Rest of world has responsibility & agency to shape global trends amid US-China rivalry: Chan Chun Sing

Both global powers have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership by example.

Sulaiman Daud | November 10, 2021, 02:54 PM

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Education Minister Chan Chun Sing has a message for countries who are not China or the U.S., arguably the two dominant powers in the world today.

The rest of the world also has a part to play in shaping the outcome it desires, both the responsibility and the agency to do so.

Chan elaborated, "That outcome must be for the world to remain inclusive, open, and inter-connected, where we are vested in each other's success."

And how can the rest of the world achieve this? Chan lays out three points.

1. Avoid a zero-sum mentality

Chan says it is a "false dichotomy" that one side must lose for the other to win. He added:

"We can send a clear message that we will act on principle, and do not wish to be corralled into taking sides.

We act in accordance with our own enlightened long-term interests, which may not always align with the specific interests of either the U.S. or China."

Chan added that most countries, including those in Europe, want to be partners with both the U.S. and China, and to grow their relationships with both.

He noted that. "Taking sides regardless of issues and context, breeds irrelevance. And if one is irrelevant, it will almost certainly require taking sides."

2. Stand for a rules-based world

Chan said that the rest of the world can stand for the principles of a rules-based, inclusive, open and connected world order.

If more step up, the more viable the desired outcome becomes.

He said, "This is, perhaps, the classical Prisoner's Dilemma in Game Theory – if we don't hang together, we hang individually."

3. Rest of world must come together and update global institutions

Chan also made the point that even if the U.S. and China are unable to see eye-to-eye in the short term, the rest of the world can also do things like updating "global security architecture" and trading system.

He gave the examples of Europe possibly taking the lead in areas like the digital economy and sustainability, while the formulation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its successor the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) did not come from either the U.S. or China.

He also pointed to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), recently signed by Singapore and other countries after eight years of negotiation, as a positive sign of cooperation even during a pandemic.

Global power competition

Earlier in his speech, given at the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia Fullerton Lecture on Nov. 9, Chan addressed the competition between the U.S. and China, and how he feels that sustained peace and progress can still be achieved despite said competition.

Chan said that due to history and different fundamental beliefs, the U.S. and China will probably never become a version of the other, and neither should try to make the other become more like themselves.

It is unproductive, possibly counter-productive to do so, and trade and economic development do not necessarily result in a convergence of social and political systems, he further opined.

U.S. and China still have many common interests

But despite the rivalry, the U.S. and China have good reasons to cooperate.

They have mutual common interests, such as securing global supply chains, data flows and networks, and seeking buyers for their goods.

They both want to maintain order, even if they have differing interpretations of what "order" looks like. They face the same challenges with climate change and global pandemics affecting their societies.

And as nuclear powers, they know that outright war risks total destruction.

While the competition has been described as the new "Cold War", Chan dismisses this comparison, as they are both "vital components of a single global system", whereas the U.S. and the Soviet Union led two separate systems.

Neither the U.S. nor China can knock each other down without causing significant damage to themselves, a similar point made by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Aspen Security Forum in August.

Instead, Chan opines, success will be determined by who can surmount their domestic challenges and "exercise global leadership through the power of their example, rather than the example of their power".

This last phrase was notably used by U.S. President Joe Biden in a reference to America's style of leadership under his Administration.

Chan said there is "tremendous opportunity" for both powers to set an example by leading the way in tackling global challenges, like the pandemic and climate change.

Singapore's position

But what of Singapore?

Chan, who was formerly Trade and Industry Minister and the Chief of Army, laid out Singapore's position for the uninitiated.

Nothing new was revealed, with Chan affirming that Singapore does not take sides as default, without regard to the issue of context. He added:

"Instead, we take principled positions in our own long-term national interests to uphold the rule of international law in the global order, so that might does not equal right.

When we decide our positions on this basis, we will then be the reliable, steadfast, and consistent partner that others have come to know us as and what we stand for."

Working with all kinds of like-minded partners

Singapore therefore looks towards working with like-minded partners, including international organisations and corporations, to support an open, rules-based order, as that is important for Singapore's continued survival and success.

Instead of "being mired" in old and existing debates, Chan said differences can be transcended to tackle mutual global challenges.

And he pointed out that if "small city-state" Singapore can be committed and contribute towards a more sustainable and secure world, other countries and organisations with "greater resources and agency" can do the same, if not more.

Chan's words received praise from Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh.

Commenting on veteran journalist Bertha Henson's Facebook post about the speech, Koh said:

Screenshot from Bertha Henson's Facebook page.

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Top image from IISS.

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