Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was in New Delhi last week for the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit, tells Sujay Mehdudia that the Southeast Asian region is keen on a constructive partnership with India.

Hasn’t ASEAN’s task become more difficult in terms of balancing the different priorities of nation states with the joining of the US and Russia as Dialogue Partners? What do they both bring to the table in terms of strengthening ASEAN?

I think the U.S. is a major factor in the strategic balance of the world and Asia, particularly the stability of the region and security of the neighbourhood. Also a lot of trade and economic engagement depends heavily on the U.S. So it makes sense to keep the U.S. engaged. It is good for ASEAN to have the U.S. as a partner and have ASEAN-US meetings regularly. Russia is also a member of the East Asia summit. They have interest in developing their presence in Pacific. And they would like to develop ties with what is a fast growing region. We are happy to talk to them and cooperate with them. I don’t think it complicates our problems.

ASEAN is faced with geo-political challenges. There are territorial disputes. What sort of role do you want India to play?

The disputes concern the disputant or claimant states which includes China and several of ASEAN countries including Indonesia and Philippines. ASEAN has an interest and a role in this situation as it is right at its doorstep. India is not a claimant state. Rather it would have interest in navigation in the region. The trade is growing and has gone up by 25 times since 1993. It makes sense for India to talk and know what is happening in the region. Indian can be constructive participant in engaging in many ways including regionally, culturally, economic and trade.

What is your view about connectivity within ASEAN and further enhancement of India-Singapore air connectivity?

In ASEAN, we are talking about connectivity in a very broad sense. We are talking about road, rail and air links including cooperation in telecom, information and energy. We are also talking about links out of ASEAN. We hope we will be able to enhance ASEAN-India including the air services agreement. The volumes have been growing and interest of people wanting to travel has gone up tremendously. However, it still not has caught up and I don’t see any reason why this should not happen. Similarly, we need to push for enhanced air links and liberalise India-Singapore air connectivity in the larger interest. The possibilities are there, now it is for us to decide whether to grab them or let go.

India and China were once described by Singapore’s mentor as two wings of the ASEAN plane. But there are asymmetries between the wings. The Chinese wing is larger and more intimately connected (in ASEAN + 3; ASEAN + 1) than the Indian wing. Does Singapore back India’s quest to be counted among the original three dialogue partners and what are the strengths and weaknesses you see in the Indian plane wing?

We have always been in favour of India participating as the dialogue partner in ASEAN. We think it is good for India, for ASEAN and for Singapore. What can we do more depends very much on what both sides are willing to bring to the table. India’s orientation is towards the sub-continent. It is faced with a complicated neighbourhood which is the focus of its foreign policy. To shift that and change the outlook of the government and whole policy towards East Asia means India will have to engage more and take a strategic view. I think the more India is able to engage, the more it will be able to reap the benefits and the plane will then take wings.

Is the South China Sea imbroglio a passing phenomenon?

I think it is a problem that is going to be there for a long time to come. I don’t think it is a problem that would be resolved soon. This is a dispute over territory and islands, over waters around the land, over hydrocarbons and minerals, fishing rights and these are also disputes involving sovereignty. No country is likely to concede lightly. How do you resolve? The best one can hope for is that one accepts it is a dispute and put in place a code of conduct for managing relations on the ground so you don’t have an inadvertent clash that raises the temperatures and work out a joint development of resources there.

Are you still pessimistic about the economic scenario in India?

It is a pity that India cannot move at a fast pace. If India can achieve one to two per cent growth more and sustain that for the next 10 to 15 years, it will be great and you will get back hundred times of that. There is so much more potential that India could achieve if it is able to overcome political difficulties. I know it is not an easy to do. It is a tremendous effort although India has moved ahead on retail and now on banking. There is a huge potential and if only it could be allowed to happen. (mehdudia@gmail.com)