International Asia Goh Chok Tong: Amidst US-China tensions, Asia needs to be the ‘moderate...

Goh Chok Tong: Amidst US-China tensions, Asia needs to be the ‘moderate voice’

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ESM Goh says the best case scenario would be for these two countries to be 'frenemies' which he defines as a relationship of competition and cooperation, where the US and China can be both partners and rivals

Singapore—In a speech at the 10th Asian Leadership Conference, Singapore Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that Asian nations should not take sides in the ongoing trade tensions between China and the United States, but together, must form a “moderate voice” that would help the two global powers become “frenemies.”

This is needful, he said, to prevent a “catastrophic clash between the US and China”.

ESM Goh’s speech at Chosun Ilbo’s 10th Asian Leadership Conference was published on the website of Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 14, Tuesday.

Regarding the current situation between the US and China, he said,

“The US-China relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. If the rivalry becomes toxic, it will disrupt Asia’s path to prosperity and peace.”

He then asked the audience, “My key question to you is: How can Asia avert a potential catastrophe arising from an unbridled contest for supremacy between the US and China?”

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ESM Goh suggested that the following things could happen should the rivalry between the US and China continue unabated. It could end in out and out conflict, “unbridled strategic conflict…in accordance with global rules,” or “a relationship of competition and cooperation, where the US and China can be both partners and rivals.”

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He said, “In other words, they are “frenemies”.

But for him, this is the best-case scenario, the one that would do the least damage to Asian countries. “There will certainly be collateral damage in any clash between the US and China. Many Asian countries have already felt these repercussions as US-China trade frictions have had an impact on the global supply chain.”

ESM Goh expressed optimism that there is a way for China to continue to prosper without being a threat to the US. “As leaders of both sides have said before, the Pacific is large enough to accommodate both the US and China.”

Hence the need for a ‘voice of moderation’ to intervene between the two superpowers. He explained, however, that it does not mean that a new group of Asian countries needs to be formed in order to accomplish this.

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“This ‘moderate voice’ is not a bloc or new grouping, but simply the voice of moderation. As many countries as possible should play a part in this, especially ASEAN countries, South Korea, Japan, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

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It is in our interests to encourage the US and China to moderate their positions and consider the interests of global peace and stability.”

In his speech, he outlines the three things that this “voice of moderation” can do.

First, he said that the “negative shackles of history” must be thrown out for the sake of all nations’ common future. He encouraged that leaders attend retreats regularly in order to “build up personal rapport and mutual trust.”

Secondly, Asian nations should recognize and safeguard common values such as “peaceful coexistence, prosper-thy-neighbor, and respect for an inclusive rules-based international order,” through calling out “the dangers of a fragmented technology space” and collaborating in creating common platforms of technology.

Lastly, he suggests that this ‘moderate voice’ should “build and strengthen multilateral institutions and systems of interdependency to put values into action, as well as to enforce these values when disagreements occur.” ESM Goh urged that the negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership be completed at the soonest possible time, and suggested that the US and China, become part of the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).

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ESM Goh ended his speech with an Asian twist to an African proverb that he had cited earlier in his speech.

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“We have to be realistic and practical while maintaining our ideals. If we want to be independent and neutral in the US-China rivalry, we must exercise our collective influence as the ‘Moderate Voice’, and as friends of both the US and China. We all have a stake in building a cohesive and peaceful world.

Before I close, let me return to the African proverb that when elephants fight, the grass beneath them suffers. I will give this an Asian twist, ‘When elephants make love, the grass beneath them also suffers.’

We should avoid being the grass beneath the elephants, and choose to be a Voice of Moderation that even the elephants will pay attention to.”/ TISG

Read related: Chan Chun Sing urges Singapore to brace for fallout from US-China trade war

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