Conflict with China not inevitable: US officials

US official Kin Moy said the rules-based international order that the US helped construct had a big part to play in China's growth.
US official Kin Moy said the rules-based international order that the US helped construct had a big part to play in China's growth.PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Senior United States officials stressed during a panel discussion on Tuesday (Aug 24) that US-China conflict is not inevitable, and the US' intent is not to ask countries to choose sides.

The discussion followed a speech in which US Vice-President Kamala Harris said China continues to "coerce" and "intimidate" over its claims to the South China Sea.

She also said the US will work with longstanding institutions like Asean and new "results-oriented" groups like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) - a strategic dialogue among the US, Japan, Australia and India.

On US-China tensions, Mr Kin Moy, a senior official at the US State Department's Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said they come down to foundational principles about how the US engages with the world, such as ensuring a rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific.

The US will compete when it should, and cooperate when it can, he said.

"We are at that point now where the relationship (with China) is mature to a certain extent, where we're finding there are more areas of competition, and there are going to be times when it is adversarial.

"In this region, our friends tell us about not wanting to choose one over the other. That's not what we're asking countries to do. We are in fact trying to build coalitions of the like-minded, who believe in a rules-based international order."

Mr Moy pointed out that the rules-based international order that the US helped construct over the last few decades together with its South-east Asian partners had a big part to play in China's growth.

Mr Philip Gordon, deputy national security adviser to the Vice-President, rejected the idea that conflict between the two powers is inevitable.

He said the US has a positive agenda in the region, from pandemic response to supply-chain resilience.

"There are differences of principle and interests... but we're not looking for a new Cold War. Most of what we're trying to do in the region are (about) getting practical things done," he said.

While Ms Harris' remarks on China have dominated international headlines, her senior adviser and spokesman Symone Sanders told the media yesterday that the comments were just "one piece of the broader agenda".

Panel moderator and Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee posed a question on the Quad's lack of inclusivity and its implications for Asean centrality.

Mr Edgard Kagan, senior director for East Asia and Oceania at the National Security Council, responded that the Quad is not against any particular country, and that it emerged organically as a common response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

"This was not something where there was a great idea that was waiting to be implemented. This was suddenly a recognition that there were four countries that were working in parallel, so we realised we would be more effective if we were able to work together."

He said that while the Quad does not have a formal institutional structure, it does not exist separately from the Indo-Pacific.

It has also sought to find solutions to tangible problems, such as at its virtual summit on March 12, where it discussed boosting the production capacity of Covid-19 vaccines, supply chains and climate change.

"I'm not sure that there will necessarily be a formal relationship between Asean and the Quad, but the Quad countries all have very longstanding and very close relationships with Asean," he said.

"The idea that somehow there is a competition, or that one undermines the other, is in my view not accurate."

Mr Gordon said there are no immediate expectations for the Quad to expand to include other East Asian countries.

"But consistent with the themes of openness and inclusion, it's certainly not a closed door," he said.