Both China and Taiwan "understand the consequences" of a military clash, and "really do not want to go into conflict", Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said in a Monday (Aug. 15) interview with John Micklethwait, Bloomberg's editor-in-chief.
Taiwan a flashpoint that can become very dangerous quickly
Wong was responding to Micklethwait's question about whether Singapore is worried a Chinese invasion of Taiwan might happen before 2027, as former U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Philip Davidson opined previously, taking into account a possible transition for Chinese President Xi Jinping when the Chinese Communist Party convenes again five years later in 2027.
Wong said while both sides don't want to go into battle deliberately, the danger lies in a possible situation where they might "sleepwalk" into conflict as Taiwan is "certainly one flashpoint" that can "easily become very dangerous" and "escalate quite quickly".
He also explained that following the Russian war on Ukraine, relations between China and the U.S. have become "more strained", leading to a rise in tensions, which might result in an accidental clash that might lead to a full-blown war.
"... we are starting to see a series of decisions being taken by both countries that will lead us into more and more dangerous territory," Wong said. "You could easily have near misses or accidents happening around Taiwan Strait or on the South China Sea."
Adversarial relations between China and U.S. not helped by domestic considerations
Recalling the 2001 incident with the U.S. spy plane that landed on Hainan Island after colliding mid-air with a People's Liberation Army fighter jet, Wong said it happened years ago with U.S.-China relations were in a "much better situation than today". However, should the same accident happen today, the consequences may be more difficult to manage.
He further said although both China and the U.S. don't want conflict or confrontation, the adversarial relationship between them is "likely to stay for quite some time", and this dynamic is "not helped by domestic politics" -- the U.S. is about to have its midterm elections, while China is facing its five-yearly party congress -- making it difficult for either side to concede any ground.
"With how things are unfolding now, we worry that there may be near misses, accidents, miscalculations, and things can get worse," he said.
Nevertheless, Wong said he hopes the leadership on both sides can continue to engage each other, and make "sensible and rational decisions" to prevent things from deteriorating further.
"We are not an ally to America - we conduct our own foreign policy"
When asked about U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, which triggered an angry response from China that saw them staging an unprecedented six live-fire drills in waters surrounding the island, Wong said he will not comment on the decisions made by China or the U.S., and acknowledged they have their own considerations and calculations to make.
When probed by Micklethwait if Singapore is an ally to the U.S., Wong emphasised, "We are not an ally to America -- we conduct our own foreign policy based on our own vital and core interests in a principled manner."
He continued to explain, "We have always upheld our one China policy and we oppose Taiwanese independence, as well as any unilateral --"
Wong was interrupted at this point, but he may be referring to the Ministry's of Foreign Affairs' position that Singapore opposes "any unilateral moves to change the status quo".
Singapore welcomes economic initiative launched by the U.S.
When asked if he agrees that Pelosi should have come to Asia with a trade pact instead if she "really wanted to stand up to China", Wong said Southeast Asian countries have consistently encouraged the U.S. to do "as much as it can", as far as its domestic politics and constraints allow.
Countering the interviewer's point that the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is "better than nothing" and "pretty close to meaningless", Wong said he "would not put it like that", and later added that Singapore and other Asean countries welcome the economic initiative launched by U.S. President Joe Biden in May 2022.
He continued, "As we have repeatedly told the Americans, the launch is only the beginning."
U.S. understands strategic importance of engaging the region
Wong also acknowledged that people in every country tend to be focused on their domestic concerns, including Singapore, and that besides domestic politics, governments everywhere face pressing challenges as they deal with a more uncertain environment with Covid-19, economic slowdown and inflation.
Nevertheless, he is confident that the U.S. "understand(s) the strategic importance of engaging this part of the world", and that they will "do everything they can to strengthen and enhance that engagement".
Singapore will continue to engage the American leadership, and help ensure that the U.S. continues to have "a strong leadership role in engaging the region", he added. Wong said,
"America has many friends in this part of the world, as we consistently tell our friends in America. We are grateful for America's role post World War Two -- America expended blood and treasure to ensure peace and stability in the region and to ensure progress for the region."
Singapore has repeatedly stressed the importance of U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region, saying it is "critical to the region's continued peace, stability and prosperity".
Wong further said Singapore wants to create a framework in the Asia-Pacific, especially in Southeast Asia, where both China and the U.S. have stakes in the region.
"We think that will contribute to a more stable configuration, an overlapping circle of friendships, where everyone has stakes here and hopefully that will increase interdependencies and help make this a more stable configuration."
Top image via Bloomberg