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In search of Shangri-La – or hidden agendas?

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Prime Minister delivered a lengthy tone-setting speech on Friday May 31 at the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue. I doubt the leaders of the delegations of the two countries engaged in what many think is the new Cold War learnt much from the speech. That does not mean the American and Chinese delegations have not found the dialogue useful for exchanging views, privately conveying bona fide official stands, exploring solutions for issues and getting feedback from other participants.

So they came.

PM Lee probably told them what they already knew. These were some of the main points in his speech: Southeast-Asia is no stranger to big power contestations and, reincarnated as ASEAN and as a not insignificant bloc, should stay neutral in power conflicts. Asia and the world are adjusting to the reality of a rising China. Beijing has itself gained much from the international system and has a substantial stake in upholding and making it work for the global community. And however difficult the challenge, it is “well worth the US forging a new understanding that will integrate China’s aspirations within the current system of rules and norms”.

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Easier said than done. There is growing distrust and a hardening of attitudes on both sides of the Pacific. At the risk of oversimplifying, the Chinese resent increasing attempts by Americans to contain them. The Americans think the Chinese have had it too good for too long, that it’s time for it to play fair in trade and that it’s also time for it to stop all its island games in the South China Sea.

My realpolitik take is that China is not an expansionist power like the Soviet Union was as a hyperactive global player in the old days. But it will draw the most attainable lines – unilaterally if it comes to that – on what it perceives is its relatively limited legitimate sphere of influence. And I think, despite all the war-drum beating, the US may accept that, so long as the freedom of international passage is not affected.

Trade war? In 2018, exports from the US to China totalled $179.3 billion (Sing$246 billion); imports were $557.9 billion. There will be some brinksmanship and there will be some casualties but, in the end, common sense will largely prevail. Too much is at stake. What exactly are the US and China fighting over? Who is threatening who? Go to war over a trade gap? Donald Trump wants to make America Great Again, the jobless in the US heartland need jobs, Republican corporate bigwigs are businessmen all said and done. Containing China cannot possibly be the agenda at such a time especially when the Middle Kingdom is not quite the Evil Empire, as President Ronald Reagan once described the Soviet Union. Lest Americans forget, it was not China who bombed Pearl Harbour.

Should we agree with Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan? He said: “Perhaps the greatest long-term threat to the vital interests of states across this region comes from actors who seek to undermine, rather than uphold, the rules-based international order.” Maybe.

The period of renegotiation may not have expired. Hopefully, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe has something positive to say today (Sunday June 2). I would rather not hold my breath but it is significant that Beijing is represented by a Defence Minister after an eight-year absence. Is it an up the ante move, familiarisation exercise or a sign that Beijing is open to negotiation and does not wish to be misrepresented or under-represented?

Even as Beijing takes an active part in the Dialogue, the shadow of June 4 (30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations) lurks in the background for every member of its delegation. Coming not long after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and later the Soviet Union, Tiananmen was looking like a repeat of what happened in Europe. But China held and did not break up – and the rest was history.

The hindsight of history has also given us and all others observing the US-China tensions useful perspectives. PM Lee mentioned one. Earlier American anxiety about Japan’s growing economic clout was groundless. The prospect of the then world’s second largest economy eclipsing the US turned out to be false.

Social disorder did not necessarily have to lead to the implosion of a country provided the right decision was taken and that the country had the right type of leaders to make these decisions.

The same goes to the proper handling of a world at a crossroads today. Sit down and deal with real threats – of joblessness, terrorism, extremisms, diseases, abject poverty – or undermine each other in an imaginary clash of civilisations.

If, as PM Lee said, there is a lack of strategic trust, do what President Reagan did with the Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev – Doveryai, no proveryai (Trust but verify). Rebuild the trust. The world will be the better for it.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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