Zero-sum competition between US and China here to stay: Panellists

(From right) Professor Danny Quah, veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan and Professor Randall S. Kroszner with moderator Henry Yin at the FutureChina Global Forum. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - The benign competition between the United States and China of the past is unlikely to return, with a zero-sum mentality here to stay, said expert panellists at a forum to discuss China-related issues on Friday.

Professor Danny Quah, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, exchanged views with veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, saying that the competition has changed to one that is more dangerous for the world.

They were speaking on the topic of stabilising economies in the midst of geopolitical turbulence at the 13th FutureChina Global Forum, organised by non-profit organisation Business China.

Earlier competition helped bring China into the community of nations and encouraged intense competition in trade, said Prof Quah.

This competition led the US to improve its infrastructure, train its people, and invest in research and development, he added.

It also helped China lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

But competition today is encapsulated by the term "techno-nationalism", among other things, said Prof Quah. The term refers to countries competing on the basis of technological innovation and capabilities.

"It is the idea that you win by encircling others, by containing others, by putting others down, by engaging in zero-sum game competition.

"And the way the world has moved in its understanding of competition is a very unhelpful, deadly way - to move from economic competition to geostrategic competition is not the right thing," he added.

Mr Kausikan said in the post-Cold War period - from 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to around 2008, when the global financial crisis happened - the reality of the competition was muted by US pre-eminence.

The world is now back to a more normal period, said the chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, with US-China competition driven by each countries' domestic politics.

"And that makes it very hard to deal with because neither wants to look weak. It also means that the scope to limit competition, by either side or by third parties, is very small."

To stabilise the competition and reach a new way of co-existence, both sides will have to drop their illusions about each other, he added.

"The US will have to accept China for what it is, and stop trying to change China or talking about change in China. China, on its part, will have to stop believing its own propaganda about the East being in ascendance and the West being in decline."

The one-day forum, held at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre, brought together academics, government and business leaders to discuss a range of China-related issues.

Professor Randall Kroszner from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business said the political landscape in the US has changed dramatically in the last decade towards a more zero-sum approach against China.

"I think that's here to stay," he said, adding that he believes the two major political parties in the US, Democrats and Republicans, agree on this thinking.

Mr Eric Li, founder and managing partner at venture capital firm Chengwei Capital, said US efforts to limit technology exports to China is "probably the best thing to happen to China, in its desire to develop world-leading technology sectors".

China had been under-investing in many sectors, including semiconductors, for 10 to 15 years, he added. But geopolitical tensions are forcing the Chinese to develop these technologies.

Professor Jia Qingguo, director of the Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding at Peking University, said changing balance of power is one underlying factor behind geopolitical challenges.

He cited the Russian-Ukraine war, tensions in the Taiwan Strait, missile tests by North Korea, and the emergence of "new military blocs" such as the Quad, which is a security dialogue between Australia, India, Japan, and the US.

Another factor is countries having difficulties adapting to the new realities, he added.

"The US has a problem of adapting to this situation that its partners have become weakened, and China has a problem of adapting itself, that it is a strong country rather than a weak one."

In the short run, the US and China should work together to set up guardrails such as hotlines, dialogues, and codes of conduct to avoid a war by accident.

"In the long run, the two countries must find ways to reconstruct and rebuild the relationship on the basis of cool-headed assessment of shared interests and stakes, as well as aspirations," said Prof Jia.

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