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Singapore ‘in no position’ to prescribe actions but hopes US, China can keep open lines of communication: Lawrence Wong


SINGAPORE: Singapore is “in no position” to prescribe actions for the United States and China, but it hopes both sides can keep open lines of communication, especially at the highest levels, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (Sep 26).

By doing so, there will be an ability to establish “a new modus vivendi” between the two superpowers, he said at a dialogue session held as part of the Forbes Global CEO Conference 2022.

Simmering tensions between the major powers have been a challenge for both countries and businesses, given how ties between US and China is the “most consequential relationship in the world”. 

But US-China relations have been worsening day by day, owing to divisions ranging from ideologies, systems of government and more recently, escalating tensions over Taiwan, Mr Wong said.

“The fortunate thing is, I think on both sides, the leadership do not want direct confrontation at all because they know so much is at stake and there is everything to lose,” he added.

“So that restrains them somewhat, but we do worry that there may be accidents and miscalculations, which can cause things to worsen very quickly.”

Singapore is a friend of both the US and China, said Mr Wong, while adding: “We are in no position at all to prescribe actions for either party, but we have been encouraging both sides to keep open lines of communication, especially and including at the highest levels.”

“It’s good that the leaders on both sides have had a virtual meeting recently and they have agreed also to meet face-to-face quite soon.

“With that ability to come together to meet in person, there will be an ability to establish a new modus vivendi between the two countries, recognising that the world is big enough for China and US to coexist, and the two countries do not have to define their relationship in adversarial terms,” Mr Wong added.

While there can be “very rigorous” competition on several fronts, both countries also have several shared interests, especially in issues such as climate change and pandemic response which require the two major powers to come together in order for there to be progress, he said.

Domestic politics, in both US and China, is a barrier to easing tensions, said Mr Wong. While the current generation of leaders understand the stakes at play, the concern may lie with the next generation.

“Today’s generation of leaders on both sides do understand the stakes because on both sides, people have seen what conflict is like and they don’t want to see it happen in their lifetimes. What we should be worried about is … the next generation (who is) growing up in a very different environment, in both US and China.

“If there is no ability for that people-to-people connection and communication to happen, it’s very easy to portray the other side as the bad guy (and) we are the good guys,” he continued.

“And (if) both sides do that, you have a whole generation of people growing up thinking that way. Then what happens 20 years from now (or) 30 years from now?”

That is why, stressed Mr Wong, maintaining lines of communication and having people-to-people contact is important.

“Because it’s all about building trust and you’ve got to do that at a strategic level between US and China,” he added.

“As the saying goes, trust is built painstakingly drop by drop, but trust can be lost in buckets very quickly. We hope that the leadership on both sides understand the importance of building trust, both for today and for the future.”

The dialogue session, moderated by Forbes Media’s editor-at-large Rich Karlgaard, also touched on issues such as the waning support for globalisation in the world and the future of free trade agreements.

Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, reiterated the “existential” importance of trade for Singapore and the region.

For the latter, the hope is for major powers to engage ASEAN in a more constructive and comprehensive manner, as well as “on its own merits, not through the prism of a US-China relationship or US-China competition”, he said.

The new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, launched by US President Joe Biden, can be a platform for the US to engage the region more comprehensively, although “the key is to make sure that this continues through different administrations”, he added.

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