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Interview: Lee Hsien Loong

Dec. 9, 2013

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke to NHK Singapore Bureau Chief Takuma Yoshioka on the challenges ahead in the negotiations over the Trans Pacific Partnership, regional security and the future of the Japan-ASEAN partnership marking its 40th year. Below are excerpts from the interview.

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Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore Prime Minister

TPP talks : difficulties in narrowing the remaining gaps

Part of the reason is that we now have somewhat more participants in the TPP, Mexico has joined in, Canada has joined in, so has Japan, and so that brings more complexity, part of the reason is that the TPP aspires to be a high quality agreement, so the ambition is high, and that means difficult decisions have to be made. And part of the reason also candidly is that I think many of the governments will be under political pressure at home to protect their own sensitive areas and to advance their own offensive interests. Be it intellectual property, be it agriculture, these are issues which all governments face, so when you have trade negotiations, it is always very difficult up till the last minute.

Issues concerning SOEs or issues concerning intellectual property, these are new areas which we are venturing into. Some of them are not even areas which are regularly found in the FTAs. So I think that we have to do work, in the end we want a good agreement, but we also want an agreement to be there, so we have to be practical, and to make adjustments in order to get a good outcome. If we insist on a perfect outcome, I think that may be very difficult.

On Japan's position on agricultural tariffs in the TPP negotiations

The approach taken in the TPP is that, all tariff lines are included. And eventually you will be at 0 tariffs for all the tariff lines. And there are no exclusions. So you can find other ways to help your industries and to support them, but you cannot do it by closing your market. So I think that is something difficult which the Japanese government is aware of and which ... was fully conscious of even before entering into the TPP discussions.

I think that Japan understands the challenge and what it needs to do, not only because of the TPP, but also because of its domestic policy reasons, because it wants the revitalize its economy and be on a sustainable basis, for the long term. I read somewhere that Japanese farmers, the median age now is 67 years old, well I think the Japanese are in good health till a very old age, but I think for a 67 year-old farmer to carry on, and in 10 years time, to be still operating in this way, I think that is, quite a challenge. So I believe Japan understands it has to make some changes in order to bring itself, not only in line with its international desires to integrate, but also in line with its own social changes within Japan itself.

On China's move to establish an air defense identification zone or ADIZ

We are an air hub, Changi Airport, 50 million passengers a year, many of the flights fly through northeast asia, so we have a concern about northeast Asia, from the civil aviation point of view, we also have a concern about northeast Asia from the overall regional stability point of view.

In terms of civil aviation, I think what we would like to know is also what all the airlines would like to know, how does the new ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) or ADIZs because now Koreans have also extended theirs. How does that, how do these new ADIZs affect civil aviation over-flight. How will it, be implemented? What do ... that pilots have to do? What happens to the normal aeroplane flights through the region? And I see that ICAO and IATA have sought clarification from China, and Singapore has also sought clarification from China, on what this means for civil aviation. That's one aspect of the ADIZ.

The other aspect is the question of stability, of security, of political relations between the countries, and their ... the ADIZ, the latest ADIZ changes, are just one in a long series of actions which have been taken. Actions reactions, further actions, these are issues, problems which have been there for quite a long time, it is very hard to trace back where exactly they began.

There are similar tensions between Japan and Korea, there are also disputes between Korea and China. If you trace them even further, back then, very recent times, it goes back at least, as far as the second world war, and what happened after the second world war and what was not resolved after the second world war, so I think in these disputes it is very difficult to say who is right and who is wrong. But all parties really ought to maintain restraint, and avoid taking actions which can escalate or lead to misunderstanding or lead to some mishap and unintended consequences. Because I don't think any of the parties want a conflict.

But the more basic issue of the good relations between the countries I think also needs to be addressed progressively over a period of time. It cannot be done quickly because these are historical issues and many deep sentiments and emotions are involved and expectations of the people and ... sentiments of the general public in all of the countries.

But I would say that it's really a pity that after the second world war, the issues were not resolved more satisfactorily, like they were in Europe. And we should try to move in that direction rather than reopening these issues and raking over old wounds which will lead to unhappiness whether it's over what aggression means, whether it's over comfort women, whether it's over what happened and where. It is ... these are issues which can only cause further misunderstanding if they are reopened. You have to know what happened in the past, we have to move on, we are in the 21st century, this is not the 20th century, nobody wants to go to war and it is not the same situation as in the 1930s or 1940s when Asia and the whole world was engulfed in a conflict. And we don't want to be there again.

Singapore and Japan

Between Singapore and Japan, we have had an understanding. I mean, we have had a very difficult time during the second world war, 3 and the half years, 3 years 7 months from February 1942 all the way to August 1945. And the people who lived through that time will never forget it, or forget the people who perished during that time. But, as I said you must know the history and you must move ahead. And in the 1960s, we settle the matter with the Japanese, we moved on and we have very good relations with Japan. In terms of investments, in terms of tourism, to-ing and fro-ing between our peoples, in terms of economic coorperation with third countries, in terms of encouraging Japan to participate an active role, in an active role in Asia. I think as far as Singapore is concerned and with the Japanese government and successive governments, we have very very good relationships.

We have encouraged Japan to use Singapore as a base, in order to operate in the region training programmes to disseminate Japanese culture, Japanese soft power if you like, in fact there's a Japanese cultural centre JCC (JAPAN CREATIVE CENTRE) in Singapore which I had suggested to my counterpart some years ago and is now operating in Singapore and I think that's one of the ways in which you can show the region that Japan has a lot to offer. Language, food fashion, technology, I see that your Japanese traditional food has just become a world cultural heritage and there are a lot of "Kaiseki" places in Singapore and I look forward to trying some of them in Tokyo when I am there as well.

ASEAN community : creating a single market

We are aiming for an ASEAN community by 2015. That's 2 more years. I think that we are making progress towards that goal, if you look at the economic community, economic objectives, we've probably about 85% complete. The remaining 15% of course are the more difficult ones but we will continue to make progress. We may or may not reach 100% but I think we will have a substantial package by 2015, by the deadline. Our ambition is not the same as the European ambition.

The European union is one single market single currency, free movement of people, multiple governments multiple fiscal policies, so these were different problems. We are not aiming that high, we just want a closer economic cooperation, free trade and goods, trade services, freeier movement of investments of professionals, air services, these are things which I think are practical and which we can do.

What are the difficulties? The same as the difficulties which would face Japan when you are trying to reform your economy, to restructure, to open up, to let the not so competitive parts of the economy fade away and to reinforce the more competitive parts of the economy. And this is a painful business, especially when it includes multiple countries, which are not only at very different levels of development, but also have very different approaches to economic development. As some are free markets and some are more command oriented, some have very prominent government role, others are not, some are completely resource dependent, others have no resources at all, so in this circumstance, to form a free market and to reach a common perspective on what we are trying to achieve is a big challenge. But it is worth trying.

Japan and ASEAN :looking to the future

I believe that Japan is an economy with a very high level of education, very high level of technology, very considerable resilience, determination, and it is still one of the biggest economies in the world. I mean if you look at it in terms of size, maybe you say China is bigger, but if you look at in terms of capability, and ability to influence the region in a positive way, I think Japan is not less than China.

So we hope that we will be able to build the ASEAN-Japan relationship, formal relations between ASEAN and Japan have been several decades, but the substance of it we have been working on, and I think it's important that we not only celebrate the milestone of and the anniversary, but also work towards substantive achievements, substantial achievements, for example our common economic partnership agreement (AJCEPA), the CEPA between ASEAN and Japan. The goods chapter is settled, the services chapter I think is still work in progress, and that is more than 10 years since we launched into this.

I think that we should really commit ourselves seriously to reach an agreement and to settle that. So that we can enhance ... when we talk about economic cooperation and integration, there is substance where putting policies there, which will actually help this to happen. It is not the declaration of ... not just the declaration of good intent. There are areas where you can cooperate.

For example in civil aviation. Air services. Air services are growing all over the region, but between ASEAN and Japan, generally, even between Singapore and Japan, I think that the air services have not grown as fast as they could. Other countries are now, many countries are now working to liberalize air services. Among ASEAN countries, also between ASEAN and other partners like India, even like with China we are talking about enhancing air services.

I think that it would be good if we could similarly enhance our civil aviation links between ASEAN and Japan because with more links will come more travel, the business will grow, the traffic will grow, and the opportunities for us to cooperate with one another and to integrate our economies and to enable Japan to play a major role in this region, will also grow.

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