S'poreans should remain calm in the face of uncertainty in US-China relations in 2018: Bilahari Kausikan

There will be risks, but also opportunities.

Kayla Wong | January 08, 2018, 10:28 AM

Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan is one of the most qualified man to go to if you want a clear and clinical articulation of Singapore's interests when it comes to our foreign policy.

His commentary on US-China relations this year and how Singapore should view the ongoing competition between the two powers was published by Today on Jan. 4.

In the words of Bilahari, US-China relations will remain the major axis of the East Asian strategic equation in 2018 and the adjustments underway between the two will preoccupy the region "for decades to come."

For those who missed his insightful analysis on this important topic, here are some highlights from his commentary.

1.  Neither China nor the US is going to trace a straight-line trajectory up or down

Bilahari believes that our capacity for dispassionate analysis should not be clouded by two key developments in 2017 – Donald Trump's inauguration as the 45th President and Xi Jinping's consolidation of power at the 19th Party Congress

He warned against the tendency to think about US-China relations in deterministic, binary terms, which is "inaccurate and dangerous".

"A more symmetrical US-China strategic relationship is emerging. But neither China nor the US is going to trace a straight-line trajectory up or down.

Simply put: The US under Mr Trump is not as bad as the American establishment and media – still in denial over his victory – portrays; China under Mr Xi is not the juggernaut the Communist Party's propaganda apparatus would have us believe.

This is clouded by the emotional shock of Mr Trump's election and the confidence with which Mr Xi proclaimed China's ambition for a "new era".

The American establishment and media present almost everything Mr Trump does as wrong because they want him to fail in order to vindicate themselves.

China presents ambition as already existing reality because persuading others that it is so goes some way towards making it so."

2. The Trump administration has a different, narrower, concept of leadership that puts "America First"

Bilahari said the typical contention that Trump's refusal to lead has undermined international order and given China an advantage, is "superficially persuasive, but grossly exaggerated."

  • Trump is not as disruptive as Bush and Obama also hurt US's credibility

He said, contrary to what many may think, Trump did not disrupt the international order the way George W Bush did in 2003, which set in place a dynamic that led to Trump's election.

In addition, Obama hurt US's credibility as much as Trump.

"But nothing that Mr Trump has done has been as disruptive of international order as George W Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The ensuing decade of war in the Middle East wearied Americans, discredited the establishment, and led to Mr Trump's election, and that of Barack Obama before him.

In East Asia, Mr Trump's cancellation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a blow to American credibility. But as bad was Mr Obama's failure to enforce the "red line" he drew in Syria."

  • Trump restored the credibility of US power

As what Bilahari said: "Without credible power, there can be no leadership."

Bilahari listed the things Trump and his administration has done to restore US credibilty, such as his decision to bomb Syria while at dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Apr 2017, the reaffirmation of US alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Trump also attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the Asean-US Summit, and the East Asian Summit.

"The US National Security Strategy (NSS 2017) published in December 2017 makes clear that the Trump administration has not eschewed leadership, but has a different, narrower, concept of leadership that puts "America First" and stresses a more robust approach to competitors.

Whether the strategy will work is yet to be determined."

In his view, "the most important discontinuity is in trade", where NSS 2017 makes abundantly clear that the focus will be on fair, not free, trade. This poses risks to all, but more risk to China.

It also signalled a more restrictive approach to investment and on STEM students from designated countries, which also clearly includes China.


3. The Belt & Road Initiative is a "China First strategy" built on the foundations of the current order

For Bilahari, Xi's defence of globalisation and indication of his willingness to lead if America was not,  was more a "rhetorical extension of the 'Great Rejuvenation' narrative by which the Chinese Communist Party justifies its rule than a settled proposition."

As what Bilahari pointed out, while there's nothing unusual about a big country having big ambitions, Xi's Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) is also about domestic concerns.

He sees the BRI as "the externalisation of a growth model heavily dependent on the stimulus of SOE-led infrastructure investment", which will help buy time for Beijing to deal with its search for a new growth model without risking internal instability that could jeopardise party rule.

"Despite its "win-win" justification, the BRI is thus a "China First" strategy. This accounts for the uneasiness it has generated in many countries and the pushback it has encountered, recently even within Pakistan, which is almost entirely dependent on Chinese largesse now that Mr Trump has threatened to cut back American assistance.

None of this implies that there are no gains for other countries, or that China will fail.

Like the US, China is a creative and resilient society with a proven record of adaptability. But the complications suggest that the BRI's implementation will at best be patchy, subject to conflicting demands on resources, and that the BRI is not a practical alternative to the current US-led international order.

The BRI – and China's growth -- are built on the foundation of the current order. Can they succeed if Mr Trump's America First strategy fails and the US and China stumble into a trade war, or if the world turns protectionist? China was the greatest beneficiary of post-Cold War globalisation; it may be the greatest loser if globalisation falters."

4. Singaporeans should keep calm and remember that we have our own interests

Bilahari said we will face a prolonged period of more than usual uncertainty, where there will be risks, but also opportunities.

He noted how Singapore's establishment is subjected to both US and China's influence, given similar educational and career experiences with the American establishment, and the cultural affinity towards China felt by some.

He reminded Singaporeans that US-China competition is as much psychological as material.

"Biculturalism is an advantage. But it also exposes us to the worst of both worlds.

The identity of a country only 53 years old is still tentative. There is an inchoate sense of deference among some Singaporeans towards more ancient civilisations, or supposedly more advanced political cultures."

Hence his words for advice for Singaporeans:

"Singaporeans should keep calm, watch developments alertly, understand the mind games that we are being subjected to, avoid rushing to judgement, and not forget the obvious: We are neither American nor Chinese, and have our own interests."

Top image via Getty Images