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Singapore amid great power rivalry

Despite the pressures of intensifying Sino-US competition, Singapore and other countries can and should do their part in fostering global peace and prosperity. Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, in his IISS Fullerton Lecture yesterday, spoke of how that can be done. Here are edited excerpts:

While the immediate and urgent concern on the minds of all policy makers is overcoming and recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, the most important concern in the next two decades must be if our countries can continue to enjoy peace and progress.

Competition between major powers is inevitable. The real issue is how to ensure that it does not spiral into conflicts. War is not inevitable. But mishaps or miscalculations can occur.

Sustained peace and progress are not beyond us, if the US and China can arrive at a new modus vivendi that will set boundaries for competition and define areas for cooperation amid competition, for the sake of the world and for themselves. But even if the US and China do not reach such a modus vivendi, the rest of the world should recognise their responsibilities and agency to play a constructive role in shaping our collective future.

We should not adopt a fatalistic attitude. Realism is not fatalism. There is always some agency for third countries even amid great power competition.

US and China relations

Let us start with relations between the US and China, which will undoubtedly be critical in defining the world over the next two decades.

Both are special in their own ways. China has been around for a few thousand years, having been through the peaks and troughs of history. It now sees itself achieving civilisational rejuvenation and regaining its rightful place in the league of nations and history.

It sees itself as sui generis and does not expect others to be like it. It sees its circumstances as requiring solutions with their own unique characteristics.

It believes the key to its success throughout history will always be the unity of its purpose, people and leadership that allows it to achieve speed and coherence of actions.

China has been around for a few thousand years, having been through the peaks and troughs of history. PHOTO: REUTERS

The US is extraordinary in achieving unprecedented global leadership and dominance at speed, within just over 200 years.

It is powered by a set of fundamental beliefs that it regards to be self-evident and universal.

It believes in the power of its set of ideals to attract the best around the world to come together to build a better society, if not a better world.

It has firm convictions in promoting its values and beliefs for the benefit of the world.

Therefore, while US-China engagement is useful for building mutual understanding and avoiding miscalculations, neither will become a version of the other. Neither they, nor us, should expect one to become like the other.

Neither should even try to make the other more like oneself. It is unproductive, if not counterproductive.

That said, there is benefit for both sides to increase their interactions across the government, business and people sectors. Every interaction can plant the seeds for future deeper understanding.

Conversely, every interaction forgone is not only an opportunity missed, but also a risk to greater misunderstanding, and even miscalculations.

The world is looking for the two countries to come to a new acceptance of each other – or at a minimum, to avoid direct conflict and to work together to create a framework to address the global issues we all collectively face.

The US is extraordinary in achieving unprecedented global leadership and dominance at speed, within just over 200 years. PHOTO: AFP

It is worth noting that both have more common interests than they may, perhaps, wish to acknowledge.

The US and China have shared interests in upholding and updating the global security and trading order, even though their conceptions of “order” are not identical.

The two countries have interdependencies in the economic, financial and technological realms, and total across-the-board decoupling in these domains is unlikely.

Certainly, it is not possible to decouple when it comes to pandemics or climate change – we live in one biosphere, one ecosphere, which cannot be separated.

They both want to be respected by the other and the rest of the world. Neither would like to see conflict arise because of miscalculation – be it in North-east Asia or South-east Asia.

On top of these shared interests, the US and China also have rather similar challenges.

First, domestic considerations both circumscribe and drive their global aspirations. The two countries will recognise, perhaps even commiserate with one another, that if their domestic challenges are not well managed, it will erode confidence in their political leadership, and neither can have the policy space or bandwidth to command the confidence of the world.

Both have hardliners who may like to depict the other side as the source of their internal and external challenges. Neither side can afford to appear weak.

Second, both are wrestling with inequalities brought about by the disruptions from globalisation, technological advances and evolution in business models.

Third, both need to resolve their middle-class challenges.

China needs to escape the middle-income trap before its population ages. The US needs to create sufficient new jobs for another generation of middle-class workers with higher aspirations.

Fourth, both must overcome the geographical disparity in their domestic economic development.

In the US – the East and West coasts vis-a-vis the rest. In China – the coastal provinces vis-a-vis the inner provinces.

Fifth, both need to invest significantly in the new technologies and the training of their workers to keep pace with the disruptions and aspirations.

US-China competition has often been compared with US-Soviet Cold War competition.

Despite superficial similarities, this is misleading. The US and the Soviet Union led two separate systems and competed to see which system would prevail.

The US and China are both vital components of a single global system and compete within that system. Competition within a system is fundamentally different from competition between systems.

China is also not the Soviet Union. Thus, a strategy of containment based on an expectation of economic collapse is not viable.

On the other hand, the US is not in terminal decline despite all the obvious current challenges confronting its body politic.

The key point is this – success will not be determined by who is able to knock the other down.

Neither will be able to do that to the other, not decisively, and not without causing damage to oneself. Nor should that be their primary focus.

Instead, success will be determined by the one who can best manage its domestic challenges, and to exercise global leadership through the power of its example, rather than the example of its power.

Whoever can create more and better opportunities for the world, whoever can provide leadership for a more connected world, whoever acts in enlightened self-interest to benefit the world, rather than narrow self-interest to benefit only oneself, will succeed through the power of one’s example.

Global leadership is needed now more than ever, to uplift the world out of the pandemic, rebuild and reorganise the disrupted global supply chains, create the assurance of access to critical supplies, including vaccines, and deal with climate change and many other pressing global challenges.

There is tremendous opportunity for both the US and China to focus on these global grand challenges and exercise their respective leadership to win the world over.

Rest of the world

Meanwhile, the rest of the world must also understand that we have the responsibility and agency to shape the outcome we desire.

That outcome must be for the world to remain inclusive, open and interconnected, and where we are vested in each other’s success.

There are things that we can and should do, and others that we can and should avoid doing.

We can avoid a zero-sum mentality. It is a false dichotomy that one side must lose for the other to win. We can send a clear message that we will act on principle and do not wish to be corralled into taking sides.

We act in accordance with our own enlightened long-term interests, which may not always align with the specific interests of either the US or China.

Most countries, including those in Europe, want to be partners with both the US and China, and to grow their relationships with both. Taking sides regardless of issues and context breeds irrelevance. And if one is irrelevant, it will almost certainly require taking sides.

The US and China have shared interests in upholding and updating the global security and trading order. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

We should stand on the side of principles for a rules-based, inclusive, open and connected world order. The more countries stand for, believe and act upon this, the more viable the desired outcome for all of us. This is the classical prisoner’s dilemma in game theory – if we don’t hang together, we hang individually.

The rest of the world must come together to uphold and update the global security architecture and trading system, even if the US and China are unable to come to terms in the short term for various reasons. For instance, I believe Europe has the potential to play a leadership role in the digital economy and sustainability spheres.

But Europe is neither the US nor China. It will have to develop shared perspectives on its role in global affairs beyond European-centric issues. It will need new mechanisms to project its collective interests without being circumscribed by the lowest common denominator.

The evolution of the P4 to the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) exhibits the agency the four small P4 economies (Brunei, Chile, Singapore and New Zealand) could have, and the power of an idea.

Its evolution towards the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) is a clear example of the power of geostrategic entrepreneurship.

The posture to welcome all countries who can meet the high standards of the CPTPP is a statement of the pursuit of a rules-based, open and inclusive trading architecture.

The signing of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic is both a demonstration of the region’s desire for closer economic cooperation, as much as it is a statement of the desire for a shared interest in each other’s success and progress.

The agreement will enter into force from January next year. This bodes well for the security of the region.

Whether it is between the US and China, or the rest of the world, the tighter the integration, the greater the interdependence, the more we share in each other’s success and prosperity, the smaller the likelihood of conflict, the safer the world can be.

Where does Singapore stand?

Singapore seeks to be a relevant partner to both the US and China, as well as the world. They are our friends and we want both to do well, and to be active and constructive players in our region and the world.

We want to value add to those relationships. We do not take sides as default, without regard to the issue or context.

Instead, we take principled positions in our own long-term national interests to uphold the rule of international law in the global order, so that might does not equal right.

When we decide our positions on this basis, we will then be the reliable, steadfast and consistent partner that others have come to know us as and what we stand for.

We support inclusive, open, rules-based and connected global security and economic architectures because we believe these principles best support our interests to enhance Singapore’s continued survival and success.

We will work with like-minded partners to achieve this. For us, they include countries, corporates and international organisations, who must all share in this endeavour to build a better world.

Instead of being mired in existing and old debates, we should transcend our differences to fulfil the potential for a global shared agenda.

This agenda can include:

  • The world coming together to establish the new norms for the digital commons to drive the next lap of global growth. Therefore, Singapore is pioneering pathfinder digital economic agreements with

New Zealand, Chile, Australia, United Kingdom and the Republic of Korea.

  • The world coming together to create new and sustainable solutions for a greener world – from water to energy management and urban solutions. Since our founding, we have committed ourselves to treasure and stretch our finite resources and to leave behind a better world for future generations (possibly even before the term “sustainability” entered the popular lexicon).
  • The world coming together to recover from the current pandemic and prepare for the next one. We will need to pool our capabilities and capacities to focus on prevention, detection, treatment, and remediation. From the stockpiling of essentials such as medicine and equipment, to the research and development of new affordable tests and drugs, there is so much that we can and need to work together on.

If Singapore, as a small city-state, can believe in and be committed to contribute where we can to a more secure and more sustainable world, then many more countries and corporates with greater resources and agency can do so similarly, if not more.

It is said that if we want to move fast, we move alone; if we want to move far, we move together.

The world aspires and must both move fast to overcome today’s challenges and move far to seize tomorrow’s opportunities.

To achieve both – speed and distance – we need deep trust and interdependence.

Deep trust to believe that we are committed to each other’s success. Interdependence to manifest our shared destiny.


By Chan Chun Sing / The Straits Times


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