Good evening to everyone joining us here, and a very good day to everyone else joining us from across the world. Thank you for the privilege to participate in the IISS Fullerton Lecture Series. Over the past decade, this has been a platform for policy makers and practitioners to discuss the global strategic issues of concern. Today, we hope to similarly generate fresh perspectives that can motivate actions for a better world.
Since the end of World War II, the world has benefitted from a stable, rules-based global order that is inclusive, open, and deeply inter-connected. Connectivity in trade, talent and information flows have allowed countries to leverage their comparative advantages and enjoy unprecedented economic progress. Millions of lives have been uplifted, and standards of living raised. This inter-dependence, just as importantly, has been a formula for collective peace and security.
While the immediate and urgent concern on the minds of all policy makers is overcoming and recovering from 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 happen. We must also guard against the fragmentation of the global trading system, which will degrade our ability to optimise global economic production.
There is always some agency for third countries even amid great power competition.
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 of cooperation amidst 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.
The 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. The US and China see many differences with the other. Indeed, there are many. From economic models to governance systems. From culture to history. 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 that 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.
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.
Neither they [the US and China], nor us, should expect one to become like the other.
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 themselves. It is unproductive, if not counter-productive. Trade and economic development do not necessarily lead to convergence of social or political systems. The US and China want some convergence for fair, consistent, and mutually agreed rules for trade to take place. Indeed, the world shares this desire too.
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 foregone 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, to work together to create a framework to address the global issues that we collectively face.
It is worth noting that both have more common interests than they may, perhaps, wish to acknowledge. As major powers, the US and China have a common interest in ensuring that the global order remains peaceful, stable, secure, and connected, and that the strategic lines of communication remain open. Both are rational nuclear powers and know that war risks mutual assured destruction. Both need to secure their global supply chains. Both need the world as their markets. And both want to have secured and connected data flows and networks.
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 eco-sphere — which cannot be separated. Both of them want to be respected by the other and the rest of the world. And neither would like to see conflict arise because of miscalculation — be it in Northeast Asia or Southeast 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. In the US, the inequality gap has widened to a record high over the last 30 years. The richest 1% hold 35% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 50% hold 2% of the nation’s wealth. In China, the income gap between rural and urban dwellers widened by almost 60% in the last seven years. The wealthiest 1% hold about 31% of the country’s wealth. Not too different, at least in this dimension, despite the differences in economic and governance 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. The US also needs to invest significantly to upgrade its infrastructure.
The US and China are both vital components of a single global system and compete within that system.
Fourth, both must overcome the geographical disparity in their domestic economic development. In the US — the East and West coasts vis-à-vis the rest. In China — the coastal provinces vis-à-vis the inner provinces.
Fifth, both need to invest significantly in new technologies and the training of their workers to keep pace with the disruptions and aspirations of their people.
US-China competition has often been compared to 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 will 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.
...success will be determined by the one who can best manage their domestic challenges, and to exercise global leadership through the power of their example, rather than the example of their power.
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 their domestic challenges, and to exercise global leadership through the power of their example, rather than the example of their 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 itself, will succeed through the power of their 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, 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 challenges and exercise their respective leadership to win the world over.
We should stand on the side of principles for a rules-based, inclusive, open, and connected world order.
Rest of the world
Meanwhile, the rest of the world must also understand that we have the responsibility and the agency to shape the outcome we desire. That outcome must be for the world to remain inclusive, open, and inter-connected, 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.
For a start, 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.
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, perhaps, 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. Let this be known, 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 leading role in the digital economy and sustainability spheres. But Europe is neither the US or 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 exhibits the agency the four small P4 economies could have, and the power of an idea. Its evolution towards the CPTPP, 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 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 desired, 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 our world can be.
...we [Singapore] 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.
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 or old debates, we should transcend our differences to fulfil the potential of a global shared agenda. This shared agenda can include:
(a) The world coming together to establish the new norms for the global 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 Republic of Korea.
(b) 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 popular lexicon).
(c) The world coming together to recover from the current pandemic and prepare for the next. 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.
Deep trust to believe that we are committed to each other’s success. Interdependence to manifest our shared destiny.
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 now 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.
May we work together for a new paradigm to tackle our challenges in a more integrated, open, and inter-connected way, to uplift millions more from poverty, as we have achieved in the past decades.
Thank you very much.
Related: China-US competition: Why small countries will not choose sides | What can China and the US cooperate on now? | Singapore’s ambassador to China Lui Tuck Yew: Singapore must stay relevant to China | Chinese ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong: China-Singapore ties tested and strengthened through the pandemic | Connecting the world: Role of China and Singapore | Singapore and China: Scaling new peaks together