SINGAPORE – Ambassador-at-large Professor Tommy Koh, The Straits Times US correspondent Charissa Yong and China correspondent Danson Cheong spoke at a webinar on US-China ties on Tuesday (May 25).
Foreign editor Bhagyashree Garekar moderated the session.
The following is a transcript of the discussions that took place at The Straits Times Connect Webinar series Power Play: Stormier Days For US-China Ties?
TK: Prof Tommy Koh
CY: Charissa Yong
DC: Danson Cheong
BG: Bhagyashree Garekar (Moderator)
Bhagyashree Garekar (BG): Hello everyone, and a very good afternoon. Welcome to ST Connect. This is a monthly webinar series organised by the Straits Times. I’m Bhagyashree, ST’s foreign editor and your moderator.
We are discussing today the world’s most important bilateral relationship. Just a few weeks ago, we heard Henry Kissinger say that tensions between the United States and China pose the biggest problem for the world. Indeed, there is a sense that rivalry and hostility are set to define the US-China ties for a very long time. China has become richer and more powerful. It now wants a more equal relationship with the US. The Biden administration is still firming up its response, but it seems to have settled on a framework of competitive coexistence with China. We in South-east Asia follow the ups and downs of this relationship closely because it has a great bearing on our security and prosperity.
We have today a wonderful panel to take stock of the problematic aspects of the US- China ties. We will also explore, importantly, where the solutions lie. But before we begin, let’s quickly go through some housekeeping matters.
Firstly, this session will last for around 45 minutes. It will include a Q&A segment. Now, many of our ST readers have submitted their questions in advance, and I will be raising these as part of our discussion. We have room for more questions at the end. To send us your questions or comments, please click the Q&A button on your Zoom screen. And finally, a recording of this session will be available on the Straits Times website later this evening.
Now, let me introduce our panellists.
We have Professor Tommy Koh joining us on Zoom. Professor Koh wears many hats. He chairs the governing board of the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore. He has also served as Singapore’s ambassador to the US from 1984 to 1990. And he is the co-chairman of the China-Singapore Forum. Welcome, Professor Koh.
Prof Tommy Koh (TK): Happy to join you.
BG: We also have our US correspondent, Charissa Yong. She’s speaking to us from Washington, where it’s past midnight. Thank you, Charissa, for joining us.
And our China correspondent, Danson Cheong, he’s joining us from Beijing.
Welcome both. Danson and Charissa are key writers for the Power Play column that appears in the Straits Times every Monday. I would like to urge you all to check out our Power Play column. Every week, we look at new developments in the US-China ties and the implications for Asia.
Now we’re ready to begin our discussion.
Prof Koh, first, let me turn to you. You had great hopes for Mr Joe Biden. You know him from your stint as Singapore’s ambassador in Washington. You’ve said you expect Mr Biden to be rational, predictable and competent. So has he been that, or are you disappointed?
TK: No, I’m not disappointed. President Biden is emotionally stable, he’s well-informed, he listens to professional advice. He’s appointed very capable men and women to join his team, and I think the decision-making process in Washington has become orderly. So I’m happy with his performance today.
BG: Do you think, Prof Koh, that on managing ties with China especially, it hasn’t been smooth? We were expecting a rollback of the kind of tensions that have developed since the Trump administration came in. So perhaps that’s the kind of change we were expecting, but not seen yet. Is it because it’s too early, you think?
TK: No, no. It’s not that it’s too early. Many people expected that Biden will bring the US-China relationship to what it was during the Obama administration. But in the last four years, a lot of things have changed. American public opinion towards China has become very negative and, for the first time in the last 30 years, America perceives China as a threat to American prosperity and security. So it’s no longer possible for Biden to have the kind of China policy that Obama had in his eight years. So if you ask me what is Biden’s policy towards China, I think it was summed up very well in Alaska by Secretary of State Antony Blinken when he said the United States will compete with China where it must, cooperate with China where it can, and confront China where it must. So it’s a complicated relationship. It has elements of cooperation, of competition and of confrontation.
BG: Right. I think trade seems to be one area where cooperation is going to be possible. Danson, I wonder if you might come in on trade, which is a very key issue for us here in South-east Asia. Now, news reports last week were saying that China is quite seriously pursuing its quest to join the CPTPP. This is the deal, as we know, that came into being because President Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the TPP, as we call it. Can you tell us, Danson, why does China want to join this pact? Beijing is quite aware, I think, that this pact was designed at least originally to exclude it.
Danson Cheong (DC): Thanks, Bhagya. I think you raise a good question: why does China want to join a trade pact that, I think, was conceived to exclude it? So I think there are three sort of main points that I think about when I’m thinking about this, but the first thing to note, I think, is that China sort of has been expressing interest in joining the TPP, or praising the TPP for quite some time now. I think since the early 2010s, I think, Chinese leaders have been talking about the CPTPP. So I don’t think that President Xi, when he talked about how China was favourably considering joining the CPTPP last year during the Apec Summit signalled some kind of fundamental policy shift. Having said that, there’ve been, like you said, there’ve been some reports that China is in consultations to join the CPTPP. I think there can be three main reasons. The first thing, I think, is that China wants to signal to the outside world that it’s serious about continuing reforms, economic reforms in the country. And I think the worry here is that they want to be continuing to have access to foreign technologies and foreign trade and things like that. The second thing, I think, and this I think is quite a big reason is that China wants to use the CPTPP to push through these reforms at home. Ever since, I think, President Xi talked about it last year, there have been quite a bit of discussion about joining the CPTPP and the benefits of it in Chinese media, and I think policy planners want to use this pressure to push through some of these reforms now, particularly when it comes to reducing state support for state-owned enterprises. And there is also a third view here that if China does join the CPTPP that the US might also decide to rejoin, and then this could become another platform to which both sides can cooperate and have dialogue.
BG: Exactly. That’s a good point. And Charissa, I wonder if you would like to come in on this. How do you read the reaction in Washington to China’s bid to join the CPTPP? Do you think this might actually spur the US to come back and join the TPP in some form? And also on trade tariffs, let me ask you, the tariffs that came into being in the Trump era, are you seeing any signs that they might be rolled back?
Charissa Yong (CY): So unfortunately, I don’t think people in the US see it that way, the way that China does. So for the CPTPP, if China does start to join the CPTPP, I think the US, they will want to respond by strengthening economic ties with other Asian countries as a way of showing that they are back in the game. But I don’t think they really see the CPTPP as the best vehicle for doing that. And also, politically, it is not popular at home, and Biden’s political capital is limited. So he’s already spending his political capital pushing for a renewable energy transition and all these things that are good in the long term, but in the short term it’s politically a little painful, especially in places where he’s politically vulnerable. So if you put the two together, if the CPTPP doesn’t have enough domestic support at home, then it’ll be quite hard to push through for it. And if the US says that it wants to rejoin, and then it ends up not being able to push through the trade pact at home, then that would damage its credibility in Asia more. So I don’t think they’d really want to risk that happening if they can see it coming. And as for tariffs, unfortunately, I don’t really see a rollback of that happening anytime soon either because, I mean, there’s been a recent report that says that US importers are the ones who are bearing the cost of this, I think, like 90 per cent of the additional costs. They are the ones who are bearing it. And the Democrats know this because this was the argument that they made back during when Trump was President. So they said that, well, it’s the people, it’s the American companies who are suffering. So they know that the cost is on them. But the problem is that now that the tariffs are in place, it’s difficult to remove them because you have to show that you got something for removing it. And basically, America has a good hand right now and Washington won’t remove it for free. So I think it will continue for a while more, at least.
BG: Okay. That bears watching, although I must say it seems a little bit disappointing. Prof Koh, were you wanting to come in?
TK: Yeah. I want to make three points about CPTPP. In its original form, that TPP was one of the most important achievements of the Obama administration. Joe Biden was vice-president for eight years, so he’s committed to it. The circumstances in Washington DC now doesn’t allow him to return to CPTPP. But when the circumstances change and become conducive, I’m sure the Biden administration will want to rejoin CPTPP because this is not just a trade agreement. It creates a geoeconomic architecture for this region, which the United States cannot not be part of. My second point is that China can only join if the 11 existing partners agree, and I’m not sure whether Japan will agree. My third point is that a former senior official of the Obama administration, Wendy Cutler, said publicly that if China were to join CPTPP, this will probably prevent the United States from rejoining.
BG: Right. Those are good points and I think they fill us with encouragement here in South-east Asia because we do want all possible ways for trade to be easier and for trade volume to grow. And you’ve given me an interesting opening to get into geopolitics because, like you point out, it is a part of trade, is a part of that. Now in Washington, as we know, the assumption is drawing that China basically wants to supplant the US as the leader in the Asia-Pacific. We know that the Pentagon has said that China can make a move to reunify Taiwan within a decade unless we’ve heard them say that a war might break out. You know, all this sounds quite alarming. So Prof Koh, do you think these fears are overblown?
TK: Let me respond to you in this way. Ever since the end of the Cold War 30 years ago, the United States has faced no challenger. And for the first time in 30 years, the American government and people feel that they do have a challenger, and that challenger is China. China is growing richer and more powerful every year, and the Americans think, rightly or wrongly, that the Chinese agenda is to displace the United States, not just here in this region, but in the world. Now, will there be war or peace between the US and China? War between the United States and China will destroy both of them because both are nuclear weapon powers and both have a second strike capability. So, no rational leader in Beijing or Washington will start a war with the other country. However, as we all know, wars begin even though they’re irrational because of circumstances. So my conclusion is, war is most improbable, but not unthinkable. A war can happen between the US and China as a result of a conflict between China and Japan over Senkaku (Diaoyu) or because the PLA decides to take back Taiwan by military means.
BG: Right. Actually, that’s a good point and I think it will provide reassurance to many of our audience. A lot of them had raised this question about a war, what’s the timeframe, how do you see it happening? Now, what’s the view in Beijing and Washington, Danson and Charissa? Do you agree with the assessment that Prof Koh has just given us?
DC: Yes, I think I’ll agree with what Prof Koh said. There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not there’ll be war across the Taiwan Straits and, I think, the Economist this month called that whole region or Taiwan “the most dangerous place in the world”. So, you know, it all sounds very, very alarming. Many scholars have sort of tried to talk about whether or not China has a timeline for unifying with Taiwan. Some people say it’s 2049, you know, of course, that’s the goal, that’s the year by which China must complete its national rejuvenation. Other people say, you know, it’s something that Mr Xi wants to do when he’s in power, which is a much shorter timeline. So I think the only thing that we are certain of is that war is, well, improbable. I think the likelihood of it or the risk of it happening is increasing with more kind of military movements across the Taiwan Straits and exercises and stuff like that. But it’s still, I think, quite unlikely at the moment. Chinese analysts, I think, are still quite split over whether or not the PLA can prevail in a war for Taiwan given that the US, and likely Japan, and other regional powers will also get involved.
BG: Right. Charissa, would you want to add on?
CY: Yeah. I think just one thing also about Taiwan. It’s up to the US, if China makes a military move on Taiwan, to decide whether it wants to come to its defence. And currently, there’s this policy of strategic ambiguity, so it hasn’t said whether or not, for sure, it will come to Taiwan’s defence. So I think any statements by policymakers for or against should be closely watched to see which direction they’re leaning to.
BG: Right. Okay, actually, that leads me to conclude at least that we are in a pretty optimistic mood here in the studio. We’re not really seeing the war sirens going off anytime soon. And I think if you follow our Power Play column, you will hear more on this and, of course, from Prof Tommy Koh too who writes for the Straits Times quite often.
Okay, since we’re on geopolitics, let me ask you another question, Prof Koh. This is to do with the South China Sea, an area in which you are a big expert. My question basically is, in our region, there is a sense of apprehension about tensions that appear to arise from China’s assertiveness as it pursues its claims in the South China Sea. How do you think we can best deal with that as a region? What stance should we adopt?
TK: Okay. So let me answer your question by making three points. My first point is, the South China Sea is part of the Pacific Ocean, and the ocean to the world are what we call our global commons. No ocean, no part of the ocean can be appropriated by any state and made into its own sea. So that’s my first point. My second point is that there are disputes between China and four Asean countries. Those disputes must be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And my third point is that if the negotiations between them cannot resolve their disputes, they should agree to refer those disputes to a binding third-party procedure such as conciliation, mediation, arbitration, adjudication. In this respect, I want to respectfully appeal to China to reconsider its longstanding policy of not referring any sovereignty dispute to a third-party procedure.
BG: Could you tell us a bit about that? What do you mean by China not referring it to a third-party procedure?
TK: It is China’s longstanding policy that in disputes involving territory and sovereignty, China will only resolve those disputes through negotiations, and not by referring those disputes to any binding third-party procedure. So you will remember that when the Philippines initiated arbitration against China in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, China refused to participate.
BG: Right. Those are again very, very sensible and rational suggestions, Prof Koh, and we really hope that they are heeded to. Let me now turn to the US-China tech war. Now Charissa, I think the news was last week that the US is now looking to provide about US$120 billion to fund new technologies and research in things like AI, superconductors, robotics. Can you give us an idea of how this battle between the US and China to dominate these high-tech areas is proceeding in the US? Do you see the Americans realistically expecting to cut off China from their supply chains?
CY: So the tech competition, it’s mostly through friends. So the first one is investing in R&D, which is what this new Bill is looking to do. And then the second one is blocking China from accessing America’s top technologies. So it’s sort of offensive and defensive. So, for investing, there’s this Bill going through Congress right now, it used to be called the Endless Frontier but now it’s the US Innovation and Competition Act. So it’s looking to funnel about more than US$100 billion into R&D into creating tech hubs, into maybe centralising tech policy under a government body. So all of this is to make sure that America can compete on its own terms. And the other aspect of this competition is restricting China from getting a hold of America’s core technologies. So for example, we saw that under the Trump administration, they were restricting the technologies that could be exported to China, sold to China, and they will also blacklisting some Chinese tech companies like Huawei. And because of this, there’s already some degree of decoupling going on. So, you know, some Chinese companies can’t access and buy American companies, and some American companies are not allowed to use Chinese technology in their own supply chains. So this decoupling is already happening. And adding on to that, there’s also America trying to convince its allies and its partners to use its own non-Chinese technology, and we see that in the 5G telecom networks. So I would watch that to see if that continues to happen further.
BG: Right. And Danson, at your end, how is Beijing de-americanising its high-tech?
DC: That’s a good point. I think, recently, the buzzword here in Beijing is increasing technological self-reliance. It’s this whole idea that China wants to build this ke ji qiang quo, what they call, you know, it can be translated, I think, technological superpower. So I think the past few years have sort of driven home how vulnerable China is because of its reliance on foreign technology, and the sanctions on Huawei and ZTE have really hit those companies hard. And recently, they’ve retooled and reconfigured their Made in China 2025 plan with a sort of greater emphasis on technological independence. So they’re boosting and, I think, they’re doing a lot of things that the US, you know, what Charissa just mentioned, boosting R&D, trying to attract foreign talent, trying to create sort of an ecosystem where basic research is rewarded, where they can sort of turn these things into new technologies. But of course, I think, these things take many, many years to develop and I think the recognition here is that China still needs the US or sources of technology from the West. So I was speaking to a tech executive a couple of months ago who talked about how basically the tensions have made it very difficult for people like him to travel back and forth between Beijing and Silicon Valley where he has an R&D centre. So basically, they have to take precautions like bringing blank laptops and blank phones so if they get checked at customs, they wouldn’t get accused of trying to take American technology back to China. So these tensions have sort of filtered down to this level, but there’s still a recognition that Chinese tech firms require access to the technical system in the US and, I think, that’s why they’re trying to develop some of their own technology in China.
BG: So the battle lines then from both Washington and Beijing seem to be quite firmly drawn. Prof Koh, this tech war is actually even more crucial to the future of our region than even a trade war. How do you think the region can protect itself from the fallout?
TK: I would reply and say that the bifurcation of the world between China and the United States, economically and technologically, is very bad news to the world. It is bad news for all of us here in Asean. Why? Because we want to trade both with the United States and with China. We procure technology from both China and the United States, and enter into many transactions with both countries. If the world were bifurcated economically and technologically, we would have to make a choice. We cannot be friends of both. And that is a dilemma that we don’t want to confront.
BG: Danson, now you have been writing about the CCP, the Chinese Communist Party, celebrating its 100th year this year. And indeed, there’s so much to celebrate about China’s various successes. But there’s this feeling that the ideological aspects of the whole affair seem to be a bit more stressed, and therefore could give rise to some anti-American sentiments being seen in China. Do you see evidence of this?
DC: Thanks, Bhagya. It’s a good point, it’s something that I’ve also been thinking about recently. Like you say, we are currently in this sort of run-up to the CCP’s centenary and it’s basically like they’ve gone to a provisional overdrive, you know, sending cadres to party schools and companies are sending employees to historic sites. You know, they have this campaign called, Follow the Party Forever, or in Chinese, it’s yong yuan gen dang zou. So there’s a lot of sort of ideological undertones urging people to continue to support the party because only the party has the wherewithal to guide and steer China. But of course, like you said, there’s much to celebrate over the past year. China has managed to deal with the pandemic very, very decisively, and people here are leading normal lives compared to the rest of the world. And I think that has been a sort of major PR victory for the CCP. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with Chinese people from all walks of life who say that, you know, you need like a strong government, or a strong party in government like China’s to deal with the pandemic. Of course, they forget that there are democratic states like Australia and New Zealand, and I think Singapore, who also have had success in dealing with Covid-19. But, I think, the point is that it’s created this real groundswell of support for the party, and also we’re starting to see signs of this in surveys. There was a recent survey done by the Global Times Research Center that showed that 90 per cent of young Chinese feel they don’t have to look up to the West anymore. So, I think, it leads me to think of this conversation I had recently with a young party historian. He’s in his thirties and he talked about how his generation was the last one that grew up looking up to the West, and younger Chinese than he have only known a China that’s strong. You know, they see the successful Mars mission, they hear about how China has aircraft carriers, they see how the party has lifted millions out of poverty. So, whereas the party is telling all these people to keep faith with it, and they can see all these changes taking place in their lives. When they see the US sort of putting pressure on China, it does create, I think, some kind of resentment in people. And I think we can see this spilling out in consumer boycotts like recently we had with the whole issue with Xinjiang cotton and things like that. So in future, I think, this is something I’m watching for, whether or not these sort of nationalistic feelings will spill over into anti-American sentiments.
BG: Right. That’s a good point. And like you say, it’s something to watch. What’s it like in Washington, Charissa? Is there a lot of anti-China sentiment?
CY: Yes. So this is the part that disturbs me the most because we have seen a sharp rise in Americans who view China negatively, particularly Republicans and conservatives. And in general, these days, China has sort of like a pretty bad PR image in the US. I mean, in my conversations with friends, they will talk about, I mean, the more politically aware ones, they will talk about China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims, of Hong Kong. So this was actually borne out in a poll in March by the Pew Centre. So it showed that when Americans think of China, the first things they think are human rights abuses, the communists – which is kind of a bad word in America – the communist authoritarian political system. So these are like very negative sentiments that are top on their minds when they think of China, and it’s not helped by some American leaders’ tendency to treat China as a whole-of-society threat. So that means that they see even Chinese people, not just the Chinese government as a threat to the US. And you can see that in some policies that they’re calling for or that they implemented. So for example, this politician wanted to ban all Chinese students from studying in STEM graduate courses. Other politicians wanted to restrict visas for CCP members and their families, which are uncovered like hundreds of millions. And some leaders are more responsible, and they do try to distinguish their criticism of the Chinese government from that, you know, in theory, they’re okay with Chinese people, but Americans, quite a lot of them, they don’t make this distinction. So sadly, we are seeing the rise in racist sentiments towards Chinese, ethnic Chinese, and just ethnic Asians, in general, because not everyone can distinguish the difference. So the thing that I find disturbing is that many Americans would be on board with, say, a ban of Chinese students because there was this, again, the Pew survey found that more than half of Americans were in favour of limiting Chinese students in the US – 55 per cent. But that’s still quite high. So yeah, it’s not a good time to be an ethnic Chinese in the US right now.
BG: Right. Prof Koh, does it worry you what you hear from both Danson and Charissa this rise in distrust towards each other? We know that you believe very passionately in engagement, so how do you receive surveys and sentiments of this kind? And can you give us some clear reasons why engagement is the best or the only course for Washington and Beijing to pursue?
TK: I would say that no matter whether you like China or you don’t like China, America has to learn to live with China. And I will say the same for the Chinese. Whether you like the Americans or you hate them, China has to learn to live with the Americans. There’s no alternative but for these two great countries to learn to live with each other. So this is imperative. The alternative is to go to war, and war is not an option because it will lead to the mutual destruction of both China and the United States. And I would say there’s no reason why these two countries can’t live peacefully with each other. There are so many areas in which they have convergent interests, not just climate change, but also fighting the pandemic and preparing to fight the next pandemic, non-proliferation nuclear weapons, helping to reduce poverty in the world, to fashion the new economic model that would be more inclusive and more environmentally-friendly. There are so many things that the two countries need to work together, not just climate change.
BG: Thank you. And I really hope that both the countries were listening to everything you’ve said just now. And, you know, it’s been great talking to you, it’s been a great discussion, lively.
We can now actually move on to the Q&A segment. We’ve had some questions from ST readers, which came to us in advance, and for others who want to submit your question now, you can do so by clicking on the Q&A button that’s on your Zoom screen.
Okay, so here’s one question. It’s from Mr Vincent Lim, and also from Mr Manohar Sabnani. Basically, his point is that the two countries, the countries here, maybe they can not take sides in the US-China tensions, but what about the citizens? Their citizens presumably can, they can have more feelings towards one than the other. The question then is that, “Can the US-China tension then tear apart the social fabric in multi-ethnic societies like ours? Can it give rise to some negative things?” Would you like to take that, Prof Koh?
TK: It’s a great question, so I thank Vincent and Mano for asking it. Singapore is a multi-ethnic country, and it’s natural for every ethnic group to have warm feelings for their ancestral lands. But after 56 years of nation building, I think all Singaporeans, no matter what their ethnicity is, believe in Singapore, and they owe their allegiance to Singapore and not to their ancestral lands. But it is also incumbent upon the leaders of Singapore, including my colleagues and I at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to indulge in what I call public diplomacy to explain our foreign policy to our citizens so that they understand and support us.
BG: Those are very good points, Prof Koh. Here’s one more question, and this one, I think, Dan, you could take up. It’s to do with the Xinjiang genocide. We have Dr Johnny Tan and Mr Adrian Ng, and I think some others as well, were asking, “Do you think Xinjiang genocide, is it fake news? Is it exaggeration? Could the US be mistaken? And could there be something like, you know, what happened in the case of WMD in Iraq? Could there be something?” So what do you say, Danson?
DC: Okay. I think I want to be careful with this issue. So first off, let me say I’m not an expert on Xinjiang, but this is what I know. So the US has labelled what’s happening in Xinjiang with the Uighur minority as genocide. I think that’s very, very, very charged, you know, it makes us think of things like the Holocaust and things like that. And the view here in China is that the US is using Xinjiang as an issue to exert political pressure on China. And it doesn’t help, and I think over here, the Chinese see things like, you know, anti-Asian racism in the US, gun crime, and it makes them think what sort of human rights is that, or what qualifies you to criticise me about what’s happening here. So, you know, from Beijing’s point of view, I think, how it’s treating Uighurs in Xinjiang with what they call vocational training camps, sending party cadres to Uighur families, they say, you know, it’s helped give them education, employment, help lift these people out of poverty, helps stamp out extremism in the region. So this genocide claim, is it fake news or is it true? I think it’s very hard to tell, unless you have a team of international investigators to come in and investigate the truth in these claims. But I think the truth probably is somewhere in the middle. You know, while I don’t think…I think that probably there’s been serious human rights abuses that have occurred in Xinjiang, but whether or not it constitutes genocide, I think, it’s hard to determine. And I think part of that is also because of the level of surveillance and the restrictions placed on journalists in this country to investigate some of these things.
BG: Thank you. Those are valid points, Dan. Next one for you, Charissa, from Yam Kam Yee, who asks, “Why does the US see competition with China as a zero sum game? And well, does China see it the same way?” Dan, you could take that up.
CY: So I think for America it sees it as a zero sum game because it wants China to be politically and economically open, and currently it is not despite decades of US policymakers hoping and, you know, through engagement trying to make China like that. So not all of America sees it as a zero sum game. But currently, the ascendant wing in Washington does see America as having been wronged by China. And the more, the less hawkish policymakers or think-tank people, they’ve been sort of pushed out by the past few years of the Trump administration, you know, of just slamming China for human rights abuses, for economic unfair trade practices and stuff, so currently, that is the view that we are seeing, and I do think it is the view that we are going to see for a while more.
BG: Right. Danson, actually, could you take this related question? It comes from Mr Luo Siao Ping who wants to know, “How can China counter this accusation from countries which have, actually, a very different definition of what human rights are?”
DC: Well, I think, you know, there’s a saying, right, that sunlight is the best disinfectant. I think I’ll go back to the point that I made earlier about how China has placed restrictions on foreign journalists here. I think the Chinese view on human rights is something like how people have a right to economic development and pursuing happiness and being able to lead sort of better lives. But the way I think reporters here are treated, especially if we go to sensitive areas like Xinjiang, the Chinese say Xinjiang is open but the journalists who go there often say they are surveilled and followed. And myself, you know, when I’ve been to sort of more remote cases, it’s common to when you get to the hotel to get calls from the local Public Security Bureau asking you what you’re doing there and, you know, you end up being followed and things like that. So you know, if China wants to show that its people are enjoying development and prosperity and life is improving, then it should be confident enough to allow journalists to travel freely within the country and then tell people these stories about how life has improved.
BG: Right. Prof Koh, here’s one from Ms Foo Soon Leng for you. She wants to know, “Does Singapore need to change its strategy in dealing with the US and China?”
TK: No, I think the strategy is correct. We are heavily invested in both the United States and China. The United States is our largest investor, and we enjoy very strong mutually beneficial relations in trade, in technology and so on with the United States. We are also very close to China. China is our biggest trading partner, and although we are a very small country, Singapore is the largest investor in China. So our strategy is to be a friend of both the United States and China, and I see no reason why we should change the strategy.
BG: Right. Thank you. Charissa, one for you from Mr Hendrick Tan. He asks, “Will the US accept China as a co-leader? What will it take?”
CY: So my sense is if China were completely different from what it was right now, America will be okay with China being a co-leader in a US-led world order. But if China were to be a co-leader with America, as it is right now, then the world order would not be what it is today. So it wouldn’t be a US-led sort of economic openness, political openness to some extent. So to me, I think that either China or the world order would have to change. So if the US is to accept China as it is, then the US will have to be okay with an international political order accommodating these different political systems, these different economic systems and different styles of economic development. So Americans could choose to accept China as it is right now, but it doesn’t seem to be the case.
BG: Okay, thank you. Okay, I think we can take one more question, and this would be for you, Prof Koh. It’s from Mr Yeoh Kiat Boon who wants to know, “How can Singapore effectively navigate through this power play between the two giants, remain neutral, come out unscathed?”
TK: I think that’s a challenge not just for Singapore, but for Asean as a group, and for the Asean countries. So I want to talk about Asean’s role. Asean is a very significant grouping of 10 sovereign states, and although we are not the most powerful, but because we were neutral, we are independent, the great powers have allowed us to be the convener and chairman of the regional processes, such as the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit. But we can only do this as long as we are united and as long as we are neutral. The moment Asean is not united, or not neutral, we lose that role. So a lot is at stake here. It’s not just for Singapore, but for our region. So my appeal to my Asean brother and sister is to understand that we have this unique role to play in the regional processes because we are united and we are neutral. And the moment we become partisan or disunited, we lose that role.
BG: Right. So that’s a great advice for us to stay neutral and stay united.
Well, thank you, that was a very lively discussion. Indeed. Thank you so much, Prof Koh, and Charissa and Danson. And we thank you, too, our audience for joining us. We hope this was a useful discussion for you. A recording of this webinar is going to be available later on on our website today. And if you are looking to continue the discussion some more, if you have appetite for some more, please join us on Clubhouse. We have a chat scheduled at about 8pm tonight. The link can be found in the chat box on your screen. Joining me then will be Danson and Charissa too, and Prof Koh as well, we hope. But we’ll also have our US Bureau Chief Nirmal Ghosh, and our China Bureau Chief Dawn Wei Tan. We can take some more of your questions there.
So thank you, everyone. Thank you, stay informed with the Straits Times. Keep healthy and stay safe.