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International relations not always dictated by logic, rationality: Shanmugam

Conflict is inevitable, as long as different nations have conflicting interests, said Singapore's Foreign Minister K Shanmugam, referring to the tensions in the South China Sea.

SINGAPORE: Conflict is inevitable, as long as different nations have conflicting interests, said Singapore's Foreign Affairs Minister K Shanmugam as he touched on the tensions in the South China Sea at the Seventh International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Fullerton Lecture on Monday (June 30).

"Nobody wants serious trouble, but the politics and nationalist sentiment in each of these countries, China, Japan, US - it's everywhere, but I'm just mentioning these three - is such that what is rational in international terms: to do a deal, to strike a structure, to give and take, may not always be doable in the framework or context of local domestic political opinion," Mr Shanmugam said.

"Anything that any Chinese leader does will be questioned by 500 million people on the Net. So no Chinese leader can be seen to be giving up on any claim. In fact, he's got to be seen to be assertive. Likewise in the US and likewise in Japan. 

"So that unfortunately is a dynamic that can lead to some degree of irrationality on any one or two or all three of the parties. But within that framework, I think all three understand what is necessary. None of them wants trouble. But international relations are not always dictated by logic and rationality."

Mr Shanmugam said there is a tendency for international media to be anti-China, at times portraying it as a big bully. The actual issue, he said, is more nuanced.

Regardless, Mr Shanmugam said ASEAN's position is that it does not want to see the dispute escalating further. 

Turning to the bloc's goal of establishing regional economic integration by next year, he said this would bring tremendous potential. The integrated ASEAN Economic Community is targeted to happen next year, but when asked whether this would be an ASEAN version of the European Union, Mr Shanmugam said the EU model may not be for ASEAN to follow. The EU members, he said, have broadly similar cultures, religion and history, but there are vast differences in these areas for ASEAN members.

He added that what ASEAN members have is a shared mutual goal towards security and economics. However, he said the idea of having a single ASEAN government is still far away.

Separately, Mr Shanmugam said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the global economic situation. He cited signs of recovery in Europe, the United States and Japan, as well as the economic growth in Africa and South America.

On Singapore's relations with Malaysia and Indonesia, Mr Shanmugam described ties as positive "on the whole", saying "What can happen in three months, six months, some unforeseen event or incident, I can't predict. But the longer term secular trend, I think gives some room for cautious optimism."

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