S., and all other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and all countries in the U.N., except 20, recognize "one China."
Q: What really worries China about Taiwan?
A: Certainly not Taiwans economic prosperity, as some believed back in the 1970s and 80s. China is actually helping to make Taiwan more competitive by encouraging Taiwanese investments to exploit the mainlands cheap labor, land and other resources. A more prosperous Taiwan means not just more investments in China, but an even stronger desire among the majority of Taiwanese not to upset the status quo. But a Taiwan that is drifting away from China and creeping toward independence will set off alarm bells in Beijing.
All in East Asia know that China will go to any lengths to prevent Taiwans independence. Unless Taiwan is willing to talk about the terms for an eventual reunification, there will be increased problems and heightened tension between China and Taiwan.
Many in the region regard a U.S. presence as stabilizing and benign and want it to balance the growing weight of China. But none believe that a line drawn across the Taiwan Straits can be held for very long.
Q: If Taiwan were to go the route of UDI (unilateral declaration of independence), how would you expect China to react?
A: Without question, China would use force. After its repeated threats, China has to do so, or be seen as a paper tiger. But I do not foresee Taiwan declaring independence after the U.S. has made clear it will not support it.
Q: China is becoming more like Taiwan, at least economically.
A: In terms of a free-market economy, yes.
Q: Wont pluralism have to follow?
A: But thats going to take 20 to 30 years. I dont believe this will happen in the next decade. Younger people do not rise to the ranks of the top leadership in China. Traditionally and historically, you have to wait until you have reached your 60s. We have to wait for the current generation, people now in their 20s who have been exposed to Western education and the ways of pluralistic societies. They must reach their 50s before we will see the changes that are inevitable sooner or later. Maybe the age of the Internet, satellite TV and global transparency will shorten the time frame.
Q: When I arrived In Singapore, it seemed the world was suddenly upside down. Headlines in the Singapore Strait Times said, "The U.S. vs. The Rest of the World"; "Bush Has Alarm Bells Ringing Across Asia and Europe"; "New US-UN Rift Sign of World in Flux." The U.S., betrayed by 14 nations, had just been voted out of the U.N. Human Rights Commission to be replaced by Sudan. And the U.S., the country most impacted by narcotics trafficking, also lost its seat on the International Narcotics Control Board. What is going on and where do you think the U.S. went wrong?
A: I think theres growing discomfort at the unilateralism that has been accentuated since the Bush administration came to power. It was already there with Clinton, but Clinton was a master wordsmith and managed to disguise his real intentions. Bush is a straight-talker who speaks whats in his mind. Even when he doesnt intend to, it still comes out.
Q: The U.S. is seen as too big and too cocky?
A: People feel squatted upon. And what youre seeing is too much unilateralism, and the message is "enough is enough."
Q: The world is clearly in a greater state of flux than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. As we look at the next 50 years of the 21st century, what is your idea of a viable global security system, especially for this part of the world?
A: What existed since World War II has evolved. It was frozen by the Cold War. Lines were clear. But this was re-delineated in 1972, when [President] Nixon and [his national security adviser, Henry] Kissinger went to Beijing. That was good fortune for China. Without that breakthrough, we would not have seen a Deng Xiaoping to bring China into the modern age — first the coastal cities, then the riverine cities — which saved China from the kind of explosion that demolished the Soviet Union.
We are gradually moving toward a very different system, in which China becomes the largest player on this side of the Pacific. Not suddenly, but over two or three decades. Like Europe, where they could not possibly balance the Soviet Union and therefore NATO was necessary with America and Canada, we are now in a similar position.
Japan, however advanced and highly developed, South Korea, and even a reunited Korea, and the rest of Asia cannot balance China. There is nothing Hong Kong and Taiwan are doing that China cannot do better if they educate their people into the modern age, which they are doing.
I would go one step further. There is nothing the Japanese and Koreans have done that China cant do better in the years to come. You cannot stop them. Shanghai is now a city of almost 15 million and still streaming in, as well as into Shenzhen. Its new Silicon Valley attracts the cream of the crop. There is a reverse brain drain with highly motivated and well-educated Chinese giving up lucrative jobs and good lifestyles abroad and returning to new challenges in mainland China.
Q: What you are saying is that the U.S. cant prevent China from becoming a major player in the world.
A: You cant. No way. But the Chinese leadership can. They can abort the process if they change course from the inevitable consequences of an open market, especially if they go into conflict over Taiwan.
But I was greatly encouraged to read the speech of President Jiang Zemin at last weeks Fortune 500 Forum in Hong Kong — very moderate and highly controlled. It is clear China wants to avoid conflict and go into the [World Trade Organization] and face the new rules of international play. Given their size and wealth and technological competence, it is quite logical that they will want a bigger say in how the neighborhood is run.
Q: Wont a growing toleration for political dissent in China be part of the new rules?
A: In Chinas known 4,000-year history, no government was elected by counting heads. No Chinese government in history has tolerated any political group that wanted to unseat it.
I do not believe Western-style democracy will come about in China within the next 30 years. However, some form of participatory government will evolve. They have already started with village-level elections. It is not inconceivable that in the medium term, the practice could move up the ladder.
China is a hugely complex country. It has never had a functioning democracy, so its approach will likely be tentative and experimental. They will avoid a free-for-all contest with unpredictable results. But Chinas governance cannot remain static. The information revolution with the Internet and instant access to information is increasing the ability of the Chinese people to communicate with each other and make their views felt.
As the population moves over the next 50 years from over 70 percent in the rural areas to over 70 percent in the urban areas, the system must change. The people and the society are already changing. In the next 20 to 30 years, China will be a radically different society and its system of government will be correspondingly different.
Q: Vis-a-vis China, Americas political establishment is divided between "engagers" and "containers." But since the April 1 incident over the South China Sea, engagers say their position has become increasingly precarious. For example, Congressman Curt Weldon (Pennsylvania Republican), an engager, says that on his last three trips to China he met with senior military officials who believe in the "inevitability of war" with the U.S. "sooner or later." So where do we go from here?
A: When senior military officials talk to a visiting U.S. senator or congressman about the inevitability of war with the U.S., I certainly do not take that as a policy statement. Its part of their military mind-set.
No Chinese leader can afford to work or plan on the basis of an inevitable war with the U.S. The consequences would be debilitating for their economic modernization. To work on the assumption that they cannot avoid war with the U.S. is to adopt an apocalyptic view of their own future. The stakes must be so high that they are prepared to abandon any hope of a modern, industrialized and technologically capable China. They will do so only if they fear that they will lose Taiwan.
Q: Falun Gong means what, in your judgment? A sect, a spiritual or political movement? Or a subversive movement as Beijing claims?
A: A year or so ago, I was talking to a Chinese leader and said, "You know, when you have rapid economic development and rapid change in peoples lives — even though for the better, from hovels to high-rises — they are disoriented."
This happened in Singapore, and we had a sudden growth in religious activity. People became Christians, the Buddhists got active, and various sects got going. This was in the 1970s and it puzzled me. So we formed a committee to study the problem here, and in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, where there was similar rapid transformation. And they experienced exactly the same phenomenon. The Koreans were becoming Christians in huge numbers. And the explanation was — which I believed was sound — that a sense of rootlessness had triggered a group search for eternal truths and spiritual solace. So you become religious. In Japan, each time theres a crisis a new sects pop up.
Q: To the point where the regime could be in jeopardy?
A: Since that conversation, I must admit I have a big question mark against the Falun Gong. For no rhyme or reason, they started demonstrating in Singapore. They started putting up banners to protest against arrests in China. They caused a public disturbance and we told them to disperse. They refused, so we arrested them.
Interestingly enough, most of them were Chinese mainlanders who were working in Singapore. We were then bombarded with e-mails from all over the world. So I do not believe this is simply a deep-breathing, meditating exercise. Its a heavy-breathing political exercise.
Q: As modern Singapores Founding Father and leader for 40 years, you long argued that rapid economic development and Western democratic politics were incompatible. Isnt this now changing under the pressure of globalization and transparency?
A: Yes, of course. We have changed and continue to change and cannot possibly predict what we will look like 10 years from now. With the exponential growth of the Internet, we are bound to be a very different society. The people are more involved, sending e-mails to ministers and getting replies. But this doesnt mean we are going to be like a Western society. The values are different.
We also have the growing divide, not between Indians and Chinese, and Malays and Chinese, but between the Muslims and non-Muslims. Islam is going through a renaissance and globalizing. Its disciples are using modern technology to reassert themselves and spread the Muslim message.
Throughout 150 years of British rule and 36 years of independence, dress was never an issue. But now the Muslims have made it a major one. Im sure youve seen the covered heads of women around town. Its part of this worldwide movement. And we have a problem.
Q: Where do you see the major threats in the next 10 years? Is it Islamist extremism?
A: To call it a threat antagonizes the majority of Muslim moderates, the very people we should convince to be part of the mainstream. This world is going to globalize whether we like it or not. The biggest threat will be the challenges to the status quo — from China and India.
Q: Hence the rapprochement between the U.S. and India as a balance to Chinas growing geopolitical clout?
A: It makes good geopolitical sense. India lost a good 40 years going with the Soviets, and they now realize it.
Q: And the second biggest threat to global stability?
A: I would say the Gulf, when those regimes change over the next few years — a transition that will be aggravated by the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. That is the real tinderbox in the foreseeable future.
The Muslim nuclear weapon — which already exists in Pakistan — will travel to other Muslim countries in the years to come.
Rational people dont worry me. China is rational, so is India, America, Europe and the rest of the world. But not the Islamist fundamentalist extremists. I am very worried because this fanaticism is growing in Indonesia, which is next door to us.
* Distributed by United Press International

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