BEIJING: With China and the United States embroiled in disputes, other countries should stand together as a “voice of moderation”, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on Tuesday (Jul 9).
This comes against a backdrop of “strategic trust deficit” between the two superpowers, said Mr Goh, who was speaking at the World Peace Forum at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
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“We are at risk of being shackled by history, blinded by suspicions, misled by misconceptions and destroyed by zero-sum superpower rivalry," he said.
China and the US are currently engaged in a trade war, with tensions spilling into areas involving technology, Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Mr Goh warned that having “innocent parties get hurt in conflicts between the powerful”, or smaller countries watch passively from the sidelines, were not ideal scenarios.
“Smaller countries, too, are part of this world,” said Mr Goh.
“They can, and should, play an independent and positive role in shaping the international order.”
Mr Goh said countries should instead respond in a combined voice.
“When enough countries stand together, their voices can be as loud, if not louder, than the trumpet of elephants,” said Mr Goh.
He pointed out that the “voice of moderation” was not a bloc or new grouping, but simply the voice of concerned countries, leaders, institutions, media, business and people who want to “avert a catastrophic clash between the US and China”.
“It is a voice for strategic rationality, peace and stability, growth and prosperity, and an interdependent, open, inclusive, rules-based multilateral order,” said Mr Goh.
“Only by speaking in unison, will the global powers take heed of us.”
Mr Goh added that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can, and was willing to, play a central role in the trust-building process.
“ASEAN can be the central platform for countries in the region to speak in one voice on issues of common concern and amplify the regional 'voice of moderation',” said Mr Goh.
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More can also be done besides speaking up, with trade agreements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership being examples of how shared values are translated into action.
Mr Goh added that the “voice of moderation” should facilitate the trust-building and cooperation between the US and China, even as both superpowers compete.
“There are many global challenges that would benefit from the leadership of both global powers, such as climate change and terrorism,” said Mr Goh.
“At the same time, we should work with the US and China to engage constructively with the rest of the world, to reassure the world of their intentions and enhance their global standing.”
THE FUTURE STANDING OF US AND CHINA
Mr Goh also touched on the future standing of the US and China if current trends continue.
He noted that the US' perspective of the world has changed, where the country would like to see allies and partners contribute more to burden sharing.
This comes as it is becoming more difficult for US politicians to explain to their constituents why other countries seem to be growing at the expense of the US.
“I can understand the struggle to reconcile these differences. In fact, all leaders should put their national interests first,” said Mr Goh.
“However, I would be concerned if the US cedes its position of leadership in the world by defining its national interests too narrowly.”
Mr Goh added that friends of US should remind the country that the multilateral institutions and global rules-based order that it had a significant role in creating, has been the bedrock of unprecedented global peace and prosperity for the last 70 years.
As for China, Mr Goh said the country needed to dispel anxieties over its long-term intentions and behaviour as a global power.
One area it could do this is in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – a massive infrastructure project that aims to link Asia with Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
In April, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to make the initiative clean, green, transparent, financially sustainable and inclusive, as the project came under criticism for being a debt trap for developing countries.
“I believe, over time, China’s fulfilment of these commitments will address the negative allegations directed at the BRI,” said Mr Goh.
He added China could take on additional responsibilities and work to strengthen the international system it has benefited form, including the World Trade Organisation.
In the South China Sea, Mr Goh said China could also reassure the international community that it will observe and uphold international law.
China, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan have competing claims in the resource-rich territory.
“China should continue to articulate its acceptance of the right of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, and its commitment towards peace, stability and peaceful resolution of disputes,” said Mr Goh.
“This will help assuage worries over China’s intentions in the South China Sea, which has been an albatross around its neck in its interactions with the international community.”