SINGAPORE - The best way to prevent further US-China conflict is for Asia to build up trust within itself, forge a common cause and be a voice of moderation, said Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong on Wednesday (Oct 30).
Stressing that he was not calling for "Asia First" or an Asia only for Asians, he said Asia must be part of the world, and countries outside of Asia that have a stake in the region, such as the US, must continue to be deeply engaged with it.
Asia need to band more closely together before it can begin to urge both China and the US to find their common cause. If it can do so, it will remove much of the suspicion of China's long-term intentions as a global power, he added.
ESM Goh was speaking on the theme "US and China: Forging a Common Cause for the Development of Asia and the World" at a symposium jointly organised by Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the United States' Brookings Institution and China Centre for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE).
Addressing about 100 business leaders and officials at The St Regis Singapore hotel, he observed how far China had come since his first visit to the country in 1971, when the country was poor and in the throes of the Cultural Revolution.
It had lifted more than 850 million people from poverty in a single generation, "a feat unparalleled in history", he said.
But as Dr Bruce Jones, a fellow speaker and foreign policy director at the Brookings Institution, explained, the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 and the power expansion of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 19th Party Congress a year later, had set the stage for a realignment in the relationship between the two giants.
ESM Goh said China is pulling ahead in 5G technology and artificial intelligence, and the US has been considering economic and technological measures to slow China down.
The US is not reassured by China's repeated declarations that its rise and development will be peaceful, and is worried that it wants to propagate a model of "illiberal authoritarianism", he added.
Elaborating on the context of US-China rivalry, he added that the US does not understand why China's socialist political system has not liberalised along with economic reforms. Hence it treats slogans like "Made in 2025" and President Xi's "Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation", a term that has both economic and territorial implications, with alarm and suspicion.
Made in 2025 is a state-led industrial policy that seeks to make China a world leader in global high-tech manufacturing.
ESM Goh said: "Why does the US regard China as a strategic rival and threat to its global superpower status? Competitor, yes, rival even, but why threat? When you point a finger at a party as an enemy, that party will surely become your enemy."
Meanwhile, China has concluded the US is out to contain its growth, but has held back from stoking nationalist fervour as it wishes to avoid confrontation.
Its response, he noted, seems to mirror its founding father Mao Zedong's classic rejoinder to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger: "You Americans remind me of swallows who fly up into the air at an approaching storm and flap your wings. But you and I know that the flapping of the wings does not affect the coming of the storm."
But Asia, in the eye of the storm, can be a voice of moderation - by embodying the shared values of peace and stability, and growth and prosperity - and maintaining an open, inclusive, rules-based multilateral order, he said.
It should find common cause not just in word but also in deed, through trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), he said. "Our common cause is to get the US and China to play a 'positive sum game', not a zero sum game."
This voice of moderation must also be a strong Asian one, he added.
Even though the region's destiny has been greatly shaped by the external forces of colonialism in the last few centuries, it must build up trust within itself and chart its own way forward, rather than simply respond to external forces and trends, he said.
On China's part, it can continue to dispel the anxieties of the international community through both words and deeds, said ESM Goh. It can work to strengthen the international system and ensure that Belt and Road projects are clean, green, transparent, financially sustainable and inclusive.
It can also do more to address US concerns about involuntary technology transfers and an unequal playing field between foreign and Chinese companies in China, he added.
Noting the many transboundary challenges facing the world such as climate change, health pandemics and terrorism, he outlined two possible futures: one of de-globalisation and decoupling, and the other leading to détente and development.
To ensure a positive outcome, all countries must work closely to forge a common cause for peace and prosperity, he said, adding that China's reforms, if accomplished comprehensively and prudently, will promote the growth and development of China, Asia and the world.
"An all-out conflict between the US and China would be disastrous not only for Asia, but for the world. It might not be a hot war, but an economic and technological war will still have untold adverse consequences for the world."
"Even an unbridled contest where allies are pressured to choose one side and exclude the other will be highly destabilising for the global multilateral system. The best way to prevent a conflict is to forge a common cause for the two superpowers to build a better world."