US ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar. Photo: Jeremy Ho/Yahoo Singapore
Asia will remain a vital region for the United States, regardless of who occupies the top seat in the White House, said US ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar.
Speaking to Yahoo Singapore in a wide-ranging interview last week, Wagar noted that Asia has been “top of our agenda” for the past 15 to 20 years, a policy underscored by President Barack Obama. The US has also been active in the region for the last 70 years, said Wagar, while its navy has kept Asian sea lanes open since the end of World War II.
“The reality is that our country is engaged in this region and globally, not just through our government - in fact, sometimes in spite of our government,” said Wagar, who pointed to American businesses such as Coca-Cola and Microsoft, educational institutions and people-to-people contacts.
“Asia’s important because Asia’s important, not because of who’s in the White House. This is the most dynamic region in the world. We should be creating apps together, curing cancer together, going to Mars together,” he declared.
Wagar also spoke of the ongoing territorial dispute in the South China Sea, warning that China’s actions are a threat to peace and stability.
The upcoming election
(Video by Jeremy Ho)
With the US presidential elections taking place in six months, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has cast a long shadow over the process. Observers have been alarmed by his often racist rhetoric – Trump has proposed building a wall to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico, as well as temporarily banning Muslims from coming to the US.
And Wagar acknowledged that there had been many questions from Singaporean friends and partners about the new president’s outlook, and whether it might affect American engagement with Asia. During a meeting in Washington of American ambassadors serving around the globe in March, the topic of how to allay these fears around the world also came up for discussion, said Wagar.
But the diplomat pointed out that there are some 525 million people in the middle class in Asia today, and this is expected to grow to 3.2 billlion by 2030. It is therefore in America’s “core national interest” to remain engaged in the region, whoever the new president may be.
“Asia is crucial for America’s development,” said Wagar.
With the United States poised to celebrate its 240th Independence Day, Wagar noted that the peaceful transfer of power has continued even as the US has grown in global importance and power. “The fact that that has gone unfettered for all those years is unique and something we’re proud of,” said Wagar.
Barack Obama’s legacy
US president Barack Obama embraces a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. Photo: Getty Images
Given that Obama is in the final year of his presidency, Yahoo Singapore asked Wagar what the outgoing president’s strongest legacy in the region is. His response, “The legacy is putting Asia on the American map.”
Oftentimes, said Wagar, to American businessmen and academics, ‘Asia’ has meant ‘China’. But Obama has paid special attention to the region, such as signing on to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. And of the 47 overseas trips he has made as president, 24 of them have been to Asian countries.
“He’s put this region on the map in our eyes. Now that might be an indictment to the fact that people should have been paying attention, but I can tell you they are now,” he noted
And Singapore, he declared, is the “perfect platform” to engage the region together, given its commitment to good governance, rule of law and meritocracy.
LGBT and human rights
In response to a question on whether he hopes to see Singapore progress in areas such as LGBT and human rights, Wagar demurred. “It’s not my job to lecture a sovereign nation on what they should or should not do.”
He added that one of America’s greatest strengths is its diversity and that individuals can bring their “whole selves” to work. “I think it makes our companies and our government stronger, and I think it makes our people better. So my job is to make that argument. Singapore and anybody else, can make their decision as to whether or not they agree.”
“I have strong feelings about it, I personally don’t understand why anyone cares about a person’s private life. But I’m not Singaporean,” said the ambassador.