Singapore will only be able to sign a free-trade agreement (FTA) with Taiwan if Taipei improves its relations with China, Singaporean Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) said.
Lee said in an interview earlier this week Singapore maintained the position that Singapore-Taiwan relations should not develop faster than Taiwan’s ties with China.
“We cannot go faster than your relations with the mainland [sic]. That’s the position. Once you improve your relations with the mainland, that’s no problem,” Lee said.
Lee was responding to an offer by president-elect Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) for Taiwan to resume FTA talks with Singapore under a flexible name.
Noting the delicate nature of cross-strait relations, Lee said that Beijing suspended all government-to-government negotiations with Singapore after the Taiwanese media played up a visit to Taiwan by then Singaporean deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) in July 2004.
As a consequence, Singapore has so far not been able to sign an FTA with China, while New Zealand, which started FTA talks with China after Singapore, has concluded an agreement, Lee said.
“Beijing uses its economic and political clout to counter acts its sees as against its interests,” Lee said.
He said Singapore and Taiwan could step up cooperation in trade, investment and tourism “so long as you [Taiwan] maintain stable and friendly relations with China.”
“Do not bring any politics into the Taiwan-Singapore relationship. Singapore has always stood by its ‘one China’ policy, from the 1970s when the ROC [Republic of China] had Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) as president,” he said.
Asked if he had any plans to visit Taiwan in the near future, Lee said such visits would only be possible if cross-strait relations became friendly and cooperative and if there were no media publicity of his visits, as in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, when he frequently visited Taiwan.
“But when such visits are used by Taiwan’s media to provoke Beijing, they set back interactions between Taiwan and Singapore,” Lee said.
“If you return to the earlier practice of no publicity, our interaction will be quiet but more productive,” he said.
On the question of whether there is a way for Taiwan to negotiate a trade agreement with or participate in ASEAN’s regional integration process, Lee dismissed the idea as unlikely.
Lee said that an ASEAN-Taiwan agreement would not be easy, because ASEAN functions on consensus and there are several ASEAN members that maintain strong ties with China.
“They will not want to displease China,” he said.
Also, it is unlikely that Taiwan will be included in the ASEAN dialogs, which discuss political and security affairs as well as economic matters, because there will be no consensus on the issue among the 10 ASEAN members, Lee said.
Instead, Lee suggested that Taiwan use its status in the WTO to negotiate trade and investment agreements with as many of the ASEAN countries as possible.
Lee, 85, was Singapore’s first prime minister from 1959 to 1990 and has remained one of the most influential politicians in Singapore since stepping down from the post.