SINGAPORE – In light of the fierce competition for power between the United States and China, Singapore will choose principles and its own interests rather than taking sides without regard to the issue and context.
The Republic also believes that countries must rise above their differences to work together on a global agenda for health, sustainability and the digital economy, said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.
He spoke Tuesday (November 9) at the 41st Fullerton Lecture, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank.
He said: “We take positions of principle in our own long-term national interests to uphold the rule of international law in the world order, so that doesn’t equate to law.
“If we establish our positions on this basis, we will be the reliable, steadfast and consistent partner that others have come to know and stand for.”
Principles such as an inclusive, open and connected global security and economic architecture, Mr Chan added, are key to Singapore’s continued success.
Mr. Chan’s audience—about 150 people in person at the Fullerton Hotel and hundreds of others who attended virtually—included business executives, diplomats and experts in international affairs.
In his speech, Mr Chan called on countries to move beyond the debate and come together to set new standards for the digital commons.
He also suggested new and sustainable solutions for a greener world, emphasizing the need to pool resources to recover from the current Covid-19 pandemic, as well as to prepare for the next pandemic.
Singapore has been committed since its inception to nurture and expand its limited resources to leave a better world for generations to come, Mr Chan said, “possibly even before the term ‘sustainability’ entered the popular lexicon” .
Mr Chan’s Fullerton lecture is the latest in a series of talks on regional and global security issues.
It also featured a question-and-answer segment chaired by James Crabtree, executive director of IISS Asia, who wrote a commentary in the Straits Times last week saying that Mr. leader would be making a major geopolitical speech in the wake of the pandemic.
On Tuesday, Mr Chan, who served as Secretary of Trade and Industry from 2018 to May this year, said the US and China have more common interests than they might like to acknowledge.
These include ensuring global security and trade orders that remain peaceful, stable and connected – even if the two superpowers understand “order” differently – and that strategic lines of communication remain open.
Mr Chan said: “Both are rational nuclear powers and know that war is mutual assured destruction.
“Both need to secure their global supply chains. Both need the world as their markets. And both want to have secure and connected data flows and networks.”
That’s why their interdependence across domains means “total across the board” decoupling is unlikely, Mr Chan added.
“They both want to be respected by the other and the rest of the world. Neither would like to see conflict arise through miscalculation.”
Aside from shared interests, the US and China are also grappling with similar domestic challenges, Mr Chan said, citing inequalities, middle-class struggles, geographic disparities in economic development and a growing need to invest in new technologies and worker training.
He also said it was misleading to compare current tensions between the US and China to the competition between the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War that took place decades after World War II.
Where the US and the Soviet Union vie to see which of their different political and economic systems would prevail, the US and China are both vital components of one global system and compete within that system, Mr Chan said.
Mr Chan, who was the army chief of the Singapore Armed Forces before entering politics, said success is not determined by who can take the other down.
And neither country can decisively do that to the other without harming itself, he added.
Instead, the spoils go to those who can best “exercise global leadership by the strength of their example, rather than the example of their power,” Mr Chan said.
US President Joe Biden has used similar language twice in his 10-month term.
Mr Chan said this involves acting in deliberate rather than narrow-minded self-interest – with the pandemic and climate change challenges facing countries everywhere being two examples.
“There is a tremendous opportunity for both the US and China to focus on these global challenges…to win the world over.”
The rest of the world, meanwhile, also has responsibility and agency to shape the results, he added.
“We can avoid a zero-sum mentality. It’s a false dichotomy that one side has to lose for the other to win. We can send a clear signal that we will act on principle and don’t want to be tricked into taking from sides.
“Choosing a side, regardless of issues and context, leads to irrelevance. And if one is irrelevant, it will almost certainly have to take sides.”