Multilateralism, economic integration, global commons more crucial as world enters new era: Vivian

Given the shift to a multi-polar international system, the world needs to find a new modus vivendi, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The world is entering a dangerous period with the established world order in upheaval and a new era being born, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Wednesday (March 23).

As new norms, rules and expectations emerge, countries can work to create a more peaceful, stable and prosperous world by upholding multilateralism, promoting economic integration and redoubling efforts to safeguard the global commons, he added.

At the South China Morning Post's China Conference, held virtually, where Dr Balakrishnan delivered the keynote speech, the US-China rivalry and Russia's invasion of Ukraine loomed large as senior government officials, business leaders and China watchers discussed the most pressing issues in the region.

Dr Balakrishnan said the war in Ukraine and, to a smaller extent, the Covid-19 pandemic have truly marked the end of the post-World War II system of global economic integration and a rules-based international order.

At the same time, these developments are taking place amid the the ongoing US-China strategic rivalry, which could be inadvertently complicated by the conflict in Ukraine, he noted.

"Their different approach to the war in Ukraine is the latest complication," he added.

Dr Balakrishnan said it would be disastrous for both powers to focus on extreme competition, or even confrontation, adding that the old Cold War strategy of containment will not be viable in the emerging multi-polar world.

"How the US and China both will compete and cooperate will determine not just their trajectories but indeed that of the rest of us in the world," he added.

Given the shift to a multi-polar international system, the world needs to find a new modus vivendi, he said.

"How we react to and manage these dynamics, or shape the international world order, will impact our ability to safeguard the global commons and to deliver concrete real outcomes for our citizens," he added.

He suggested that countries should, first, uphold multilateralism and international law.

The open, inclusive and rules-based multilateral order gives small states an equal voice, and allows all states, even those with disagreements, to work within a common set of rules established and accepted by the broad community of nations.

Singapore, as a tiny city, state and island, is thus by definition an "ardent advocate" for international agreements such as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out, Dr Balakrishnan added.

Second, the world should strive for economic integration and interdependence, he said.

The alternative is a hard and sharp bifurcation, which will lead to slower progress, higher costs and less inhibitions against quarrels getting out of hand, as fewer interconnected interests are at stake, he warned.

In the Asia-Pacific, home to some of the largest plurilateral trade agreements such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership, trade is strategy, he said.

He added that Asean and China should continue to enhance the Asean-China Free Trade Agreement and Air Transport Agreement.

China's Ambassador to Asean Deng Xijun, who also delivered a keynote speech at the conference, said China will work jointly with Asean to implement the RCEP and work for its full entry into force for all signatories.

He added that efforts would be made to advance the joint feasibility study of the Asean-China Free Trade Agreement, to start negotiations as soon as possible.

Additionally, China will also promote the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor with Singapore, and "give full play to its supporting role in interconnection, economic and trade cooperation and industrial and supply chains", he said.

On the new modus vivendi, Dr Balakrishnan said, lastly, that the world needs to manage the global commons more effectively, such as the areas of public health, the climate crisis, the oceans, the digital revolution and outer space.

He urged countries to start small with bilateral or plurilateral arrangements and then build on them, citing Singapore's digital economy partnership agreement with Chile and New Zealand, which has since received accession applications from the Republic of Korea and China.

In conjunction, global institutions that were established to serve the common interests of mankind, such as the World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation and the UN, need to be fortified, he added.

But the prerequisite to meaningful international cooperation, is good governance at home, which will have positive spillover effects for the world at large, Dr Balakrishnan said.

"Ultimately, all politics is local. Each country must find its own blend of the political, economic and social policies that will deliver on jobs, education, health, social security, and the environment for the benefit of all our citizens," he added.

"When the home front is covered, governments will then have the requisite domestic political capital to cooperate, to compromise, to build consensus, and to contribute to a more prosperous and stable world order."

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