Speech at Plenary Session 3 of the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum
Eng Hen Ng, Minister of Defence, Singapore
October 22, 2019
No.1 Convention Hall, 2nd Floor, BICC
First, let me thank my counterpart State Councillor and Minister of National Defence General Wei Fenghe for inviting me to speak at the Beijing Xiangshan Forum. Let me also extend my warmest congratulations for the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Some of us came from Wuhan where the Military Games Opening Ceremony had just been concluded. I must tell you, it was a wonderful show. There was a particular scene of the Silk Road, recounting Zhang Qian’s journey, and there was silk, big silk cloth floating in the air, literally human upside us floating in the sky. And for a moment, I thought, I’ve been transported to heaven instead of being in Wuhan, the stadium.
So thank you for inviting us for this very, very special year, the 70th anniversary. It’s a special feeling for us. But before, I forget, we’re supposed to be here to speak. So let me get in on my speech.
History teaches us that countries while individually sovereign, must still operate within a regional or global dynamic whose rules are decided either by the majority and/or major powers. Peace and stability ensues when engaging countries by intent cooperate on common goals, to maintain that unified system.
But by neglect or design, the contestation between the United States and China has sharpened. These two superbodies, the world’s largest economies and militaries, are now charting different orbits. Previously, in a unified globalised system, both the US and China provided stability to the whole, each adding value to it, despite the sum of their differences. But now in attempting to de-couple, other countries will be severely impacted by gravitational forces that are pulling apart.
Must the US and China “de-couple”, and what lies at the heart of this signal disruption for the 21st century? The core positions of both countries deserve scrutiny to discern if the different aspirations for the world they live in and lead, and their envisaged roles are so incompatible.
The US, the incumbent global super-power, wants to address shortcomings and perceived unfairness in the rules and practice of international trade, as well as to champion the democratic ideals that the US upholds. In trade, under its “America First” clarion cry, the US has taken a volte face, and is no longer the prime architect and champion of multilateralism of Globalisation 1.0. Instead, the US sees and seeks advantage in dealing with individual countries or small groups, with trade tariffs as a convenient lever to level the playing field. In security, the US continues its role as a global power and presence, but the Trump Administration believes that other countries ought also to do more and their fair share to protect vested interests. For example, following the recent incidents in the Straits of Hormuz, President Trump tweeted that the US was protecting the passage of oil, which went mainly to China and Japan. He questioned why the US was “protecting the shipping lanes for other countries for zero compensation”. Another example is the US administration’s consistent unhappiness over the EU’s inadequate spending for its own defences.
With the US self-sufficient for its energy needs, and indeed the world’s largest producer of oil, now even more than Iran, its security focus can and has shifted away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia. Not surprisingly, the US Department of Defence’s latest report articulates the Indo-Pacific as the single most consequential region for America’s future. Renamed Indo Pacific Command will have greater resources to preserve the US’ influence as a Pacific power as it has done for the last 200 years.
What about China. For trade, China in an odd reversal of roles, seeks to preserve the current WTO rules-based multilateral trading system. This is not surprising, as China has benefitted from this system. At the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on countries to “adhere to multilateralism to uphold the authority and efficacy of multilateral institutions”, and reiterated this commitment again at the 2019 Boao Forum for Asia. China envisions its time in history to actualise its aspirations, after a century of humiliation and as a poor economy. China, seeks through its own model of socialism with Chinese characteristics to stand up tall, strong and proud, and to take its legitimate and rightful place alongside all other countries in the global economy. In that process, China also wants to facilitate the development of Asia and beyond through its Belt and Road Initiative and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. But China also recognises that as its global interests expand, inevitably too the need to protect its interests, near and far. In this context, the PLA has been restructured, modernised and transformed as the recent 70th Anniversary parade clearly demonstrated. The PLA’s reach and pace now extends into blue water capability, space and hypersonics. Even so, China has consistently said that it rejects hegemony, regional or global. On 1 Oct this year, President Xi, at Tiananmen Square, emphasised that China wants a peaceful rise for its own people. But at the same time, he made clear that “no force can stop the Chinese people and Chinese nation forging ahead”. China will press on to attain the Two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation.
Taken at face value, both narratives, whether it’s the US or Chinese, do not necessarily conflict, or at least not geographically. The US and China share no land border or compete for any physical resource at high stakes. Both countries are connected by the same ocean but as President Xi once said to President Trump when he visited China in 2017, “the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the United States.” And yet, the world finds itself in the midst of a strategic rivalry which, for this generation, will be the single-most critical issue that determines the fate of our world, countries and citizens at large.
It is hard to imagine a single winner from this contest or a quick resolution to the fundamental differences that exist between the US and China. Neither sees the other with characteristics or as a role model of a political system to move towards – indeed, in many aspects they are antithetical, in both ideology and practice. Their histories and political evolution are poles apart, and in turn the perspective and prism through which they view themselves and world events. Neither society is perfect or ideal but one cannot deny that both the US and China today represent powerful and successful models of their own internally coherent organising principles and beliefs that have brought benefits to their citizens and beyond.
What are the consequences of this contestation between the US and China?
The spectrum of possible outcomes spans both extremes. The worst could be a destructive collision, whether economically, militarily, or both. Even economic disentanglement alone will discombobulate the world as we know it, let alone the rivalry that will inevitably follow. Almost all countries hope for an outcome underpinned by accommodation between two powers. They know that their own trade and security positions will have to change to accommodate domestic concerns of both the US and China. At its core, however, they still prefer a shared world characterised by globalisation, multilateralism and the rule of law.
The US and China need to find some common ground while agreeing to disagree on other issues, so as not to risk global instability. Our world needs both the US and China, not only to ensure the progress and stability but also to deal with common security challenges such as climate change, nuclear threats and terrorism.
How can the US and China find that common ground? It will not be easy going, but given that the alternatives are far worse, the US and China must choose to act, as this challenge, at its heart, is a political one. In his book “On China”, Dr. Henry Kissinger chronicled the circumstances that led to the meeting between Mao and Nixon in 1972, which began the thawing of frozen positions on both sides. It was not as if the stars were aligned for that bold stroke of diplomacy. Indeed the converse was true. To quote Dr. Kissinger: “it was not easy for the US and China to find their way to a strategic dialogue… the actual movement of the two sides was inhibited by domestic complexities, historical experience and cultural perceptions. The public on both sides had been exposed to two decades of hostility and suspicion… Nixon had to overcome a legacy of twenty years of American foreign policy based on the assumption that China would use every opportunity to weaken the US and to expel it from Asia. By the time he had entered the White House, this view had congealed into established doctrine”. They are significant parallels, to date. Yet, the Sino-American relationship did improve with the establishment of diplomatic ties, despite critics and nay-sayers.
One can harp on the list of differences and wring one’s hands in despair that this bridge is too far to cross: Fundamental political, social and cultural differences aside, the list is long on both sides and among them: US’ demand for change in Chinese laws for better protection of IP; better access to markets for US companies, the reduction of the bilateral trade deficits and China to move towards a more market-based economy with less state subsidies; for China to be less assertive in the South China Sea, to be more transparent in its dealings related to human rights, including the introduction of more democratic processes in its society. On China’s part, it insists that the US ends all trade tariffs, stops discriminating against its technology companies, and give China a greater say in the existing multilateral institutions; to respect China’s stand that Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and the South China Sea are internal or bilateral issues, to be dealt with without external influences. It also wants the US to acknowledge the legitimacy and successes of China’s model of governance, with the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China at its pinnacle, that has delivered results, not least the poverty alleviation of hundreds of millions, as well as provided basic rights to sanitation, jobs, education and safe streets. The list goes on and neither side will get all that it wants.
For small countries like Singapore, we watch with deep concern as larger powers position themselves more aggressively against each other. Singapore will maintain its strong friendships with both sides, but it is also acutely aware that the farther the US and China pull apart, the harder it would be for all countries to keep to this principled and neutral position.
In that historic visit of 1972, US President Nixon said in his toast to Chairman Mao Zedong and Zhou En-lai: “There is no reason for us to be enemies. Neither of us seek territory of the other. Neither of us seek domination over the other. Neither of us seek to stretch out our hands and rule the world.” These words ring true now as they do then. The world looks to the enlightened leadership of both the United States and China to forge a world that is safe, open, inclusive for this generation and the next. Thank you.