Mon, Aug 23, 2004 - Page 3 News List

Singapore's new leader tries to mend fences with China

STAFF WRITER WITH AP, , SINGAPORE

Singapore's new leader yesterday tried to mend fences with China, saying the city-state would back Beijing if Taipei ``provoked'' armed conflict across the Taiwan Strait.

In a nationally televised address, Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) reaffirmed Singapore's backing for the so-called one-China policy, and stressed the importance that the tiny Southeast Asian country attaches to cordial relations with Asia's emerging giant.

"There is a real risk of miscalculation and mishap" across the Strait, Lee said in the National Day Rally speech, the local equivalent of the U.S. president's state of the union address.

Ties between Singapore and China were severely strained last month after Lee made a ``private and unofficial'' visit to Taiwan.

Beijing reacted with fury to the visit, saying that it violated Singapore's recognition of Beijing as the sole, legitimate Chinese government.

"I will not change our one-China policy. But I had to make the trip to meet the Taiwanese leaders, so I can make the right decision for Singapore in a crisis," Lee said. He added: "If the conflict is provoked by Taiwan, we will not support Taiwan.''

Lee -- elder son of Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), modern Singapore's founding father -- was sworn in Aug. 12 as Singapore's third prime minister. He replaced Goh Chok Tong (吳作棟).

Earlier this month, Chinese media said that China might delay talks on a free trade deal with Singapore in retaliation for Lee's visiting Taipei.

"His visit has dampened the mood to negotiate the free trade area between the two countries," the China Daily quoted an unidentified commerce ministry official as saying. Economists in Singapore voiced doubts that a delay in talks would damage the wealthy city-state's US$93 billion economy but said it could hurt in more subtle ways, casting a shadow over business deals between the Asian dynamos.

Economists said assessing the impact was difficult until it became clear how much China wanted to punish Singapore for Lee's July 10-12 visit, which the Singapore government has defended as unofficial and within its sovereign right.

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