SINGAPORE: Last week’s high-level talks between the United States and China are a step in the right direction, showing recognition from both sides on the need for dialogue and cooperation, said Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat on Monday (Mar 22).
This is despite the “tough rhetoric” heard in the recent two-day talks in Alaska, he said – the first high-level face-to-face meeting between the two countries since President Joe Biden took office.
Calling strategic competition between the US and China the foremost issue in the global order, Mr Heng said the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored how important a stable relationship between the two powers is to the global commons.
“While the Biden administration will bring a more predictable approach to the world’s most critical bilateral relationship, the US and China will continue to be strategic competitors,” said Mr Heng.
It is in their interest to cooperate on common challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change, he added.
“I am glad that both sides have acknowledged that there are areas that they could work together on, despite the competitive tenor of their relationship,” said Mr Heng.
“While tensions could intensify for some time, I hope that eventually, a framework for cooperation will be developed, even as both sides continue to compete, as major powers do.
“Fair, healthy competition can be positive, if it spurs innovation to achieve better solutions for the many complex challenges that the world faces.”
Mr Heng was delivering a keynote address at the virtual Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference on the topic of “Asia: Emerging stronger in a post-COVID world”.
Mr Heng also said it was critical for the US and China to remain constructively engaged in Southeast Asia.
“The constructive involvement of both the US and China in the region will be key to Asia’s continued peace, stability and growth,” he said.
US presence in the region has provided stability since World War II, while its investments have been instrumental to the region’s rapid growth, said Mr Heng.
Singapore welcomed the Biden administration’s commitment to strengthen its partnership with the region, including with ASEAN, he said.
“ASEAN is an important partner for the US, not just in terms of tackling existing and emerging global challenges, but also to put regional engagement efforts into concrete action.”
China’s economic success has also been a boon for growth in the region, with the ASEAN-China Dialogue Partnership one of the bloc’s most substantive external partnerships, he said.
Southeast Asia must continue to work with any country that wants to work with the region, said Mr Heng
“It is not a question of choosing sides, but of retaining our ability to make choices for ourselves. This is what ASEAN centrality is about.
“Should US-China tensions escalate, our region must firmly remain anchored on ASEAN’s own interest, and to keep ourselves open and relevant through practical steps. This will enable us to emerge stronger from this crisis.”
EMERGING STRONGER FROM COVID-19
While the speed of COVID-19 vaccine development is encouraging, recovery is unlikely to be uneven across economies and sectors while vaccination is underway, said Mr Heng.
The pandemic will continue to “stress test” societies and economies, which must remain vigilant and nimble in navigating unexpected setbacks, he said.
“COVID-19 will eventually pass, but its lasting legacy is in accelerating many structural changes,” he said, highlighting capabilities that economies must build to emerge stronger in the long-term.
First is a greater premium on resilience, with governments and companies rethinking their production bases and supply chains. There is also a greater sense of urgency to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, said Mr Heng.
Second is a big shift towards digitalisation, said Mr Heng, noting that users of the SingPass app – Singapore’s “national digital identity” – tripled in a year.
READ: Singaporeans say bridging digital divide 'key issue' in forging post-COVID-19 future – DPM Heng
Third is the global order moving through “choppier seas”, with strategic competition between the US and China accentuated by COVID-19.
“With no proper global coordination early in the crisis, we saw a rise in friction and distrust between governments,” said Mr Heng.
Asia’s ability to emerge stronger from COVID-19 will depend on how well it navigates these shifts, he said.
While the region has a young population and fast-growing middle class, the “demographic dividend” could be lost if countries do not equip their youth with the right skills and create enough good jobs.
Rapidly ageing populations in some parts of Asia, including Singapore, will also affect economic growth and increase social needs.
Without adequate and sustained investments, the region’s economy will not fulfil its full potential and could remain susceptible to future pandemics and catastrophes, he said.
“Most critically, the stability of the region must not be taken for granted,” said Mr Heng.
Beyond the US-China relationship, he pointed to the situation in Myanmar, where there have been widespread protests since a Feb 1 coup by the military.
READ: ASEAN must reiterate guiding principles when it comes to situation in Myanmar – Vivian Balakrishnan
“Singapore is appalled by the violent crackdowns against civilians. It is crucial that all stakeholders in Myanmar come together to find a long-term, peaceful solution and a return to democratic transition,” he said.
SEIZING ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITIES
Mr Heng identified three areas where Asia could work together to seize economic opportunities.
First, the region can further deepen regional integration and cooperation. He cited good progress with the conclusion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), but urged all RCEP countries to expedite ratification.
Collaboration also extends to the digital economy, he said, where the region must work to harmonise standards, allow trusted data flows and facilitate cross-border transactions.
Mr Heng announced that Singapore and Thailand are pioneering a link-up of their national e-payments systems, with users in both countries able to send money directly and securely to each other using their mobile numbers from the middle of the year.
Secondly, Asia must step up its economic transformation in the fourth industrial revolution, said Mr Heng, pointing out that the region is the global leader in employing robots for manufacturing.
Thirdly, Asia must continue to be an open and inclusive destination for investments from around the world.
Mr Heng said Singapore can partner with countries and companies as “a gateway for investment, a launchpad for innovation and a green node for sustainability” in Asia.
“The pandemic has accelerated disruptions. We must plan ahead, invest in new capabilities and innovate, to better meet these disruptions, so that we can emerge stronger,” he said.