ST-WEF webinar: How America can win back Asia

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SINGAPORE - Asia yearns for a strong America that will pick up the mantle of global leadership once more, with greater focus on improving the pandemic-battered world economy rather than on its rivalry with China.

But first, the United States needs to put its own house in order and start listening to its friends again, said Singapore's diplomatic and academic heavyweights at the Geopolitical Reset 2021: Implications for Asia webinar presented by The Straits Times and the World Economic Forum on Friday (Jan 29).

The webinar's backdrop is US President Joe Biden's first days at the helm of the superpower, which has signalled renewed interest in engaging Asia amid broad consensus that it has been losing ground to China in the region.

"Frankly, Asia is about business," said Professor Chan Heng Chee, ambassador-at-large and chair of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. "It's partly about military and security, and that undergirds business, but Asia is primarily interested in business."

Prof Chan was among the four panellists at the webinar that also included Professor Wang Gungwu, a prominent sinologist with the National University of Singapore and emeritus professor at the Australian National University; Mr George Yeo, senior adviser to Kuok Group and Singapore's former foreign minister; and Professor Kishore Mahbubani, distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute. ST's US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh and China bureau chief Tan Dawn Wei also joined the discussion, which was moderated by associate editor Vikram Khanna.

World dominance does not mean just military power, but also the ability to offer global leadership in areas such as economic policy and managing the pandemic, Prof Chan said. If the US works on these areas, the world "will look up to American leadership... to bring everyone to the next level".

Many nations' present-day concerns are centred on the state of the world economy, Prof Wang said, pointing out that in Asia, economic progress has largely depended on the well being of the economies of the US as well as western Europe.

"So, a shift (by the US) over to much more emphasis upon economic benefits that we can share, and to really concentrate our attention on rescuing the world from a very disastrous year (from the coronavirus pandemic), all that is a much better message than to constantly talk about military cooperation between the democratic countries," he said.

Fix your own house first

The panellists stressed the importance of America first getting a handle on its own domestic issues.

"Everybody in this region is watching the US very carefully. You can make all the soothing statements you want, (but) they cannot wipe out what happened on Jan 6 and an awareness that the US is a deeply divided country," Prof Mahbubani said, referring to the insurrection at the US Capitol by former president Donald Trump's supporters seeking to overturn his election defeat. "If the US wants to really take on China, it has first got to fix its own house."

Among Mr Biden's first and most important tasks, Prof Mahbubani said, are to lift the standards of living of America's bottom 50 per cent, reduce the intense polarisation of its society, and move towards bipartisan foreign policy in critical areas.

"If they can agree to a bipartisan policy... and work on trade and economic relations to stabilise US relations in East Asia, then that sends a positive long-term signal," he said. "It's not about words; it's about deeds."

Agreeing, Mr Yeo said America's best strategy to achieve a geopolitical reset right now would be for Mr Biden to focus on ameliorating the country's domestic problems.

"Everyone triangulates between the US and China today and what they see to be the future," he said. "All policymakers ask themselves: In 10 years' time, what will the world look like? Is the US healing? Is the direction of the vector changing?

"It's how people perceive the future that would decide how they will react today and re-triangulate their positions."

Former US president Donald Trump's supporters inside the US Capitol on Jan 6, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Don't go all anti-China

Prof Wang lamented the loss of faith in international organisations, led by US scepticism of such global bodies over the past years.

As president, Mr Trump withdrew the US from several global pacts, including the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that would have become the world's largest trading bloc. (The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership later took that honour, bringing together 15 nations in Asia and the Pacific, encompassing nearly a third of global GDP.)

Smaller states, in particular, need multilateralism to survive, Prof Chan noted. But as a result of such US withdrawals from international agreements, countries now view the reliability of US promises with suspicion, she said.

On America's intention - as indicated by Mr Kurt Campbell, Mr Biden's pick to lead US foreign policy in Asia - to pivot towards issue-based partnerships as opposed to just big blocs of country-based coalitions as a strategy to deal with a rising China, Prof Chan said that Asian nations would sign up if such alliances were inclusive and open to all who want a part in them.

If a US-led coalition were in any way anti-China, however, "its effect and impact will be limited because every country in the end calculates in its own interest", Mr Yeo said.

"Asean is not going to turn anti-China. Japan, while it tilts towards America, maintains a very keen balance because it needs a long-term option with China... Even Australia's national interest involves a very substantial trading relationship with China," he said. "So the US has got to be more subtle, and its leadership is most powerful when it is idealistic, when it is positive and not negative."

Mr Joe Biden being sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Jan 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Hear your friends out

Prof Mahbubani said America's negative actions against China - such as the imposition of tariffs, and sanctions on people in Hong Kong - have not made the US any stronger or enhanced its standing in Asia, so it should focus instead on positive actions, and start listening again to its allies and friends.

Prof Wang called on Asean - both as a whole and as its individual states - to speak up and share its views and experiences with the US. The regional body has the capacity to influence key players on the global stage not only because of its geopolitical location, but also because of its long experience of small states coming together to work in unison while balancing each one's own interests.

Asean must share with the world how its "way of doing things... has made a major contribution to how small states, in their relations with big states, can provide a platform for new developments that benefit all", Prof Wang said. "We need to tell people that our experience is worth looking at very carefully."

The coronavirus pandemic has provided clarity on the importance of strong political leadership, Prof Chan said, adding that countries with good leaders who push out good policies, care about their people and are pro-science will do well.

Mr Yeo agreed: "In South-east Asia, Singapore has come out reasonably well, and this is a huge plus for Singapore's future... But the country that has succeeded the most is China."

"China last year grew almost 3 per cent, while the rest of the world went back more than 4 per cent," the former foreign minister said. "Western countries look only at the pimples on the Chinese face... but (anyone doing) a reasonable analysis of China will know that it has succeeded beyond belief."

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