NEW DELHI — While tensions between major powers have affected multilateral cooperation, what Singapore has done is to work with “like-minded friends”, and there has been progress as a result, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (Sept 10).
He noted that multilateralism is based on a mutual desire to achieve win-win outcomes.
“But if there’s not the trust or if there’s not the goodwill, or in some cases where you’re in conflict with one another, ‘I don’t want win-win, I want win-lose’. And so that makes it very difficult to do multilateral cooperation,” he said to the media at the end of his three-day working visit to New Delhi, India, where he attended the Group of 20 (G20) Leaders’ Summit.
But despite the current environment, smaller groups of “like-minded” people can still come together to make progress “on a second-best basis”.
“Not everyone is there, but those of us who are all participating, we can work together. And I think that is happening,” said Mr Lee.
On Singapore’s part, while it “would much prefer” to have a big framework that works for everyone, it acknowledges how things are in the current global situation.
“So in this environment, we do our best to make friends and in the bilaterals… to see what we can work out,” he said.
Mr Lee cited the developments between Singapore and the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom as examples of how progress has been made in the current environment.
Earlier on Sunday, Mr Lee met with the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. They reafffirmed warm relations between Singapore and the EU, and welcomed the recent launch of negotiations for the EU-Singapore Digital Trade Agreement, said a spokesperson from Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office.
Both leaders also “exchanged views on the global geopolitical outlook and reaffirmed the importance of upholding the rules-based multilateral order”.
Mr Lee said that in such bilateral discussions, on top of the interest in finding specific areas of cooperation, there is also interest in “exchanging views, understanding their perspectives on our region, and they wanting our perspective on what’s happening in the world”.
“And I think that these are very valuable contacts,” he said.
Singapore is not a member of the grouping but has been regularly invited to the annual summit and its related meetings. Mr Lee attended the summit at the invitation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in India’s capacity as G20 president for 2023.
Over the weekend, Mr Lee spoke to an audience of global leaders about tackling climate change, as well as the challenges facing multilateralism and how to overcome them.
He also held bilateral meetings with various leaders on the sidelines of the summit. They include UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, with whom Mr Lee issued a joint declaration on Saturday upgrading bilateral relations between the two countries to a “strategic relationship”.
G20 COMMUNIQUE: PRINCIPLES LAID OUT, BUT SUBSTANCE TAKES TIME
The G20 leaders adopted a consensus declaration at the end of the first day of the summit on Saturday. It covered a broad range of issues including the war in Ukraine, but refrained from condemning Russia for the conflict.
Commenting on the declaration, Mr Lee said that many areas of desired cooperation were “comprehensively covered”, be it on artificial intelligence, the reform of the United Nations or multilateral development.
“We also put in principles, how to address them, but the specifics of it, the actual substance of the cooperation, I think that progress takes a lot of time in this environment,” he said.
Distrust between nations partly explains why certain deals cannot be achieved, said Mr Lee.
“But it’s also because ‘I don’t want you to have a successful result. And so I would rather there not be an outcome than there would be an outcome’. There is some of this dynamic in play,” he added.
Given this context, Mr Lee said G20 did well to have a communique and to have a meeting where views over substantive issues could be ventilated.
Notably absent from this year’s summit were Chinese President Xi Jinping — the first time that he has skipped G20 — and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Chinese premier Li Qiang and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov attended in their stead respectively.
On China — which currently has tense relations with the United States — Mr Lee noted how US President Joe Biden said “it would be better” if Mr Xi had attended the summit.
“Nevertheless the discussions… proceeded. Premier Li Qiang was here. So as far as engagements are concerned, I think the discussions proceeded,” he said.
“I do not know the reasons why President Xi was not able to come or President Putin, but obviously it would have been better if they were here.”
The Prime Minister said that as the world environment becomes more complex, global leaders will continue to find opportunities to cooperate on.
And while not every collaboration would yield great results, progress will still be made, said Mr Lee.
India has held the rotating presidency of the G20 since Dec 1 when it took over from Indonesia. On Sunday, Mr Modi handed over the ceremonial gavel of the presidency to Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who will assume presidency for 2024.