Vivian Balakrishnan urges quiet discussion, political off-ramps for US-China talks

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with Dr Amy Searight, director of the South-east Asia Programme at CSIS in Washington on May 15, 2019.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with Dr Amy Searight, director of the South-east Asia Programme at CSIS in Washington on May 15, 2019.ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan cautioned against raising anxiety about China, saying that was not in the interest of creating strategic trust.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan cautioned against raising anxiety about China, saying that was not in the interest of creating strategic trust.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

WASHINGTON - Protracted Sino-US trade talks have created greater uncertainty and volatility for countries in South-east Asia which, standing at the intersection of major power interests, do not want to be forced into making invidious choices, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Wednesday (May 15).

Also, for the United States to view China purely as an adversary to be contained will not work in the long term because there is a gamut of issues that require cooperation between China and the US, Dr Balakrishnan told an audience at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, midway through a four-day visit to the US capital.

In the current Sino-US negotiations, which took a turn for the worse when a much-anticipated round of negotiations in Washington last week failed to produce results, the challenge was to provide enough political off-ramps to de-escalate, the Minister said.

Dr Balakrishnan called for "more quiet discussions, less headlines, less rhetoric in public".

He also cautioned against raising anxiety about China, saying that was not in the interest of creating strategic trust.

As the largest beneficiary of the post-World War II international system, China was unlikely to directly undermine it, but understandably and legitimately wanted to have a major say in shaping evolving norms, processes and institutions, the Minister said.

For the US, competition with China was inevitable but need not be zero sum, he said - and it should take place within the bounds of established norms and adherence to international law.

 
 
 
 

Stressing the value of multilateralism, Dr Balakrishnan said that just as it was entirely legitimate for the US to question the benefits of the system, it was also entirely understandable and legitimate for China to aspire to be number one.

But if issues between China and the US are left unresolved, the longer-term question is whether there is going to be a bifurcation of the highly integrated global economy, he said.

"It's like trying to separate Siamese twins, a very dangerous and bloody process, I hope we don't get to that stage," Dr Balakrishnan stressed.

"In the short term, if you just look at the gyrations in the stock market, you know this is a time of great volatility," he said. "Given the uncertainty, you will see companies being far more cautious about investments, especially long-term investments."

But he added: "We're still in the early stages; increased volatility, next step (will be) decreased growth, and after that, far deeper existential anxieties."

Asked a question on the dwindling number of high-level visits by US officials to South-east Asia, Dr Balakrishnan, who is due to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday, said he would tell him that in Asia, face time is important.

"Even in this age of video conferencing, nothing beats a handshake, eye-to-eye contact, and making sure that despite the cultural and linguistic differences, it's very important that everyone understands at a very profound level what the hopes, aspirations, anxieties and concerns are in order to avoid miscommunication and unnecessary conflict," Dr Balakrishnan said.

Reform, or Lose the People 

The minister made three key points in his prepared speech, titled “Seeking Opportunities Amidst Disruption.” 

“The accelerating technological and especially the digital revolution, is actually a prime cause of the disruption in jobs and middle class wages which we are confronting all over the world,” he  said.

“Second, globalisation, and free trade, as we know it, while it is not the cause of the disruption, is actually accelerating that disruption in jobs and middle class wages.”

Globalisation must be accompanied by an equal measure of domestic reform – in education, training, social security, health care and the economic structure of societies. Without such reform, people were going to feel unable or ill-equipped to deal global competition, and economies would slow down.

But he emphasised: “Free trade and globalisation are not zero sum games.”

Dr Balakrishnan repeated the phrase twice. 

Scale of Challenges Global 

The scale of  the transboundary challenges that society confronts today - climate change, cyberspace, outer space, pandemics -  all demand more cooperation, not less. 

“We need to double down on multilateralism and all of us need to contribute actively to shaping these new norms that will govern our global commons,” he said.

“Defining these rules through a multilateral process in which all states can engage as equals, is essential in order for us to build a global consensus and -  particularly for a small tiny city state like Singapore -  in order to strengthen the rule of international law.”

Seat at the table in US’ interest

Speaking of the history of Singapore, and of the United States in the region, he said America had been seen as a “benign hegemon” and the region had benefited.

“But the regional architecture is evolving,” he said. “While Singapore benefited from the American presence in Asia, we were not the chief beneficiary. The biggest beneficiary in the last four decades has been China.”

In another key change, the consensus on the benefits of globalisation and free trade, and the need for a multilateral approach to global challenges, had eroded - essentially as the stagnating middle class lost faith and inequality rose in developed countries.

The current debate within the US reflected a perfectly legitimate question – why should America continue underwriting a world order that it feels has benefitted others more than the US.

But the region, though an evolving architecture of trade agreements, had signalled its commitment to greater trade liberalisation and economic integration – and hoped the US  would return.

The best way for the US  to safeguard its own interests was to keep its seat at the table and actively contribute to shaping the norms of the global commons, he said.