Political off-ramps needed to ease trade tensions, says Vivian Balakrishnan

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with Dr Amy Searight, director of CSIS' South-east Asia Programme, at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Dr Balakrishnan said South-east Asian nations, which are at the intersection
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan with Dr Amy Searight, director of CSIS' South-east Asia Programme, at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Dr Balakrishnan said South-east Asian nations, which are at the intersection of major power interests, do not want to be forced into making difficult choices. ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

He calls for quiet discussions and less rhetoric, and cautions against raising anxiety over China

Protracted Sino-US trade talks have created great 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 difficult choices, said Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

He also said the United States' perception of China purely as an adversary to be contained will not work in the long term because there is a gamut of issues that requires cooperation between the two countries.

Dr Balakrishnan was speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on Wednesday, 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 talks in Washington last week failed to produce results, the challenge was to provide enough political off-ramps to de-escalate tensions, the minister said.

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

Dr Balakrishnan said South-east Asian nations view the Sino-US tensions with great concern, perhaps even grave concern.

"For us in the middle, and especially for smaller countries, we do not wish to be forced into making invidious choices.

 
 

"So we hope that both sides will work out a strategic response that will take into account China's increasing influence and weight in the international arena, and that both sides will find the way to accommodate each other's legitimate interests," he said.

The minister 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 the country - understandably and legitimately - wanted to have a major say in shaping evolving norms, processes and institutions, he said.

For the US, competition with China was inevitable but need not be zero sum, 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 No. 1.

If their issues are left unresolved, the longer-term question is whether there will be a bifurcation of the highly integrated global economy.

"It is like trying to separate Siamese twins, a very dangerous and bloody process. I hope we don't get to that stage," he 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 com-panies being far more cautious about investments, especially long-term investments."

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

 
 

In his speech, Dr Balakrishnan noted that 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.

He said the current debate within the US reflected a perfectly legitimate question: Why should America continue underwriting a world order that it feels has benefited others more than the US?

But Asia 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, the minister said.

Asked about the dwindling number of high-level visits by US officials to South-east Asia, Dr Balakrishnan, who was to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday, 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 is 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.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2019, with the headline 'Vivian: Political off-ramps needed to ease trade tensions'. Print Edition | Subscribe