Aug 23, 2021
VP Kamala Harris & PM Lee Singapore Press Conference Transcript
Vice President Kamala Harris held a joint press conference with Prime Minister Lee in Singapore on August 23, 2021. They addressed the situation in Afghanistan. Read the transcript of the full briefing here.
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Speaker 1: (00:00)
The United States of America. We now welcome the Vice President of the United States of America and Prime Minister of Singapore. Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee will not address us. Prime Minister, please.
Lee Hsien Loong: (00:11)
Vice President Kamala Harris, ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon to all of you. I welcome Vice President Harris to Singapore. We had an excellent discussion this morning and reaffirmed the robust and enduring partnership between Singapore and the United States. I also expressed our appreciation for the US’ active role in the Asia Pacific and especially in Southeast Asia and our shared support for a stable rules-based order in the region based on international law, where all countries can both cooperate and compete peacefully with one another and prosper together.
Lee Hsien Loong: (00:53)
The Vice President’s visit follows Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit here just a month ago. It emphasizes the US administration’s commitment to this region and shows that the US has both strategic and economic stakes in Southeast Asia. We value the US renewing its ties with friends and partners here, and especially with Singapore. Economic cooperation between the US and Singapore is dynamic and flourishing. Our FTA with the US signed in 2004 was the US first with an Asian country. Since then, our bilateral trade, which is well balanced and mutually beneficial, has more than doubled.
Lee Hsien Loong: (01:39)
And Singapore is also the second largest Asian investor in the United States with direct investment stock of 65 billion US dollars. Our investments in the US together with American exports to Singapore support over a quarter million American jobs. Today, Singapore is home to nearly 5,500 US companies. The US is Singapore’s largest foreign direct investor, and the FDI stock of the US in Singapore is 315 billion US dollars. It’s more than US investments in China, India, and South Korea combined.
Lee Hsien Loong: (02:25)
On security and defense, the US has played an important and constructive role in the region for over 70 years. Singapore is a major security cooperation partner of the US and we have consistently supported a strong US presence in the region through our words and actions. Our two countries cooperate well on transnational issues, including terrorism, cybersecurity, and counter proliferation. Our security, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies hold regular dialogues.
Lee Hsien Loong: (02:59)
Singapore participated in International Security Assistance Force or ICAF in Afghanistan. And we were later the first Southeast Asian country to contribute personnel and assets to the global coalition to defeat ISIS, which was in Iraq. The US is a partner nation in Singapore’s newly established multilateral counter-terrorism information facility. We discussed these issues with Vice President Harris and on Afghanistan specifically, I mentioned to Vice President that we knew that the US was conducting an evacuation operation of refugees from Afghanistan and Singapore would like to offer to the US the use of the RSAF’s, Republic of Singapore Air Force’s Airbus 330 multi-role tanker and transporter aircraft in order to help with the airlift.
Lee Hsien Loong: (03:59)
Our defense cooperation goes back many decades. Singapore has one of the largest foreign training presences in the US. We deeply appreciate the US’ support for our training detachments, and that is on Luke Air Force Base and in Idaho at Mountain Home. Two years ago, we renewed the 1990 memorandum of understanding, which provides the US military with access to Singapore’s air and naval bases. Vice President Harris will be visiting Changi Naval Base later this afternoon and there I hope she’ll see how Singapore has supported the US military presence and its defense engagements in the region.
Lee Hsien Loong: (04:41)
We’ve hosted rotational deployment of US aircraft and Navy ships, and also including littoral combat ships, such as the USS Tulsa, which the Vice President will be visiting. Our bilateral cooperation takes place in the context of regional and multilateral cooperation efforts. Singapore appreciates the US participation in ASEAN and regional forums like the ARF, the ADMM-Plus, and APEC. We work together at these forums reflecting our shared commitment to multilateralism to tackle regional and global issues like climate change.
Lee Hsien Loong: (05:23)
On this 55th anniversary of US-Singapore diplomatic relations, I’m happy that we are embarking on new areas of partnership. We concluded three agreements between our cyber defense and finance industries, agencies. Singapore and US are also launching a climate partnership, and we are also pleased with our joint smart city capacity building initiatives. We’re elevating the US-Singapore collaboration platform MOU to a new partnership for growth and innovation, and we welcome the US-Singapore supply chain dialogue to work together to strengthen supply chain resilience.
Lee Hsien Loong: (06:05)
On pandemic preparedness, we will pursue collaboration on genome sequencing and epidemic intelligence, which will speed up identification of COVID-19 variants as well as emerging disease threats and [inaudible 00:06:20] regional preparedness for current and future academics. We are also happy to see both sides cooperating on space, which is the next frontier. It’s a substantial agenda of deliverables, which will enhance our partnership, and I’m confident that our long-standing and multifaceted bilateral relationship will continue to strengthen year by year.
Lee Hsien Loong: (06:45)
Thank you very much.
Speaker 1: (06:47)
Thank you, Prime Minister. Madam Vice President, please.
Vice President Harris: (06:49)
Thank you, Prime minister Lee. You have been a longstanding friend of the United States. You have been a counselor and a friend to many of my predecessors who have talked with me about the friendship and the history of work together, and I was honored to be a part of that tradition with this visit today in our extensive conversations about many topics. So thank you, and thank you for the warm welcome. And I am here because the United States has a longstanding and enduring relationship with Singapore, with Singapore in the context of Southeast Asia and in the context of the United States being a member of the Indo- Pacific region and we take that membership seriously.
Vice President Harris: (07:34)
It is a partnership that we have with Singapore and Southeast Asia that belies on the priorities of the United States that are both priorities that relate to our security, as well as our economic wellbeing. And increasingly, certainly the pandemic has highlighted the importance of working together as partners on the issue of global health. The conversation that we had today was also in many ways defined by what I think we all understand to be a new era that we’re embarking on, a new era as defined by many of the issues that I mentioned.
Vice President Harris: (08:13)
The issue of pandemic and global health, the issue of the climate crisis, which we spoke extensively about, the issue of cybersecurity. And on these issues as well as the traditional issues that we have partnered with Singapore on, we are looking forward to strengthening this relationship and our collaboration and partnership. And today, we are in Singapore to stress and reaffirm our enduring relationship to this country and in this region, and to reinforce a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to reaffirm our mutual interests in peace and stability in Southeast Asia.
Vice President Harris: (08:56)
Prime Minister Lee and I had a productive conversation on how our two nations can partner together to fulfill this vision-
Vice President Harris: (09:03)
… can partner together to fulfill this vision. In that context, Prime Minister, I thank you for the very generous software that you’ve made to assist the United States in our evacuations from Afghanistan. And we look forward to following up on that discussion.
Vice President Harris: (09:18)
On the issues that we discussed, I’ll start with the issue of global health because it is one of the dominant issues that is impacting all nations. And on that issue, we discussed the importance of working together to end this pandemic, but also to prevent future pandemics. Singapore’s approach to managing the pandemic has been commendable. But we all must do more to not only end the current pandemic, but to invest in what we know will be more. From day one, President Biden has been clear about the importance of vaccinating people in the United States against COVID-19 and our commitment to being an arsenal of vaccines for the world. That is why we have provided millions of vaccine doses to countries within Southeast Asia. And Singapore has been very generous in the way that it has contributed to the work that needs to be done in this region and around the world. As the Delta variant threatens communities, the prime minister and I discussed how the United States and Singapore can partner to increase the capacity of Southeast Asia to identify new COVID variants and boost regional preparedness.
Vice President Harris: (10:33)
Secondly, we discussed our partnership’s importance to the prosperity of our two countries and the broader region. This pandemic has had a profound impact on economies and a profound impact on families and workers and has exposed what many knew before, but had been highlighted through the pandemic, which is the vulnerability of our supply chains. In America, we all remember the early days of the pandemic when folks couldn’t figure out where they could get a mask, where they could get PPEs. And that was because of the shortage of basic goods around the globe. Supply chains, without any question, are critical to ensuring that businesses can source the materials they need and get products to market and enable people to buy these products.
Vice President Harris: (11:25)
For example, semiconductor chips, they power everything from smartphones to laptops to cars. And if we’re not producing enough semiconductors as a world, as a globe, our automobile factories in the United States will be impacted as they’ve been. And it will impact then families and consumers. You just ask anybody who’s thinking about trying to buy a new car or a used car. And it is more difficult than it has been in a long time, because of course, supply chain issues impact production lines and impact goods getting to market. So working together with partners like Singapore on strengthening supply chains is critical in not only getting goods to the folks who need them, but keeping Americans working and on the job and ensuring Americans can provide for their families.
Vice President Harris: (12:18)
So that is why tomorrow I will be meeting with key business leaders here in Singapore to discuss what more we can do together in this region of the world with private and public sectors, including our own in the United States, to shore up supply lines and supply chains. And that is why the prime minister and I agreed to launch a dialogue on how our two countries can better work together to strengthen supply chain resiliency in this region.
Vice President Harris: (12:48)
Third, on the issue of security, a long-standing source and reason for the priority that our two countries have placed in our partnership. I reaffirmed in our meeting the United States’ commitment to working with our allies and partners around the Indo-Pacific to uphold the rules-based international order and freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea. Later today, as the prime minister mentioned, I will visit the United States naval ship docked in Changi Naval Base, a clear symbol of the strong security cooperation between our two countries and a symbol of America’s commitment to regional security.
Vice President Harris: (13:32)
The prime minister and I also agreed that the United States and Singapore must expand cyber security cooperation to address growing threats and to protect our countries from cyber attacks, for example, on financial institutions and on our defense establishments. Turning to the issue of values, the United States is deeply committed to advancing respect for human rights at home and abroad. In our meeting today, the prime minister and I discussed the crisis in Burma and the role the international community must play in helping the people of Burma restore democracy to their country.
Vice President Harris: (14:15)
And lastly, during our meeting, we spoke about the need to coordinate our efforts to address climate and the climate crisis. I no longer call it climate change, Prime Minister, climate crisis as evidenced by the UN report that recently came out. As two of the world’s leaders in the financial sector, the United States and Singapore can work together on sustainable finance in this regard. And that is why today our countries are launching a new climate partnership to create standards for sustainable financing, to address financial sector climate risk, and to mobilize private capital for climate mitigation and adaptation.
Vice President Harris: (14:57)
So those are just some of the areas we touched upon today, reflective of the breadth and the depth of the partnership between the United States and Singapore. And as I said at the beginning of my remarks, our administration is committed to enduring engagement in Singapore, into Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific. And I look forward, Prime Minister, for continuing and strengthening our relationship for years to come. And thank you again.
Lee Hsien Loong: (15:24)
Speaker 1: (15:25)
Thank you, Madam Vice President. We now proceed to the Q & A. May I first invite the Singapore journalist, Ms. Dawn Tan from national broadcaster media call. Dawn, please.
Dawn Tan: (15:37)
Dawn Tan, CNA Media Corp. Good afternoon, Prime Minister and Madam Vice President. And may I, on behalf of all Singaporeans also, welcome you to our home here in Singapore. Thank you, Prime Minister, as well for that update on Singapore, U.S. bilateral relations and for the constructive role that the United States continues to play in this region. Permit me to begin by asking both of you a question. Prime Minister, as we speak, a complex operation continues in Afghanistan as the U.S. stands by its commitments there. How will Singapore, as an important bilateral partner, work with the United States as it completes its mission in Afghanistan? And Madam Vice President, what’s your message to America’s partners about U.S. commitment to its longtime allies in light of this issue?
Lee Hsien Loong: (16:35)
I’ll go first. Well, countries all over the region and I’m sure all over the world are watching developments in Afghanistan very closely. Foremost in everybody’s minds is the safety and security of the civilians. And I hope all sides will work to ensure this. Singapore is not unfamiliar with the challenges. The SAF, the Singapore Armed Forces, deployed personnel to Afghanistan in support of ISAF, International Security Assistance Force. We also sent provincial reconstruction teams to support the Afghan people in their reconstruction of the country. We did so because Afghanistan was a key battlefront in the global fight against extremist terrorism. Extremist ideas and capabilities were exported from there all over our region and they pose a security threat to Singapore, too. The Jeemah Islamiyah group, for example, had direct links to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Biden administration inherited an extremely difficult situation. The U.S. had invested considerable blood and treasure in Afghanistan, but it was an intractable task given the complex history, geography and tribal rivalries of the place.
Lee Hsien Loong: (18:03)
… and tribal rivalries of the place. Successive US presidents have declared their resolve to withdraw from Afghanistan. So I told the Vice President that we understand President Biden’s reasons for his decision. The US intervention has stopped terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a safe base for 20 years. For this, Singapore is grateful. We hope Afghanistan does not become an epicenter for terrorism again. And post-Afghanistan in the longer term, what matters is how the US repositions itself in the Asia Pacific engages the broader region and continues the fight against terrorism, because that will determine the perceptions of the countries, of the US global priorities, and of its strategic intentions. And specifically on the current withdrawal evacuation operation, as I mentioned just now, Singapore would be happy to offer air force Airbus A330 to assist in the evacuation operation. Therefore, I welcome the Vice President’s visit here as well as the reassurances on American intentions in the region and in the world.
Vice President Harris: (19:28)
Thank you, Prime Minister. And that is exactly the point. The reason I am here is because the United States is a global leader, and we take that role seriously, understanding that we have many interests and priorities around the world. I am here in Singapore as a reaffirmation of our commitment to our membership in the Indo-Pacific region, our long standing partnerships with Southeast Asia, and a long standing relationship with Singapore as it relates to our issues and our mutual issues on security and economic strength and development, and now increasingly, global health. So this visit, combined with the agreements we have made and the work we continue to do as a nation to reinforce our commitment to these relationships, speak, I believe, volumes in terms of the integrity of the relationships that the United States has around the world on many issues, based on our shared priorities and our shared vision, of not only the challenges we face, but the future and the potential, based on the opportunities that this moment also presents.
Speaker 2: (20:48)
Thank you, [inaudible 00:20:49] Vice President.
Vice President Harris: (20:51)
Thank you. Our first question will come from American journalist, Nandita Bose from Reuters. Nandita?
Nandita Bose: (21:02)
Thank you, Simone. Madam Vice President, we’re in a situation where Afghans have been trampled, died as they rushed to flee a nation where Americans fought for 20 years. American citizens are still stuck without safe passage. I understand that you agree with the decision to withdraw. But in your assessment, what went wrong with the withdrawal? And I have a question for the Prime Minister as well. We understand you have offered help with evacuations, sir, but does the fall of Afghanistan 20 years after the US started military operations there to drive out the Taliban, does that change your calculus on how you can rely on America as a partner in this region, both militarily and economically? Does that impact the credibility of America’s foreign policy promises?
Vice President Harris: (22:04)
I understand and appreciate why you asked the question, and I think there’s going to be plenty of time to analyze what has happened and what has taken place in the context of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. But right now, we are singularly focused on evacuating American citizens, Afghans who worked with us, and Afghans who are vulnerable, including women and children, and that is our singular focus at this time, understanding that we have a priority in making sure that the people that, in particular, helped America achieve its responsibilities in terms of our priorities and the reason we went to Afghanistan in the first place, that we have a responsibility and we feel a deep commitment to making sure that folks who helped us are safe. But there’s no question that what many of us have seen on television, as the President has said… The President has, I think, shown great emotion in expressing sadness about some of the images we have seen, but we cannot be, in any way, distracted in any way from what must be our primary mission right now, which is evacuating people from that region who deserve to be evacuated.
Lee Hsien Loong: (23:33)
I think I already addressed the point you raised in my earlier remarks because we are watching what’s happening in Afghanistan on the TV screens today. But what will influence perceptions of US resolve and commitment to the region will be what the US does going forward, how it repositions itself in the region, how it engages its broad range of friends and partners and allies in the region, and how it continues the fight against terrorism. Countries make calculations and take positions, and they have to make recalculations and adjust their positions from time to time. Sometimes, it can be done smoothly. Sometimes, there are hiccups. Sometimes, things go awry and take time to put right.
Lee Hsien Loong: (24:31)
But countries remain with long-term interests, with long-term partners, and it’s a mark of a country which can succeed that it takes these interests and partners seriously and in a dispassionate way, and maintains them over the long-term. And the US has been in the region since the war, which is more than 70 years ago. There have been ups and downs. There have been difficult moments. There have also been, over decades, dramatic transformations in Asia, wrought by the benign and constructive influence of the United States as a regional guarantor of security and support of prosperity. And Singapore hopes and works on the basis that the US will continue to play that role and continue to engage the region for many more years to come.
Thank you, Nandita. The US delegations. Next question will come from American journalist, Zolan Kaino Youngs of the New York Times. Zolan?
Zolan Kaino Youngs: (25:49)
Yes. Thank you so much for taking my question here. Madam Vice President, a quick followup to my colleague’s question. I understand what the focus is now, but given that the reality is that there are thousands of allies as well as American citizens that are still stuck in limbo, are you satisfied with the operational steps that were taken in this decision, not the decision itself, but the operational steps that were taken? Does it meet your standard? Secondly, China is already trying to use the situation in Afghanistan to drive a wedge between the US and its allies, telling those in the South China Sea region that the US can not be counted on as a reliable long-term partner. Are you at all concerned the damage has already been done to US credibility worldwide? And how does the US, and specifically, the administration, repair it?
Zolan Kaino Youngs: (26:36)
And then for Prime Minister Lee, your country’s travel restrictions are a major strain on American businesses, businesses worldwide. Since Singapore has said that it wants to expand quarantine-free travel, what are the specific conditions it would take to get a quarantine-free arrangement in the US and high vaccination countries like it? Thank you.
Vice President Harris: (26:59)
So I’ll repeat what I said, which is that there’s-
Vice President Harris: (27:03)
I’ll repeat what I said, which is that there’s no question there will be and should be a robust analysis of what has happened. But right now, there is no question that our focus has to be on evacuating American citizens, Afghans who worked with us, and vulnerable Afghans, including women and children. That has to be our primary focus and where we are placing our attention on the issue of Afghanistan. And to that end, we have seen a successful drawdown of the embassy. And thankfully, without any American casualties. We have seen thousands of people who have been evacuated from the airport in Afghanistan, where the United States, military, doing very hard and difficult work, were able to contain that airport so that we could successfully evacuate the people who have been evacuated so far.
Vice President Harris: (28:04)
So as the president has said, listen, this is a difficult mission. There’s no question about that. But our focus has to be on the task at hand. As it relates to America’s relationship around the world, I am standing here in Singapore because our commitment to a long standing relationship, which is an enduring relationship with the Indo-Pacific region, with Southeast Asian countries. And in particular, with Singapore. The agreements that the prime minister and I have reached today are evidence of that enduring relationship and commitment and founded on the long standing priorities that relate to our security interests and our economic issues, but also a commitment going forward as it relates to the challenge just that we faced in the 21st century and the challenges we are going to face moving forward, such as in the inevitable, which is future pandemics and what we will do together to research and to do what we can to stop those pandemics from wreaking the kind of havoc on the world that COVID has.
Vice President Harris: (29:15)
A commitment moving forward to work together on the issue of cyber security, to work together on the issue of the climate crisis. All of these agreements are evidence of America’s strength and enduring relationships around the globe. And in particular, our knowledge that as we move forward and think about where we go in the 21st century, Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific will in large part, I believe, dictate the future of our world. America’s commitment then and partnerships with the country in this region and the countries in this region are about where we are going and also founded on the relationships that we have had in this region.
Lee Hsien Loong: (30:04)
Okay. On vaccines. This is something which I also discussed with the vice-president. As countries get more vaccinated, as protocols are worked out, as we get COVID infections under control, it’s easier for us to open up. We have been very tight on our borders for some time because it was necessary. And we had to get our situation in Singapore secured through vaccinations and through infection control.
Lee Hsien Loong: (30:34)
I think we are getting there, but we are nowhere near herd immunity. And we are now able to contemplate vaccinated, safe, quarantine-free travel with conditions and tests and procedures with countries. And we are starting with two countries, Germany and Brunei, and we are talking about other countries as well. And it will depend on the vaccination progress in those countries. It will depend on the prevalence of COVID in those countries, the state of the pandemic. And it depends what we can work out between us so that you have confidence in pre-departure testing, pre-departure vaccination certificates, and then procedures upon arrival to be tested. And if necessary, to be quarantine if infected. It’s something which we have strongly in mind because it’s important for Singapore as a hub to be able to reopen and to operate safely. And for people to travel back and forth, to do business and to keep ourselves connected with the world. And the US is one of the countries which we will be pursuing these conversations with.
Vice President Harris: (31:49)
Thank you, [inaudible 00:31:51].
Speaker 1: (31:51)
Thank you. Now, the last question from Singapore journalists [inaudible 00:31:56] from the Singapore First Holdings.
Speaker 3: (31:59)
Hi, thank you very much. I’d like to bring a discussion back to the region. And as PMD and Vice President Harris, how the US can work with Singapore and other partners to contribute to the broader stability and security of the region, and also to strengthen people to people ties? Thank you.
Lee Hsien Loong: (32:20)
Well, I think the economic cooperation is an important part of that, because that gives substance to the rest of the cooperation. And I listed out some of the areas, which we are embarking on further projects with the US arising from the vice president’s visit. On the security cooperation, that’s also very close. It ranges all the way from defense cooperation to intelligence exchange, to counter terrorism activities, to cybersecurity. And there too, we have an agenda. And thirdly, on people to people ties, travel is one big part of it. Students studying is a big part of it. And we have very many students from Singapore. And in fact, from all over the region, who’s studying the US. I spent a couple of years in the US myself. And you never forget the experience and the friends which you have made. And these are things which ought to continue Afghanistan or not, COVID or not. And I’m quite confident that they will continue and they will grow. And we will be able to deepen the ties across the Pacific for many more years to come.
Vice President Harris: (33:38)
The prime minister has said it well, which is, this is a relationship that is based on a shared vision, both in terms of the challenges we face, but also the opportunities that we face to work together to meet those challenges. And it relates again to the historic relationship that we have on the issue of security and economic strength, but it is also about what we can do to work together, to discover the medicines that might attack and deal with the next virus. It is about the future in terms of our mutual commitment, curiosity, and interest, and what we can do in space. It is about what we have in terms of shared values for the need for universal norms on the issue of cyber security.
Vice President Harris: (34:32)
It is about the interests that we have in being a global partner on the issue of vaccines, for example, and our shared commitment, understanding that when we have the resources, that we will share them with the world. These are the things that Singapore and the United States have in common and with that common purpose and with a similar approach to our responsibility for our own citizens and our responsibility as a global citizen. I believe that with this commitment, as evidenced again by this visit today, we will continue to partner in a way that benefits not only Singaporeans and Americans, but the rest of the world.
Speaker 1: (35:15)
Thank you, Madam Vice President. And with that, I bring the joint press conference now to a close. Thank you journalists for joining us and everyone online. Thank you.