The acceptance of the dominance of the United States and China would be diminished if their policies or progress were perceived to be lopsided against the national interests of other countries or the collective good, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.
Countries will hedge first in trade ties, and later inevitably in security alliances, he added, citing examples of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), in which 11 nations chose to proceed after the US pulled out.
The Japanese and Australians later led the effort to establish the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
Even China has not said no to joining the CPTPP, Dr Ng said in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum.
For the European Union, he said, if it perceives that the US' terms for trade are too onerous to bear, it is not inconceivable that it might even increase its engagement with China, or seek other partners.
"Worse still is the situation where individual countries have to choose between the US or China... That will be the ultimate losers' game and a race to diminishing benefits for all concerned," said Dr Ng.
He was speaking on the topic "Ensuring a Resilient and Stable Region" on the final day of the three-day forum.
Other speakers at the session were New Zealand Defence Minister Ron Mark and Indonesian Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu.
The landmark 11-nation CPTPP came into force in December last year, bringing steep tariff cuts to the first six countries that ratified the pact, including Japan and Singapore.
The trade deal retained all but 22 of the more than 1,000 provisions in the original TPP that had to be renegotiated after the US pulled out in January 2017.
Dr Ng said the challenge for both the US and China, amid their bilateral struggle, as dominant powers in Asia, is to offer that "inclusive and over-arching" moral justification for acceptance by all countries, big and small, of their dominance beyond military might.
Earlier in his speech, he said that many at the Shangri-La Dialogue had cautioned against this outright rivalry between the two leading economies and militaries of the world.
"Even so, it has come to pass, with potential for great harm on all countries here and beyond. How did we get here?" he asked.
When the Shangri-La Dialogue was first launched in 2002, a decade or so had passed since the US and its allies had won the Cold War, Dr Ng noted.
But economic prosperity was not one of the direct "peace dividends" to be reaped by the US and Europe.
SUBWAY STATION OF THE WORLD
We are the canary in the mine of global trade. We are as if, if you would like, the anchor tenant in the subway station that the world uses. And suddenly if the traffic drops and people migrate to various stations, obviously we are affected.
DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN, on why he gave a warning against the risk of creating trade blocs.
NEW ZEALAND'S PACIFIC PLAN
We are linked by history, culture, politics and demographics, and we are of the Pacific. This is personal. We are family. And our prosperity and security are intrinsically linked to that of all other Pacific nations.
NEW ZEALAND DEFENCE MINISTER RON MARK, who will soon unveil his country's defence plan to operate throughout the Pacific.
"In contrast, it was China - after Deng Xiaoping lifted the Bamboo Curtain to focus on economic growth - that flourished as a dazzling debutant in the globalised ball, and with it much of Asia," he said.
The new trajectory now, he said, is that of a US foreign policy to redress the perceived imbalances accumulated over the past two decades. This was encapsulated in the America First narrative, which describes an America that had been taken advantage of.
"It is, in essence, a disruptive change, not only for the US and its allies, but indeed (also) the world," Dr Ng added, noting that few think the world will grow at a faster pace in the near future.
In his speech, General (Ret) Ryamizard said that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was the result of the domestic political conflict in those countries, and had nothing to do with religious factors, as he highlighted the threat of terrorism with returning ISIS fighters from the Middle East.
Mr Mark said in his speech that he will unveil New Zealand's Defence Capability Plan 2019 on June 11, which will outline how the country will grow its defence capability and capacity for operations throughout the Pacific region.
"Communicating our motivations openly in this way, it means our international partners can clearly see what we stand for, and we are prepared to take action," said Mr Mark.
"If we are all transparent in our motivations, we reduce the risk of misunderstandings and mis-calculation."