China's growth is positive for Asia and the world, but given perceptions that it may become "a less than gentle elephant", the country needs to gain the trust of its neighbours, ESM Goh Chok Tong said on Sunday, July 4.
To achieve this, China has to do more than just changing the way it communicates publicly, he added.
China is a large and growing elephant that might unintentionally step on other animals' toes
Goh was speaking at his keynote speech at a plenary session titled "Reinvigorating Regional Cooperation", held virtually at the 9th World Peace Forum.
In his speech, he shared his principles on reinvigorating regional cooperation in Asia, which would provide the overarching framework for "a peaceful Asia" that all stakeholders respect and abide by.
Among the stakeholders, the "principal protagonist" is China, he said.
Recalling his exchange with then-Premier Wen Jiabao back in 2003 at the first Asean-China Summit, Goh said he had likened China to an elephant entering a swimming pool where there were other small animals.
"No matter how gentle the elephant was, it still needed to be careful of its every move, because it might, even unintentionally, step on the toes of the other animals," he said, adding that two decades on, the elephant is now "much bigger and still growing" in the pool that has remained the same size.
Goh further explained the relevance of China's size and growing strength, saying that in "the world of realpolitik, the behaviour of the larger and more powerful countries determines the peace and prosperity of Asia".
Has "good vibes of China" from his visits
Goh further said that in his multiple visits to China since his first trip in 1971, during which he had the "good fortune of meeting all the top Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping", he has formed "positive impressions and good vibes of China".
"I believe that China is focused on uplifting its people through economic growth, rather than seeking hegemony in Asia or challenging the U.S. for global dominance," he said.
"I am convinced that China’s growth is positive for Asia and the world."
Perception that China is increasingly muscular and aggressive
However, Goh acknowledged the negative perceptions regarding China's rise as well, saying "there are people who fear that China may become a less than gentle elephant".
He raised the example of China's "wolf warrior diplomacy" which critics had drawn attention to, whether "accurately or inaccurately".
Opining that the term "shapes people's perceptions of an increasingly muscular and aggressive China", Goh added that while he understands "why China needs to stand up firmly for its interests", how the country conducts its diplomacy "does shape how others view China".
He said with Chinese President Xi Jinping urging Politburo members to portray an image of a "credible, lovable and respectable" China, the world will "no doubt be watching China's actions closely to see what will change and what will not change".
Goh further stressed that "real regional cooperation" is impossible unless China has "the confidence and trust of its neighbours".
"Achieving this requires more than a change in the tone, style and language of public communications," he said.
You can read his entire speech here.
Top image of Goh & Xi in 2010 via Xinhua