US leadership in rules-based international order vital, says Heng Swee Keat

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat said any dispute between the US and China should be resolved in accordance with international norms and through existing multilateral frameworks instead. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

WASHINGTON - The United States should continue to take the lead in setting global rules and maintaining the rules-based multilateral international order, said Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in Washington on Monday (April 15).

South-east Asia also wants to see the US and China manage their relationship and not let their competition get out of hand, he said in a speech to the American foreign policy community at the Brookings Institution think-tank.

"The US-China relationship is a key determinant of global peace and prosperity, and the most important bilateral relationship in the world," said Mr Heng, who arrived in Washington last week for the International Monetary Fund and G-20 meetings of global finance chiefs which addressed the heightened trade tensions between US and China.

Any dispute between the US and China should be resolved in accordance with international norms and through existing multilateral frameworks instead, he said.

"No country wants to choose sides," he added.

To keep their competition healthy and constructive, both sides need a better understanding of each other - no small task as they have "very different DNA" and very different, complex systems, he said later during a question-and-answer session.

Illustrating his point, he said that even Singapore spends a lot of time trying to understand the complexities of China, despite the fact that many of Singapore's leaders speak the same Mandarin language as the Chinese government.

Mr Heng, former principal private secretary of the late prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, recalled how the Suzhou industrial park faced competition from a local rival, which Chinese local officials had promoted despite Suzhou's backing from Singapore and the Chinese central government.

The explanation Singapore's officials received was that China had many layers of government, said Mr Heng, adding: "The official term used in those days was that the mountains are high and the emperor is far away, so don't assume that edicts by the emperor will be implemented on the ground."

The US and China can also come together to resolve global problems such as climate change, which threatens them both, he said.

In his speech, he made the case that America's presence in Asia remains vital to the region's peace and prosperity, as he encouraged the US to continue investing and engaging in Asia.

Continued American engagement in the Asia-Pacific has a mainstay of recent messages from Singapore leaders to the US, amid concerns that Washington may become less engaged in the region as its preoccupations with domestic concerns such as protectionism and immigration grow.

The rise of Asia will bring new needs such as infrastructure, which the US can help fulfil, he said, citing the Asian Development Bank's estimate that Asia will need to spend US$1.7 trillion (S$2.3 trillion) a year until 2030 on infrastructure.

It will also create opportunities for American companies in areas they are strong in, such as the digital economy and technologies driven by artificial intelligence, he added.

Mr Heng will lead a business delegation to Silicon Valley over the next few days to learn more about how the digital technology is reshaping businesses there.

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