China is doing all it can to stop a war from happening, including signalling to others that they are willing to go to war over Taiwan, Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo said on Wednesday morning, Oct. 28.
Taiwan a concern in the region
Speaking at the Keynote Conversation of the live broadcast of a wealth conference organised by the Bank of Singapore and OCBC Bank, Yeo said Taiwan is a potential flashpoint where armed conflict could happen.
Yeo, who is currently the Senior Advisor to Kuok Group and Kerry Logistics Network, was answering OCBC Bank's Group CEO Samuel Tsien's question on his greatest concern for the region.
Yeo explained that there is the risk of danger over Taiwan as "almost without thinking through the consequences, or understanding the history, U.S. politicians, partly because of domestic politics are blithely encouraging Taiwanese independence".
And the Taiwanese are reacting to it, not just the Democratic Progressive Party, but also the Kuomintang due to electoral pressure, he added.
"The Chinese are very worried.
This is the reason why when they commemorated the 70th anniversary of the entry to Korean War, they've been bringing it up to the Chinese population, that you must be prepared for war.
(Chinese President) Xi Jinping, before going to Shenzhen, after Chaozhou, before Shantou, visited a marine base and told the Chinese Marines, be prepared for war."
China is sending signals to deter a war from happening
China has been sending signals that "over Taiwan, we will go to war," Yeo added. "And they're doing all this in order not to have a war."
He explained further: "If they don't do all these things, then the push for independence will be irresistible, then war will be inevitable."
Yeo continued: "They're doing everything they can now for peace, but which may require them to be firm and sometimes to show a willingness to try."
When asked if this is his biggest worry for this part of the world, Yeo replied that "accidents happen".
This is because "in history, people don't always plan to go to war, they stumble into war," he said.
"For the case of the First World War, one author described it as sleepwalk.
Recently Kissinger said, if in the coming years, both sides do not dialogue and set limits to the objectives, then we may slide into a World War One situation again, but one can never be sure. Things can happen."
Not in China's nature to be imperialistic
Earlier in the dialogue, Yeo gave his view on the escalating geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China.
He said that such rivalry between both major powers "define the history of this period of the world":
"China is reemerging on the global stage, as it has done many times before in the past.
It is difficult for the modern West, particularly for the U.S. to accept this.
And they see China initially in their own image, that as it becomes bigger, it will also become imperialistic."
However, Yeo said he does not think this is "the nature of the Chinese" because of the wealth of experience they have, adding that China has always been "a self-contained universe" that is "very often surrounded by walls".
It will be some time before the Americans accept such a China, perhaps even 10 to 20 years, he said.
And this period will "oscillate between a cold war and a cold peace with possible occasional skirmishes in peripheral areas", he added.
While there is a danger of war, he thinks both sides are "too rational to move in that direction".
"But this is a dramatic period, and I think China is aware of it.
They see the U.S. wanting to impede its growth, not just directly, but all around China's periphery."
China's growth is "unstoppable"
Yeo added that China's re-emergence has "its own internal dynamic, its own organic character and is virtually unstoppable". He said:
"It's like a teenager who is growing, which has to grow, which needs to grow.
You can try to stop the teenager. He can cry, he can fall sick.
But the growth dynamic defines China during this period. It will not grow forever."
However, he said China's demographic profile will turn adverse "very soon", but for this period, China will continue to grow.
"By the end of the decade, it'll be the world's biggest economy in nominal terms," he said. "In 20 years' time, it would be huge, maybe larger than the U.S. and Europe combined."
What's China's response to its challenges?
Yeo further opined that China's biggest challenges are "always domestic". He said:
"It's a huge country, very diverse. Every day, there are problems. And there are constantly imbalances.
So long as corruption is kept under control, the leaders are well selected, it should be able to cope as it has in its history, after a fashion, never perfectly but always messy, but on the whole, doing well."
He explained that the strategy of the Chinese is to be firm if pushed. This is because if you're not firm, the other side will continue pushing, he added.
"To be firm doesn't mean that you push back, that you escalate.
It may be like a Taiji practitioner, you just let the force move by you. You adjust your stance, but you're still there, you're still in contact.
This is the Chinese response. I think they are prepared to do it for years to come."
Asean is important to small states like Singapore
Speaking on countries closer to home, Yeo expounded on the importance of the regional grouping Asean.
"There is an instinct in Southeast Asia, that however big we are, be it Indonesia or Vietnam, that we are small, relative to the big powers.
The instinct among us to stick together. Because together, we have more room for manoeuvre. Everyone can then hide behind Asean."
He explained that for small countries, it is "never comfortable" dealing with a superpower as "they can do many things to you, and you can do very few things to them".
But with Asean, small countries have more buffer, which is why for Singapore, the most important, first circle of diplomacy, is always Asean, he added.
He further said it is this sense of insecurity that will keep the country "trim and agile":
"The moment we become self-confident, that we've achieved success, if we're in a comfortable position, I think that's the beginning of the end for Singapore.
This insecurity, that we've always complained about, is good for us, is the condition of our survival and our excellence."
What should Singapore and Asean do if pressed?
Yeo talked about the future of Asean as well.
He explained that before the Covid-19 pandemic, Asean benefited from growing trade tensions between the U.S. and China.
Companies which were supplying to both, and not wanting to be in the line of fire, had chosen to relocate to Southeast Asia, he said.
And since Asean has free trade agreements, member states can sell to both sides, which puts Asean in "an advantageous position", he added.
"This is why Asean should continue to maintain that position," he said. "Be neutral, be friendly, be unthreatening." He elaborated:
"And if anyone presses too strongly, we will have to adjust their position and reach out to the other side, just to send a message to the side that presses us too strongly.
This must be our diplomacy. It is Singapore's diplomacy, and it must be Asean's diplomacy."
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Top image via OCBC Bank