There is too much at stake for Europe for it to ignore the Asia-Pacific, but it must ask itself how far it is willing to go in imposing its own value systems on Asian countries when working with them, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.
Europe has had more time than Asian countries to become what it is today, he said at an international conference, titled "Shaping the Future Together? Europe and the Indo-Pacific in the 21st Century".
He urged it to instead focus on other positive avenues for relationship building, such as student exchange, the rules of globalisation, science and technology and international trade.
"In ideological terms, European countries have had centuries to contest ideas, evolve and transform through many epochal events in global history... Meanwhile most Asian countries are new democracies.
"While there may be occasions where moral and ethical standards are called for (in mutual engagement), the question is not if, but to what extent, and to what end?"
Dr Ng was speaking virtually to more than 40 politicians, policymakers and academics from both continents at the 177th Bergedorf Round Table.
Those who attended included representatives of the European Union, China, the United States, Britain, India and Russia.
In his remarks, Dr Ng referred to China and Myanmar, both of which have come under criticism and sanctions from the West for their attitude towards human rights.
China's crackdown in Hong Kong, its alleged abuses in Xinjiang and, most recently, concern about the whereabouts of tennis player Peng Shuai, have generated controversy, while Myanmar's killing of Rohingya Muslims and the subversion of democratic norms by the military junta have led to calls for boycott.
Dr Ng said that unlike European countries, which have been through great upheavals, including the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution and two world wars, Myanmar became independent only in 1948, while China took its modern republican form only in 1912.
He said there are positive avenues for more productive collaboration between the East and West, "of which there are quite a few".
One way is with people-to-people ties through exchange, particularly students.
Dr Ng noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping, who spent time in Iowa to study agricultural techniques as a young man, had 27 years later visited a family he was attached to when he visited the United States, showing "how powerful the formative experiences of our young in a foreign land" can be.
"Europe may also benefit in a similar fashion by expanding the reach of its educational programmes in order to attract their unfair share of Asia's best and brightest," he said.
Problems of globalisation in the 21st century also need to be tackled urgently together, from wealth inequality and climate change, to "unfair trade practices like state subsidies, product dumping", he added.
"Europe can, together with the Asia-Pacific, shape more equitable new rules for Globalisation 2.0 - one that is more in tune with the zeitgeist of the 21st century and the millennials, which include responsible institutional and corporate citizenry."
Dr Ng said there can also be positive collaboration in international trade and creating ethical bounds for new technologies.
Approximately 60 per cent of world trade now passes through Asia, and 30 per cent through the South China Sea.
Last year, Asia accounted for two-thirds of all patent applications worldwide.
"Europe cannot afford to be on the sidelines in this phase of Asia-Pacific's history - it must play a central role as there is too much at stake for Europe and the Western world," Dr Ng said.
The basis of engagement cannot be "domination, forced access to natural resources or markets that Europe lacks", as was the case in the past. "That is clear to all of us."