SINGAPORE – As tensions rise between the United States and China, both superpowers now face fundamental choices that will decide whether they go down a path of confrontation or find a way to cooperate to tackle global issues, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a stark reminder that countries need to work together, both to bring the global outbreak under control and mitigate its impact on the world’s economy, he noted in an opinion piece published on Thursday (June 4).
The two powers must work out an arrangement that prevents their rivalry in certain areas from poisoning cooperation in others, he said.
“It is natural for big powers to compete. But it is their capacity for cooperation that is the true test of statecraft, and it will determine whether humanity makes progress on global problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and the spread of infectious diseases,” said PM Lee.
The Prime Minister wrote about Sino-US ties in an op-ed in US magazine Foreign Affairs titled, “The Endangered Asian Century”, where he noted that the consequences of choices made by Washington and Beijing will play out, crucially, in the Asia-Pacific region where both powers have vital interests.
The rivalry between the US and China has intensified in recent months over the coronavirus, Hong Kong’s status and other issues, sparking concerns that Asian countries could be compelled to pick one side over the other, if ties continue to deteriorate.
PM Lee said Asian countries did not want to be forced to do so, as they see the US as a resident power with vital interests in the region, while China is “a reality on the doorstep” that they cannot afford to alienate.
Seeking confrontation could set both superpowers on a path that could last decades and jeopardise the “long-heralded Asian century”, he added, referring to how Asia is projected to become dominant in the 21st century.
For decades, Asia has prospered because of Pax Americana (a Latin term referring to peace underpinned by American power), said PM Lee.
After World War II, the US championed free trade, an open, integrated, and rules-based global order, and provided a security umbrella that allowed Asian countries to cooperate and compete peacefully. US companies also invested extensively in the region.
Pax Americana continued to hold even after China began to open up in 1978, with its influence growing as Asian countries built trade and economic links with Beijing.
But the strategic basis of Pax Americana has shifted fundamentally, he said.
China has developed and transformed. It sees itself as a continental power, and “wants to protect and advance its interests abroad and secure what it sees as its rightful place in international affairs”.
Meanwhile, it is unclear whether the US will continue to bear the burden of maintaining international peace and stability, or pursue a narrower, “America first” approach to protecting its interests, he said.
Both sides face fundamental choices.
“The United States must decide whether to view China’s rise as an existential threat and try to hold China back through all available means or to accept China as a major power in its own right,” said PM Lee, adding the latter path would mean painful adjustments for the US.
But however difficult, he said it is “well worth making a serious effort to accommodate China’s aspirations within the current system of international rules and norms. This system imposes responsibilities and restraints on all countries, strengthens trust, helps manage conflicts, and creates a safer and stabler environment for both cooperation and competition.”
Trying to contain China’s rise could set both sides on a course to decades of confrontation, he said, pointing out that the US is not a declining power. And unlike the Soviet Union in its final years, China’s economy possesses tremendous dynamism and increasingly advanced technology.
Any confrontation between both sides would unlikely end as the Cold War did, with the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, he said.
On its part, China must decide whether to try to get its way as “an unencumbered major power, prevailing by dint of its sheer weight and economic strength”, but at the risk of strong pushback from the US and other countries.
Alternatively, China could accept that the world has higher expectations of it.
“It is no longer politically justifiable for China to enjoy the concessions and privileges it won when it was smaller and less developed, such as the generous terms under which it joined the WTO in 2001,” wrote the Prime Minister.
A more powerful China should respect global rules and norms, and also take greater responsibility for upholding the international order. This includes collaborating with other countries, including the US, to revise and update existing rules and norms if needed, he said.
How the Sino-US relationship plays out will have ramifications on the Asia-Pacific region, where the US security presence remains vital.
This security role is something China would be unable to take over, said PM Lee, noting Beijing’s competing maritime and territorial claims with South-east Asian nations in the South China Sea.
Another issue stems from the significant ethnic Chinese minorities in South-east Asian nations – these countries would be sensitive of perceptions of China having an inordinate influence over their ethnic Chinese populations, he added.
Pointing to Singapore, the only South-east Asian country with a majority ethnic Chinese population, PM Lee said the Republic has made enormous efforts to build a multiracial national identity.
“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,” he said.
But he also pointed out that China’s sheer size has made it the largest trading partner of most other Asian countries, including Singapore.
For these reasons, countries in the Asia-Pacific region want to cultivate good relations with both the US and China, instead of being forced to choose sides.
He added that Asian countries’ relations with the US and China were not zero-sum – in strengthening ties with Beijing or Washington, countries were not working against the opposite side.
The prospect of an “Asian century”, he said, will depend greatly on whether Washington and Beijing can overcome differences, build mutual trust and work constructively to uphold a stable and peaceful international order.
“This is a fundamental issue of our time.”
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