What China does about Ukraine could affect future world order: Vivian Balakrishnan

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan speaks during a Bloomberg interview, on March 15, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SINGAPORE - What China decides to do about the war in Ukraine could affect the future world order, and he hopes Beijing will assert its "enormous influence" on Russia to help put an end to the conflict, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

Speaking to Bloomberg on Tuesday (March 15), Dr Balakrishnan said China has a far bigger stake than Russia in an integrated, multilateral, rules-based world.

"China has enormous influence on Russia, both politically, economically and diplomatically," he said in a transcript of the interview released on Wednesday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"I hope they will assert their influence in the usual (way), with Chinese characteristics, which means quietly, discreetly, but effectively. That is a hope. Whether this is wishful thinking on my part, we will see over the next few days and weeks."

Russia's Feb 24 invasion of Ukraine has been described by politicians and commentators as a watershed moment that could upend the international order established after World War II.

Dr Balakrishnan said in the interview for Bloomberg's 7th Asean Business Summit that the war was perhaps even "a bigger moment than the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989", which could create a bifurcated world that would experience slower progress, inflation, less interdependence and more conflict.

What China does will be "absolutely crucial" to the new world order that is emerging, he added, and noted that China has doubled down on the importance of territorial integrity and sovereignty, and has shown some discomfort with the invasion of Ukraine.

"The big 'if' now, is what decisions and actions China takes," said Dr Balakrishnan.

"If you get the deepening of the bifurcation of the global economy, of supply chains, of technology, this will be a very, very different world."

On how the war might play out, Dr Balakrishnan said the likely scenario is a protracted quagmire for Russia, with "some form of frozen conflict with lines of control and a rump state, but probably decades of instability".

Meanwhile, the most dangerous outcome is an escalation leading to the deployment of nuclear weapons, which would be an absolute disaster for the world, he said.

The best possible outcome is that "cool heads prevail and China and the US, and everyone else can facilitate dialogue and negotiations and save lives", he added, noting that this seemed like a remote prospect about which he was not optimistic at this point in time.

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Last month, Singapore made the rare move of joining a growing list of countries around the world that have imposed sanctions on Russia. The Republic has seldom imposed unilateral sanctions in the absence of binding United Nations Security Council decisions or direction.

Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore took the step because the invasion was egregious and involved a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Russia's actions set a dangerous precedent for big countries to trample over the concepts of territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence to invade a smaller neighbour, in abrogation of international laws, he added.

"We felt this is a time that we have to take a stand; not because we are taking sides but because these principles are existential for a tiny city-state," he said.

With the world at an inflection point, "little Singapore is standing up for principles and expressing a hope for the rules of engagement for this new era", he added.

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Singapore and its neighbours have also been key beneficiaries of the open and inclusive political and economic architecture that have allowed for economic integration, free trade and the flow of capital, noted Dr Balakrishnan adding that South-east Asia as a whole hopes to keep the region open to all superpowers.

"We are not looking for one or the other, or to play games," he said.

"The worst possible outcome is to be an arena for proxy wars and superpower contestations. We have no intention of taking sides and being a cat's paw, or being a vassal state for one or the other."

Asked if he was satisfied with Asean's statement on the invasion, which did not mention Russia explicitly, the foreign minister said he was "frankly... pleasantly surprised" with the agreement on the key points of territorial integrity and sovereignty, and the gravity of the situation in Ukraine, given the diversity within the 10-nation bloc.

"The fact that we have gotten so far, to me is very encouraging. It shows that we have consensus on what is really important, and we are able to express ourselves and take a stand," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan also dismissed the idea of a security-focused Indo-Pacific Nato, akin to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, that some have suggested the United States is trying to build in the region.

"Asean is meant to be an open, inclusive association, focused on trade, economic integration, inclusive and expanding our bridges to all our partners, including superpowers. We are not interested in military alliances and godfathers."

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