PM Lee Hsien Loong Says S’pore Doesn’t Want To Be Forced To Choose Between US & China In Essay
Singaporeans would have been watching the Covid-19 situation in China, and how it has improved such that life has almost gone back to normal. We would also have noted how the number of cases in the United States has surged so much, that it’s now the country with the most cases in the world.
While the relationship between the 2 superpowers has been far from rosy in the recent years, the pandemic has worsened it considerably. The US has been actively criticising China for the crisis, and China has alleged that the virus could have been brought to China by the US.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has penned his thoughts on the relationship between the US and China, and how Singapore is affected — he says Southeast Asian nations like us are especially concerned, and don’t want to be caught in between.
US-China relations of vital importance, especially to Asian countries
In a Facebook post on Thursday (4 Jun), Mr Lee said his essay in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs magazine emphasised the vital importance of the ties between the US and China.
As many countries in Asia have their economies linked to both the US and China, they don’t want to be caught in between or forced to take sides, he said,
Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.
Furthermore, if either the US or China seeks to become the sole power in Asia by diminishing the power of its rival here, the clash will last for a long time.
And if that happens, it will stymie Asia’s prosperity.
Both US & China have influence in Asia
Mr Lee pointed out that currently, both the US and China have influence in Asia.
While the US counts Australia, Japan, and South Korea as some of its staunchest allies in Asia, Singapore is also one of its “long-standing partners”.
China, on the other hand, is the largest trading partner of most other Asian countries.
China also has vital interests here. It has economic partners in Southeast Asia, and the region also provides energy, raw materials, and maritime pathways in the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca that must be kept open.
But while the US is geographically further away from Asia, China being an Asian country itself, sees Asia as important for safeguarding its own security.
China faces obstacles in taking over US security role
Mr Lee sees a few obstacles for China to replace the security role the US has had for decades in Southeast Asia, maintaining that,
The US security presence remains vital to the Asia-Pacific region.
While the US’ stake in Southeast Asia’s security has helped the region prosper, China’s territorial claims with many Southeast Asian countries means its naval presence won’t be as welcomed.
Also, many Southeast Asian countries have a significant minority of ethnic Chinese and these countries wouldn’t want to be seen as too close to China.
S’pore careful not to be seen as China’s “cat’s-paw”
In fact, Mr Lee says, Singapore is the only Chinese-majority country in Southeast Asia, and the only Chinese-majority nation in the world other than China.
However, we are a multiracial country, and want to be seen as one,
Singapore has made enormous efforts to build a multiracial national identity and not a Chinese one. And it has also been extremely careful to avoid doing anything that could be misperceived as allowing itself to be used as a cat’s-paw by China.
That’s why Singapore was the final Southeast Asian country apart from Brunei to establish diplomatic relations with China.
Almost impossible for the US to become world’s chief supplier
The US also faces obstacles in taking over China, Mr Lee said, for example it would be almost impossible for the US to become the world’s chief supplier.
In fact, the US itself relies on the Chinese market as China is the third-largest importer of US goods.
However, the US can take heart that the their economic role in Asia will be tough to displace, considering that US multinational corporations are the largest source of foreign investments in many Asian countries, including Singapore.
Both countries important, Asian countries want good ties with both
Since both countries are important, Asian countries want to cultivate good relations with both, Mr Lee added.
But it’s a delicate balancing act — it’s hoped that if a country tries to improve relations with China, the US will understand that it isn’t trying to work against the US.
And that goes the other way too — if a country boosts ties with the US, China will hopefully understand that it’s not going against them.
What Singapore and other Asian countries would prefer is if the 2 powers are able to coexist peacefully, with mutual friends in the region, rather than splitting the region into 2 rival sides.
That’s because no Asian country wants to be compelled to choose between the US and China.
US & China need to work things out so they can live together
Hence, the ideal is for the US and China to work out a way to live together — so that they can have a rivalry in certain areas, but are able to cooperate in other areas that need it.
Mr Lee said that the ability for the big powers to cooperate with each other, amid the natural instinct to compete, will have an impact on the rest of the world too.
It’s only with cooperation can the world make progress on the important issues that affect everyone like climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the spread of infectious diseases.
Cooperation important in the time of Covid-19
Speaking of infectious diseases, Mr Lee cited the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic as a reminder of why cooperation is important,
Diseases do not respect national borders, and international cooperation is desperately needed to bring the pandemic under control and reduce damage to the global economy.
He added that even if the US and China had the best relations, it would be challenging to formulate a collective response to the disease. Unfortunately, the pandemic is worsening US-China ties, as both countries blame each other.
Asian countries also are grappling with the pandemic as well as their normal problems, and hugely depend on the US and China working together to have any success in overcoming them.
Mr Lee concluded by saying that if the 2 powers put their differences aside for the sake of global peace and stability, Asia can prosper.
It’s always better to be friends
We agree with Mr Lee that it’s always better to work together than to have frosty relations.
As a little red dot, Singapore really can’t afford to take sides between 2 global giants — but if the troubled ties continue, we’ll have to forge on in the best way that we can.
We hope they can get along soon, for the sake of Singapore, and for the sake of the rest of the world.
Featured images adapted from Facebook and Facebook.
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