Lack of trust between China, US further complicating fraught world order: Vivian Balakrishnan

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (right) and Mr Daniel Russel, the Asia Society Policy Institute's vice-president for international security and diplomacy, at an Asia Society discussion in New York on Sept 23, 2022. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

WASHINGTON - Lack of trust between China and the US adds complexity in a global order currently under attack, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan told an audience at the Asia Society in New York on Friday.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a full frontal assault on the UN Charter, on a formula which has generally enabled peace, order, security and prosperity for decades," he said.

Dr Balakrishnan is in New York for the 77th United Nations General Assembly and related meetings, including the Alliance of Small Island States Leaders' Meeting and the Informal Asean Ministerial Meeting, plus bilateral meetings with his counterparts and US interlocutors based in New York.

He was hosted at the Asia Society by Mr Daniel Russel, vice-president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Both the war and the Covid-19 pandemic have created persistent supply chain disruptions, Dr Balakrishnan noted.

"We are also witnessing a period of prolonged and record inflation, and we do not think this is going to be solved in the near future," he said.

"On top of that, you have got a food and energy crisis as well."

This "perfect long storm" has caused great anxiety in domestic politics globally, and the "complicated and difficult relationship between the United States and China adds another layer of complexity, risk and danger to this perfect long storm", he said.

As China's strategic and economic influence has grown, so has its sense of vulnerability - and there is a strong and emerging sense of nationalism in China, Dr Balakrishnan noted.

"It is not only the so-called democracies that have domestic politics," he added. "Communist regimes also have domestic politics, and leaders also have to respond to the anxieties and the zeitgeist of their own societies."

He said: "We have all witnessed a China that has become more muscular in defending its interests. It has taken a more active international stance in the belief that its time has come, and it wants to assume its rightful place in the world order.

"The key missing ingredient in this relationship, from the perspective of a dispassionate third country, is that there is a lack of strategic trust between the United States and China.

"Just as in human relationships, when trust is absent, there is a danger of always assuming the worst about the other party. The danger is that you end up in a potentially escalatory spiral. Actions and words by one party, reactions and counter responses by the other party.

"This raises the prospect of miscalculations or mishaps. I think the ultimate focal point for this is the Taiwan Strait, which is the reddest of red lines for Beijing."

The US-China rivalry inevitably affects all - and especially Asia, he said. As for South-east Asia, it is natural for some countries to be closer to one side or the other.

"But nobody wants to be forced to make invidious choices. Nobody wants to become a vassal state or a cat's paw or a stalking horse - whichever metaphor you use. There can be no good outcome for us in Asia if our countries are forced into two camps with a line in between.

"In our view, a less tense and more stable and constructive configuration is for both China and the US to have overlapping circles of friends," he said.

He emphasised the metaphor of overlapping circles of friends, as opposed to a hard line or new wall, or a cold war or an even greater danger ahead.

"It is our hope that this would be a more stable, durable and peaceful configuration, and offer more prosperity for all of us in Asia," he said.

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