SINGAPORE - While Singapore’s relations with its immediate neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia are stable and encouraging, the situation farther afield has become troubling and even dangerous.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said this in Parliament on Wednesday, as he outlined three major geopolitical tensions that make the current global situation graver than what Singapore has faced in a long time.
Singaporeans need to realise the gravity of the situation, he said. “We are facing not just one storm, but several.”
United States-China tensions
There is deep mutual suspicion and fundamental distrust between the two superpowers that will not improve any time soon, said PM Lee.
“Even if the two powers avoid a direct conflict... enduring enmity and bad relations between them will be very costly for both, and will mean big trouble for the rest of the world,” he added.
While Democrats and Republicans in the US disagree on almost everything, they are united on China. The prevailing view is that efforts to work out a cooperative relationship with China have failed, and that China’s growing strength and assertiveness are becoming a grave threat to US interests and values.
Therefore, their view is that the US must go for “extreme competition” with China over technology, including semiconductor chips, quantum technology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology and green technologies, he said.
Negative perceptions of China are prevalent among the US population too, said PM Lee, citing the latest Pew survey, which found that more than 80 per cent of adults in the US have an unfavourable view of China, while nearly 40 per cent would describe China as an enemy of the US rather than as a competitor or partner.
He said Chinese public perception of the US has deteriorated. China’s leaders have become convinced that the US is seeking to “contain, encircle and suppress” China, he said, quoting Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“(China’s leaders) say the East is rising and the West is declining, and they think the time has come for China to take its rightful place in the world,” he said.
PM Lee added that they consider issues such as Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet to be China’s domestic matters that affect its security and integrity, and see no room for discussion or compromise on these issues.
Taiwan as the reddest of China’s red lines
“But the most dangerous flashpoint of all is Taiwan,” PM Lee said.
Singapore is good friends with China, and also old friends of Taiwan, he said, adding that Singapore rigorously upholds its “one China” policy and continues to support the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.
“China considers Taiwan as the most important issue, and the ‘one China’ principle to be the reddest of its red lines.
“But in the West, an alternative narrative is gaining currency: That the problem in cross-strait relations is a broader ideological issue of democracy versus autocracy,” he added, noting that this is even as most countries, including most Western ones, have adopted “one China” policies.
Tensions over Taiwan are high, he said, noting how China recently launched three days of extensive military exercises around Taiwan after President Tsai Ing-wen met US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during her stopover in the US.
A CCTV report described the exercises as “comprehensive and precise simulated attacks on the key targets in the island and surrounding waters”.
PM Lee expressed hope that the relations between the US and China do not get worse, that both sides continue to keep lines of communication open, and gradually repair their relationship on the basis of mutual respect and trust.
War in Ukraine
Another geopolitical storm Singapore faces is the war in Ukraine, which is deadlocked after more than a year, with no good outcome in sight.
“Neither side can win, nor can either afford to lose,” said PM Lee.
While the Ukrainians are reluctant to stop fighting before they reclaim all of their territories, the Russians are most unlikely to be defeated entirely despite heavy losses, since they have a large population and can still conscript more troops and mobilise more resources.
There is also a risk of the war escalating, since the US and Nato countries are supplying Ukraine with more and more sophisticated military equipment.
“If the Ukrainians, using these Western-supplied weapons, make a breakthrough on the battlefield, we cannot predict how Russia may react,” PM Lee said.
This could lead to the war continuing to disrupt global energy, food and fertiliser supplies, causing prices to rise.
The war also has significant implications on international relations. PM Lee described relations between Russia and the Nato countries as “completely broken down, and will not return to normal any time soon”.
In February, Russia suspended its participation in the New Start treaty, its only remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the US.
Global multilateral trading system under siege
The third big issue that Singapore faces is a global multilateral trading system under siege. Countries are prioritising domestic and national security considerations, and no longer talk about trade being win-win, said PM Lee.
This has serious implications for small, open economies, such as Singapore, which cannot survive other than as an open economy that relies on trade and investments, and a common set of rules that applies to all countries.
“We are once again heading towards a world where protectionism is the default and trade rules are secondary, like what happened in the period between the first and second world wars,” PM Lee said.
He noted that the International Monetary Fund recently estimated that fragmentation of the global economy could, in the long run, reduce global gross domestic product by 7 per cent, and said that the reality is probably worse.
“A deep decoupling of the world economy would undo what has taken countries decades to collectively achieve,” he said.