How the United States and China behave towards each other on the security, trade and other fronts will determine whether a global status quo that has been beneficial to both stays intact or frays. The outcome of their current jostling, as each acts to protect its core interests, will impact other countries. At the just-concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, US and Chinese defence leaders clashed over the South China Sea issue, adding to an already brewing trade dispute between their two countries. The annual event here provided a salutary reminder of the need for great-power coexistence at this transitional moment in Asia's strategic history. The situation is in a state of flux because China has emerged as a great power that could act as a spoiler of US interests in Asia. At the same time, the US remains the sole superpower whose actions could upend Chinese interests globally. The two contending trajectories cannot continue to move separately. They will meet at some unfortunate point - with consequences not just for the US and China, but also for the rest of Asia and, indeed, the rest of the world.
That is the danger which the global status quo faces. It is a real and present danger. America's imposition of unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, based on grounds of national security, threatens to hurt China and others that play by the rules of the World Trade Organisation. China warned that trade deals will be off if the US goes ahead with sanctions and other punitive actions. Washington's economic protectionism will affect not only China but also others that make a living in the vast interstitial relationship between the two global trade leaders. As for the South China Sea, China dismissed a 2016 ruling by a United Nations tribunal, only to intensify its build-up of facilities as a forward position against possible encirclement. What may be called China's strategic protectionism has aroused concerns about its ultimate national ambitions among its neighbours. The worry is that a contest between the US and China, if it continues on its present course, will be an attritional race that will produce no winners. That is not the kind of future that should be produced by globalised economics and shared security. As a small state, Singapore cannot throw its weight behind one side or the other to make a definitive difference to its outcome. But precisely because it is close to both powers, Singapore occupies a vantage point from which to warn of the risks.