Not too late for US and China to reset ties and avert great power clash: PM Lee at WEF event

Tensions between the US and China have intensified sharply over the last four years. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - The new administration in Washington is an opportunity to reset the relationship between the United States and China and steer it towards safer waters, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (Jan 29).

"Amid President Biden's many urgent preoccupations, the US-China relationship should become a key strategic priority," he noted in a special address to the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda 2021.

"Given the enormous stakes, difficult as it will be, it cannot possibly be too late for both countries to reset the tone of their interactions and avert a clash between them, which will become a generational twilight struggle," he said.

In his remarks, Mr Lee noted that the US-China relationship will remain the most important bilateral relationship for the world in the years to come.

Yet over the last four years, tensions between the US and China have intensified sharply, and both powers have adopted more assertive and uncompromising postures.

"The US now sees China as a strategic rival and challenger to its preeminent position, and China is vigorously asserting what it considers its rightful place in the world," he said.

"On both sides, domestic pressures to harden their external positions are considerable, and moderate voices have been marginalised."

Mr Lee noted that while big countries naturally jostle and compete with one another for influence and power, they also need to work with one another on issues that affect all countries, whether it is pandemics, the economy, or climate change.

During the dialogue with WEF president Borge Brende, the Prime Minister noted that China has over the years liberalised its economy and become more prominent in the world, and everyone has benefited from its growth.

But with the strategic landscape having changed so much because of China's emergence, what used to work is no longer politically wearable in many countries, and adjustments have to be made, he said. "Concessions made to China when it was small, when it was backward, and which remain - and technically China is still a developing country - have to be reconsidered and recalibrated."

At the same time, he said, China's influence in the world has grown so much that it has to take on a greater responsibility for providing global public goods, be it in terms of security, trade, opening markets, or climate change.

"China has to recalibrate its position, in order that its influence in the world is not only there because of its own power and energy, but also there because of the legitimacy and acceptance by other countries that this is something which is benefiting other countries and not at their expense."

Remote video URL

On the part of the US, it is a very difficult adjustment, added Mr Lee.

He noted that it has been the single hyper-power since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. And while China is nothing like the US in terms of technology, sophistication and military might, it is nevertheless another significant party on the international landscape and potentially a challenger.

"If you see China as a threat, that is going to be a very big problem because then you are creating a threat and the struggle will continue for a long time," said Mr Lee. "China is not going to collapse the way the Soviet Union did."

Instead, he added, the US will have to develop a constructive relationship with China. While both countries may have strong disagreements and compete, there are other areas where they do have to work together.

"Because if you cannot work together, not only can you not solve the problems, but it becomes all round an adversarial relationship, you are in for a twilight struggle.

"It will not end, you will not have a quick win, and you're not going to disappear either. So you're in for a bad time, for a long time, and so are many other countries."

He added: "To understand that and internalise that and make that an acceptable policy stance, to persuade the other side is one challenge.

"To persuade your own people - the population, Congress, the intelligentsia, I think that takes leadership of a pretty high order."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.