Shangri-La Dialogue: US-China face-off not a strategic inevitability, says Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a question and answer session after delivering the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue last night. PM Lee said it is natural that the United States and China will "vie for power and influence, but competition
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a question and answer session after delivering the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue last night. PM Lee said it is natural that the United States and China will "vie for power and influence, but competition should not inevitably lead to conflict". ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

But if such a confrontation does happen, it will be nothing like the Cold War, he says

There is no strategic inevitability about a US-China face-off, but at the same time, if such a face-off does happen, it will be nothing like the Cold War, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last night.

First, there is no irreconcilable ideological divide between the US and China.

China may be communist in political structure, but it has adopted market principles in many areas, and is not attempting to turn other countries communist.

"The Soviets sought to overturn the world order. But China has benefited from, and by and large worked within, the framework of existing multilateral institutions," he said at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

"Indeed, it is often criticised for being too willing to do business with countries and leaders regardless of their reputation or standing, citing non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries," he said.

Second, China has extensive economic and trade links with the rest of the world, and is a major node in the world economy, unlike the Soviet Union, which had negligible economic links outside the Soviet bloc.

"In fact, all of the US' allies in Asia, including Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Australia, as well as many of its friends and partners, including Singapore, have China as their largest trading partner," he said.

 
 
 
 

"They all hope that the US and China will resolve their differences. They want to be friends with both: to nurture security and economic ties with the US, as they grow their business links with China."

As such, there can be no clear division between friend and foe in a "new Cold War", he said.

Neither is it possible to create Nato or Warsaw Pact equivalents with a hard line drawn through Asia, or down the middle of the Pacific Ocean, he said.

But if there is indeed a conflict between the US and China, where will it end, he asked?

He noted that the Cold War ended after the planned economies of the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries collapsed under the pressure of enormous defence spending.

"Even then, it took 40 years. It is highly improbable that the vigorous Chinese economy will collapse in the same way."

PM Lee said China cannot take down the US either.

"The US is still by far the strongest country in the world. Its economy remains the most innovative and powerful, and its military capabilities far exceed anyone else's," he said.

"Americans worry about China catching up with the US, but although China may be ahead in some fields, it will be many years before China can equal the US," he said.

"And contrary to what some people in China think, the US is not a declining power, nor is it withdrawing from the world. In fact, the US has made clear its intention to compete robustly, though in a different mode than before."

PM Lee said that even if there was no outright conflict between the two major powers, a prolonged period of tension and uncertainty will be extremely damaging.

Reiterating a point he has made before, he said that US-China relations will define the tenor of international relations for years to come.

"It is natural that the two powers will vie for power and influence, but competition should not inevitably lead to conflict," he said.

"We hope the US and China find a constructive way forward, competing certainly, but at the same time cooperating on major issues of mutual interest and global importance."

He observed that there are those who argue that a compromise is not possible or perhaps even desirable, because the US and China hold such different values.

Some others have pointed out that "the US is a young country that wants everyone to be like them, while China is an old country that believes no one else can be like them".

To this, PM Lee said: "To expect every country to adopt the same cultural values and political system is neither reasonable nor realistic.

"In fact, humankind's diversity is its strength. There is much we can learn from one another, from the differences in our values, perspectives, systems, and policies."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2019, with the headline 'US-China face-off not a strategic inevitability: PM Lee'. Print Edition | Subscribe