'Very big mistake' for major powers to view its influence in Southeast Asia as a zero-sum game: George Yeo

Yeo believes that ASEAN can play an important role in a multi-polar world, praising Indonesian President Joko Widodo's deft handling of the G20 summit held in Bali last November.

Yen Zhi Yi | January 11, 2023, 11:31 AM

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There is a tendency for major powers to view their influence in Southeast Asia versus China as a zero-sum game, former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo said on Tuesday (Jan. 10), noting that major powers seeing their presence as a zero-sum game is making “a very big mistake and reflects a lack of understanding of Southeast Asia”.

In his keynote address delivered on Jan. 10 at the Regional Outlook Forum organised by thinktank ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, Yeo said that there is a misunderstanding by some countries of the relationship between Southeast Asia countries and China.

“[Big] powers see their presence in Southeast Asia as a zero sum game, making a very big mistake. It does not mean that because we are close to China, we are not close to them. Obviously, [the] closer we are to China, the more we see our accounts growing, the more uncomfortable we are that our economy will be circumscribed.”

Southeast Asia welcomes diversification

Yeo highlighted that all are welcome to Southeast Asia, be it Europeans or Americans, provided that the region is not asked to choose.

"No foreigner feels unwelcome in Southeast Asia", Yeo said.

Thriving in a multipolar world

Yeo also expounded on the features of multipolarity, noting that a crystallisation of a multipolar world will take many years.

“[As] we enter a multipolar world, Southeast Asia will play an important role because of this history, this culture. We are the most diverse region in the world.”

“Americans are not comfortable because for a long time their use of dominance. Of course they are not comfortable because they are also used to dominance.”

On the Russian-Ukrainian war, Yeo said that it is unclear how the struggle between the West and Russia would pan out, but the Western alliance is noticing that non-Western world is not taking sides in the conflict.

He also said that, “Russia of course, has come to the conclusion that it cannot be a part of the West, cannot be absorbed by the West.”

Yeo reiterated that multipolarity is "not naturally stable" and "is inherently dynamic", so there is a need to meet for dialogue as human beings and  leave the pandemic behind.

ASEAN as a convening platform

Yeo also emphasized the role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in a multipolar world.

He said that the region holds an "easy acceptance for those who are not like ourselves, [which] gives us a special position".

He said that ASEAN can achieve this by:

"not by interposing itself, by saying ‘we are right, you are wrong, and this is how the world should be’. But just by being gracious, by showing respect, by nodding, by acknowledging."

Yeo also praised Indonesian President Joko Widodo's deft handling of the Group of 20 (G20) summit held in Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022, which was attended the U.S.' President Joe Biden and China's President Xi Jinping.

ASEAN would be able to play a special role in navigating a multipolar world, Yeo noted, "by just being gracious, by showing respect, by nodding, by acknowledgement".

The forum, “Understanding the drivers of change in a disrupted world”, was organised by thinktank ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute to focus on key economic and political issues facing the region.

It seeks to address the drivers which can disrupt and reshape not only the global economic order, but more fundamentally, long-cherished paradigms about identity, religion and political ideology.

It is the first in-person event held by the thinktank since the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Top image via Keyla Supharta