US’ dominance for past 40 years was ‘never sustainable’, but it will likely stay a key global power: S’pore’s ex-foreign minister George Yeo

"For the foreseeable future, no major problem in the world can be properly addressed without U.S. involvement."

Mothership | February 26, 2023, 08:15 AM

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George Yeo: Musings is a collection of just that: The former foreign minister’s musings across various diverse topics.

Series Two, the second of three books, looks beyond Singapore to the region and beyond, drawing from Yeo’s experiences in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. — and not just in his capacity as a former foreign minister.

The book is written by Yeo, with Woon Tai Ho, and published by World Scientific. It is now available at all major bookstores, and Mothership readers can order a copy here with the promo code “WSMSGY20” for 20 per cent off.

The book is presented in a question-and-answer format. An excerpt from Chapter 16, "Whither Pax Americana?", is reproduced here. 

By George Yeo, with Woon Tai Ho

Q: Do you see the end of Pax Americana?

It depends what we mean by Pax Americana.

The dominance the U.S. enjoyed after the collapse of the Soviet Union was never sustainable. For a brief period, it seemed to be a unipolar world.

The Neo-Conservatives saw the U.S. as a triumphant new Rome. There was a touch of hubris in the actions they supported. China is a threat whatever China does because it threatens not the U.S. directly but its dominance in the world.

I don’t believe that China has any ambition to displace the U.S. as world policeman. It likes its own homogeneity. It has enough problems of its own to want to take on other people’s problems. China is not interested in a Pax Sinica because it involves a lot of work.

The U.S., understandably, does not believe this.

The U.S. and China have therefore to go through a protracted trial of strength in the coming decades.

Their struggle will define the next phase of world history.

China is preparing itself for a long haul. China knows that if it takes Taiwan by force, the US, even if it does not oppose this militarily, will mobilise a multi-national coalition to punish China by sanctions and embargoes. There are signs that China is clearing the decks for such a scenario. The dual circulation economy anticipates such a scenario.

While China’s external economy will be disrupted in many areas especially in international finance and in the supply of raw materials, its domestic economy should be able to continue growing albeit at a much slower pace.

China will also be able to retaliate against the U.S. and its allies on a broad front including restricting exports of critical material.

The key question is whether the U.S. can accept China as a friendly competitor with a substantially bigger economy.

By 2050, the Chinese economy could be twice the size of the U.S. economy. By that time, China will be a competitor on land, at sea, underwater, on the sea bed, in outer space, in cyberspace. Can the U.S. prevent this from happening? Only by warfare or by fomenting within China a cataclysmic implosion, or a combination of both.

Xi Jinping’s recent series of moves show China’s concern about the possibility of such U.S. actions. China must however be careful not to make moves which precipitate the very outcome it wants to avert.

China’s behaviour is conditioned by its own history and value system. Unlike the U.S. which is self-consciously a missionary power, seeking to convert others to its values, China is too old a civilization to see the world in that way. It has no wish to be a world policeman because that is not only thankless, it leads to self-harm.

China says repeatedly that it does not wish to displace the U.S. as the world’s top dog so long as its own interests are protected. Internally, Chinese leaders probably conclude that the more the U.S. insists on being top dog, the faster will be its decline.

For the time being, China keeps close to Russia because of U.S. pressure.

China wants a strong Europe and a strong Euro today because that will help create a multipolar world which is its current strategic objective.

China wants a strong G20 because it means that everyone is in the same boat and forced to cooperate. Over Ukraine, however, the U.S. wants Russia out of the G20. Indonesia as Chair of APEC in 2022 has to compromise by inviting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky as a guest.

What the U.S. can do depends on how much strength it has. The U.S. today faces deep internal divisions. Its domestic politics have become bitter with each side demonising the other. We do not know how long it will take for the divisions to heal; neither is it in our power to affect the internal dynamics.

Countries are wont to externalise their internal problems. In liberal democracies, the exigencies of electoral politics often affect strategic calculation. For example, being anti-China probably helps win votes in the US, UK and Australia today.

The Chinese system resists such pressure. State control of media, including the social media, enables the leadership to modulate popular reaction to incidents.

Imagine an unintended skirmish in the South or East China Sea leading to the death of some dozens of U.S. and Chinese servicemen. In the US, there will be an immediate uproar amplified by the mass media. Congress will be forced to react and its reaction will circumscribe and even determine White House’s response.

In China, the level of public reaction is managed to prevent it undermining strategic purpose.

In 1999, five U.S. guided bombs hit China’s embassy in Belgrade during the Yugoslav war killing three Chinese journalists. The Chinese people were naturally outraged. I watched how China managed the rage of its people. Crowds were allowed to stone but not attack the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

Gradually, public anger was allowed to subside. The Chinese government later compensated the U.S. embassy for damage caused.

China will bite its tongue till it bleeds if that is necessary for strategic discipline. China’s control of the social media is however getting more difficult. In the brutal lockdown of Shanghai to stem the spread of the Omicron virus, the social media exploded in shock and anger. The ability of the state to suppress what it considers dysfunctional reporting is becoming more difficult.

China being China, however, the exercise of central will is never to be underestimated. Like Beijing, Shanghai now has a system of lockdown in case of a future deadly epidemic.

I find it useful to understand China’s response to U.S. actions through game theory. If the U.S. pushes China to a win-lose quadrant, China’s response is to move to the lose-lose quadrant and wait out the U.S. there. Its objective is not to remain there but to persuade the U.S. to move into the win-win quadrant.

China’s standard formulation is: “we don’t want war but we are not afraid of war”.

Unfortunately, the U.S. response is not always predictable. Some of the actions taken by the U.S. against Russia are hastening its own relative decline.

The U.S. worries that China, when it becomes the biggest economy in the world, will seek to dominate the world the way the U.S. now does. That the fact of China’s rise is a threat to U.S. dominance in the world is not in doubt. But it does not follow that China seeks to displace the U.S. as the dominant power.

I do not believe that this is the way China sees itself. There is nothing in its self-conception - historically, culturally and philosophically - to suggest such an ambition.

That is the reason why China, despite its huge population, is overwhelmingly Han. It is not by accident but by choice. Western empires end up sucking those who were once their subjects into their own shores. London, Paris and New York are multi-ethnic and multi-religious in a way which China does not wish to see Beijing or Shanghai turned into.

The Chinese are racist not in the desire to put others down but in the desire to keep themselves separate. It will, however, be many years before the U.S. believes that this is China’s nature and that China’s nature does not pose as serious a threat to their dominance as they now believe.

When the Europeans and Japanese were carving up China, the U.S. was opposed to it. President Theodore Roosevelt brokered the peace between the Japanese and the Russians after their war in 1905 and won the Nobel Peace Prize for it. The medal adorns the wall in the West Wing of the White House. That story was recently recounted by Robert Zoellick in his book “America in the World”.

The U.S. supported China in its war against Japan. I have visited the General Joseph Stilwell Museum in Chongqing and wonder if the U.S. and China can one day cooperate in the same way again.

Singapore’s Flying Tiger pilot, Captain Ho Weng Toh, only 101 years old, still proudly wears on his lapel the Flying Tiger badge for the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theatre. CBI was the designation used by the U.S. military before the Second World War. The badge itself is a combination of the U.S. and China (KMT) flags.

To return to your question, yes, the old Pax Americana is not sustainable but there is a fair chance that a new Pax Americana with the U.S. as primus inter pares can endure a long time in a multipolar world. For the foreseeable future, no major problem in the world can be properly addressed without U.S. involvement.

By applying its military, political, economic and intellectual weight at the right points, the U.S. can make its influence decisive. Such a U.S. has to respect diversity in the world and work harder to understand other points of view.

Whether the U.S. can grow into such a role depends much on its internal evolution as a rambunctious democracy. The U.S. has not been this divided since the Civil War. Like the Civil War, a new unity can perhaps only be achieved after an intense contest in the country with winner and loser. Some violence cannot be ruled out.

Those of us who grow up seeing the U.S. as the shining city upon a hill, and relying on it as a beacon, must wish this transition to be as short as possible. If the U.S. cannot heal itself and goes into prolonged decline, the entire world will be destabilised and thrown into confusion.

In historical terms, the ramifications will be greater than that of the decline of Qing China or the Ottoman Empire or the Soviet Union.

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