Background Press Call by Senior Administration Official Previewing Visit of Prime Minister Lee of Singapore

The White House

Via Teleconference

(March 28, 2022)

7:06 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR: Thank you. And thanks everyone for joining. I know it’s on the later side of the evening, so thanks again for your time.

I’m just going to do a quick ground rules. So, this is on background, attributable to a “senior administration official.” And the contents of this call are embargoed until tomorrow, Tuesday, March 29th, 5:00 a.m. Eastern.

For your awareness and not for reporting, joining us today is [senior administration official]. And they’re going to give a couple of remarks at the top, and then we’ll just do some questions. So, [senior administration official], over to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Great, thank you very much. And thank you all for joining.

We are very, very happy that tomorrow Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong will come to the White House to meet with the President and also, separately, with the Vice President.

He arrived in Washington over the weekend and, I believe, had a number of meetings today and will be doing other meetings over the course of the next few days.

We are very happy about this because we believe that the U.S.-Singapore Strategic Partnership is extremely strong and extremely valuable to both countries, and has supported peace and prosperity throughout the Indo-Pacific for many years.

Our two countries share strong security, economic, and people-to-people ties. And the President looks forward to continue deepening those ties, which we feel are very much in the interests of both of our countries.

The President and Prime Minister Lee will be meeting at a very critical time, one in which the rules-based international order faces unprecedented challenge. And I think it’s obviously shaped by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustifiable war against Ukraine, which poses an urgent threat not only for Europe but also for the Indo-Pacific.

From the Atlantic to the Pacific, we must all redouble efforts to support Ukraine and preserve a world in which borders cannot be changed by force.

At this trying time, we have great respect for all Singapore has done to support the people of Ukraine, including sanctions and export controls against Russia. And I note that this is a very significant development and one that we deeply appreciate and which highlights what we see as a broader theme, which is countries in the Indo-Pacific stepping up to support the international rules-based order through taking meaningful actions with respect to Ukraine and Russia.

However, even as we address Putin’s war of choice against Ukraine, the United States remains a proud Indo-Pacific nation. And we will work closely with Singapore and other partners to implement our Indo-Pacific strategy and realize our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific that is more connected, more prosperous, more secure, and more resilient.

As I’m sure all of you know, last August, Vice President Harris traveled to Singapore and broke new ground on a range of key issues. And this followed the visit to Singapore by Defense Secretary Austin. And we’ve obviously had a number of other senior visits, including by Commerce Secretary Raimondo and Deputy Secretary Sherman.

I think that what we see is a continued role for our two countries to deepen and strengthen our cooperation, to address climate change, cooperate on space and cyber threats, promote inclusive growth and innovation, as well as resilient supply chains, looking for ways in which we can further cooperate on fighting COVID-19, preparing for the next pandemic, facing common security challenges, and deepening people-to-people ties.

President Biden and Prime Minister Lee will review progress on those lines of efforts and continue to build stronger cooperation in these areas.

The President and Prime Minister will also discuss Russia’s war against Ukraine, our shared interest in elevating U.S.-ASEAN relations, upholding freedom of the seas, and promoting a return to democracy in Burma.

And then following the President’s meeting with Prime Minister Lee, the Vice President will host him for a bilateral meeting at the White House.

We believe our strong partnership with Singapore has important benefits for the American people, including strong support for security in the Indo-Pacific, as well as strengthening and reinforcing our shared commitment to a fair, rules-based economic and security order in the Indo-Pacific region.

So, I think that, you know, from our standpoint, this is very significant. Prime Minister Lee, as all of you know, is very experienced and has been a strong supporter of U.S. engagement in the region. We value very much his advice.

And the President and the Prime Minister have a long relationship and last saw each other in Rome on the margins of the G20. And I think that we are looking forward to a very, very good conversation that really finds ways to further our common interests.

So, with that, I’m happy to go over this more. I’m happy to answer any questions.

I would note that there is some interest in the issue of the U.S.-ASEAN Summit. And, you know, I’m sure many of you have followed that it has been postponed. We’re still working with ASEAN on finding appropriate dates and look forward to continuing to make progress on that.

So, with that, let me turn it over to you all and take some questions.

Q Can you hear me okay?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.

Q Yeah, I was wondering — I mean, you mentioned that the war in Ukraine would come up in discussions, and I wondered if there’s anything specific that the U.S. President would like to see in terms of commitments from Singapore vis-à-vis its relationship with China and any ways that it could put pressure on China to comply with U.S. export controls on Russia?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thank you very much for that question. I think that the first key point is that obviously we expect the leaders will talk about the war in Ukraine because that is an overarching challenge to international rules-based order going on right now.

Also, the United States is very appreciative and very grateful to Singapore — as are, I think, many other countries — for Singapore’s very strong stance on this issue, including its imposition of export controls and sanctions against Russia.

I think that we also expect that the leaders will discuss how what is happening in Ukraine also has implications for the rest of the world, including the Indo-Pacific.

I think that, you know, they will also inevitably, I’m sure, discuss key issues in the Indo-Pacific, including, of course, the role of the United States in the region, as well as the role of China.

So, I think that — you know, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in terms of specifics. I think we’re very happy with what Singapore has done. And I think that the key is going to be to continue looking for ways in which we can expand our cooperation on this and other issues.

Q Hello. Can you hear me? Hello. Can you hear me?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, we can.

Q Okay. Okay, wonderful. Thank you so much. I do have two questions. First, with the Indo-Pacific Strategy, I was asking the — in early March, the Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan expressed concern over tension between the United States and China. He said, “In Asia, trade is strategy.” So how will President Biden address Singapore’s concern to Prime Minister Lee tomorrow about this tension between U.S. and China? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. I think that it’s a very good question, and it’s obviously a very important topic. And I think that we have had extensive discussions with the Singaporean government in the past 14 months — as well as, obviously, before that — about the important role of U.S. economic engagement in the region.

I think that, you know, this came up during the Vice President’s visit. It also came up during Commerce Secretary Raimondo’s visit to Singapore. And obviously, we expect to discuss that here.

And we should note as well that we’ve had a number of Singaporean cabinet ministers come to the United States, and we’ve had pretty extensive discussions on these issues.

I think that what I would expect is that there will be discussion that makes clear the U.S. is — already is a very extensive investor, has extensive trading relations with, obviously, Singapore, but also more broadly with Southeast Asia. We’re looking for ways in which we can expand our engagement.

We completely understand the argument that there is a tremendous need for an affirmative economic agenda in the region and that the region looks to the United States to continue playing a significant role. I’m confident that they will have a good discussion on that. The U.S. values very much the perspectives of Singapore. And obviously, we look forward and I’m sure the President looks forward to sharing the — what the U.S. — how the U.S. sees the situation and what we will be looking to do.

Q All right, thank you. And the second question will be related to the military engagement. You also mentioned Secretary Austin was there last year. So, we know that Singapore and the United States signed a space cooperation treaty today. At the same time, we know Singapore and Taiwan have been having military exchange since 1975. And just last December, Singapore army was training in Taiwan. So, with China rapidly militarizing the South China Sea, how does the U.S. see the importance of Singapore and Taiwan’s military force for ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thank you for a complex question that covers a lot of different issues. (Laughter.) I’m not sure I could really do justice to that with a single answer. But what I would say is that we have a great deal of appreciation for Singapore’s strong role in Indo-Pacific security — both our bilateral cooperation as well as other things that Singapore does.

You know, the relationship that Singapore has with Taiwan is their affair, and that’s not for us to take a position on.

I think that we welcome, however, the fact that Singapore continues to seek ways in which they can play a positive role, and we very much appreciate the role that they play.

As far as the U.S.-Singapore security partnership, we believe this is very, very important to the United States and we think that it’s also valuable for Singapore. It is quite extensive, and we look forward to continuing to develop it in ways that support the interests of both of our countries but also support security in the broader region.

Q Hello. I wanted to see if there might be some additional steps announced tomorrow on sanctions involving Russia or if there were additional economic partnerships that we should be ready for announcements tomorrow on that as well.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks for the question. I mean, you know that one of the delicate things here is, obviously, we — we are looking forward to very extensive and thorough discussions. I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, but I think that we expect that there will be some announcements.

I think that the — you know, they probably will reflect the extreme strength of the relationship. And they will be essentially about ways in which we’re looking to do more together, rather than anything that’s really fundamental.

At the same time, we think that what is key here is that we have had such good cooperation and such a strong relationship with Singapore in so many different areas and — that this is something which we believe very much serves U.S. interests and we believe also — you know, Singapore has a very good sense of its — how to advance its own interests. And therefore, we are confident that Singapore believes it serves their interests as well.

In terms of specifics, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves; I’d say watch this space. But I think that, you know, we are looking forward to very good discussions and a very, very good visit — to the White House, in particular, but also — more broadly, the Prime Minister’s visit to the United States, we think, is a very timely — comes at an excellent time and is one that further highlights the very strong relationship between our two countries.

Q Hi, thank you for taking my questions. Two trade-related questions. The first: Do you expect the President or Vice President to delve deeply into the Indo-Pacific economic framework tomorrow and, kind of, the specifics of that arrangement?

And then secondly, you know, there’s been some talk that some of the ASEAN countries want to see more from the Biden administration in terms of market access and tariffs when it comes to trade. Will the President make any sort of commitment along those lines during the meeting tomorrow? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you very much. I think that’s an excellent point and excellent questions. I think, on the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, we expect that’s going to come up and that there will be discussion.

I think that we have had extensive coordination with Singapore and extensive discussions and a lot of feedback already, so I’m not sure how much detail it will get into. But I think that there will be discussion about what we’re seeking to accomplish and ways in which we think we can work together.

In terms of, you know, the broader desire for market access and other and — you know, expanded trade, I think that we are looking for ways in which we can try and address these concerns and strengthen economic linkages. But I think — as you, no doubt, are aware — we’re looking for ways that can be done using existing frameworks rather than new market access.

Q Hey, guys, thanks for doing this. I know you kind of alluded to it at the end of your remarks, but I was wondering if you could maybe flesh out a little bit more what happened behind the scenes with ASEAN, you know, being announced and then coming down. I know that there were some scheduling issues, but maybe you can explain a little more, you know, what happened there and what kind of timeframe we’re looking at for the future.

And then also on the subject of sort of international forums, Singapore was a special invitee to the G20. I know the President spoke a little bit over the weekend about how he wanted to address Russia’s participation in the G20. But I was wondering if that was going to be a topic of conversation or if there was any asks for Singapore as you sort of navigate the situation with Indonesia. Thanks.

Q Look, those are great questions. I think that with regards to the ASEAN Summit, I mean, just to be very candid, these things were always hard to schedule. You’re talking about a bunch of leaders, and I think that it is clear that there was — you know, there were some challenges and that, much to our disappointment, we weren’t able to get this locked down.

On the other hand, you know, having done this in the past — these things have been hard to do in the past because you are trying to coordinate the schedules of a bunch of leaders and it involved fairly extensive travel.

And so I think that, from our standpoint, we’re disappointed but we are very committed to looking for ways in which we can find a good time to schedule this. We believe the clock is ticking, and we want to try and get this done. And we’re working very closely with ASEAN to try and come up with an appropriate time to do this.

In terms of the G20 — it’s a good question. You know, I think that from our standpoint — you know, you made the point they’re a special guest. I think that, you know, we are very sensitive to the — what that status means and doesn’t mean.

So, you know, I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves in terms of what will or won’t come up. But I think that, you know, we understand that this is something where G20 members will have to decide. And I think that, as a special guest, Singapore undoubtably will have a voice, but we don’t want necessarily to put them in a position where they’re being treated as if they are a full member of the G20.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. Thanks, everyone, for joining. Just as a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to a “senior administration official,” and it’s embargoed until tomorrow 5:00 a.m. Eastern.

If you have any other follow-ups or questions, feel free to reach out to me, and we’ll make sure to get back to you.

So, thanks, everyone, again, for joining and talk to you later.

7:24 P.M. EDT

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