'Middle powers' in Asia can play bigger role amid US-China tensions: Forum panel

Panellists at the forum cited South Korea and Japan as regional "middle powers" that could play a rold amid the US-China tensions. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Countries in Asia can step up to take on bigger roles in the gaps created by the escalating tensions between United States and China, but they need to do so sensitively, said panellists at a forum on the implications of the US elections for Asia on Wednesday (Oct 28).

For example, as a "middle power" in the region, South Korea could share its public health experience of tackling Covid-19, while Japan could share how it has been building infrastructure around the world, said Mr Anthony Kuhn, a National Public Radio correspondent in South Korea.

"People want to see some competition for China's Belt and Road Initiative. Japan has been amazing at economic diplomacy," Mr Kuhn said.

He added Japan had built subways in Jakarta and infrastructure in many other places, so the tensions may open up more room for them.

Moderator Satu Limaye, vice-president and director at non-profit think tank East-West Center (EWC) Washington, had asked whether other Asian countries could step up and take on bigger roles in the region with both US and China declining in popularity in international polls.

Ms Sunetra Choudhury, the national political editor at Hindustan Times in India, cautioned that countries had to be sensitive to their neighbours' responses when they forged new alliances.

She said that Nepal and Bhutan, India's neighbours, have "concerns about the fact that... we have been taking the big brother kind of attitude here in the region, and the Modi government has been too muscular for their liking".

"The big thing about this government right now, in its growing proximity to the US, has been the fact that we haven't had our traditional allies, especially in the neighbourhood," she added.

Mr Nirmal Ghosh, US bureau chief for The Straits Times, said that countries in South-east Asia have always been comfortable with the US as an "offshore balancer".

"At the same time, they don't want the US to overreach. They see China as overreaching somewhat, as overbearing. They welcome the US' tougher posture against China but they don't want anything to go really seriously bad (in) the South China Seas or in the Taiwan Straits".

Opinions in Singapore seem to "be slightly weighted in favour of the United States" as tensions between the world's two largest economies continue to escalate, said Professor Robert Sutter at George Washington University.

"Not that Singapore wants to take sides," said Prof Sutter, adding, "They have a very healthy respect for China's power."

"At the end of the day, they keep their stake with the US," he said. "That's very carefully done."

He cited how Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and US President Donald Trump renewed a key defence pact which allows American forces to use Singapore's air and naval bases, extending it by another 15 years to 2035, in September last year.

Prof Sutter, who conducted research on Singapore for a new EWC report on US Asia policy and regional responses, said: "Singapore wants to have a close relationship with the US, and they do things together. They are concerned about China, but they don't want to get into trouble with China."

Straits Times US bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh (top left) and other panellists speaking during the forum, which was held via video conference. PHOTO: EAST-WEST CENTER

Agreeing, Mr Ghosh said that Singapore generally favours a multilateral approach.

"So, if the US administration re-engages in multilateral arrangements and institutions, like the World Health Organisation (WHO), for example, that would be generally welcomed," he added.

The panel, held over video conferencing, was presented by the EWC in Honolulu and Washington, in partnership with The Straits Times, ahead of US elections on Nov 3. It can be viewed here.

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