Tuesday 31 December 2013

Uncharted waters for tiny Singapore to navigate

Small countries can enjoy autonomy by finding a balance between major powers, but this is harder under today's conditions of flux
By Bilahari Kausikan, Published The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2013

THE ancient Chinese are said to have cursed enemies by wishing them "interesting times". The saying is apocryphal; the curse is real. And we live in such times.

The world is undergoing a profound transition of power and ideas. The outcome cannot as yet be predicted; the world will consequently be more than usually messy and uncertain. The duration of the transition will be measured in decades.

For the last 200 years, this has been a Western-shaped world. Since the end of World War II, this has largely been an American world. This was particularly so in East Asia, where US primacy provided the stability that led to more than 50 years of growth, starting with Japan in the 1960s, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore and other "Asian Tigers" in the 1970s and 1980s, and since the 1990s, China, whose economy now has a global impact.

This has led to loose talk about "an Asian century". True, China's re-emergence will shape the 21st century. Equally true is that America is no longer as dominant as before. But it would be dangerously wrong to think that a Western or American world can or will be displaced by an "Asian" or Chinese world. Many Chinese, like all Asians, are justifiably proud of what has been achieved. But it is always a grave mistake to believe one's own propaganda.

Despite its serious challenges, the United States still occupies the pinnacle of the international hierarchy and will remain there for the foreseeable future. The US military, budget cuts or "sequestration" notwithstanding, is clearly peerless. Every great power wants a great military. But Chinese leaders are not going to make the Soviet Union's mistake and go bankrupt attempting to surpass the US. They know any armed conflict with the US can only have an outcome that risks Communist Party rule.

China will soon become the world's largest economy. Many more economic roads will pass through China. But the final destination will for many years to come still be the West and in particular America, which remains East Asia's market of last resort and the world's most creative economy.

And while American debt causes queasiness, there is no viable alternative to the US dollar as the international reserve currency, an "exorbitant privilege" that entrenches US economic dominance for the foreseeable future.

No one better understands these realities than China's leaders. They know that they cannot successfully meet their many complicated internal challenges without working with America. Indeed, so inextricably intertwined are the US and Chinese economies that neither can achieve its national economic goals without working with the other; neither particularly likes this, but they are both pragmatic.

Simplistic dichotomies

THE interdependence is not just economic. The main challenge for the non-Western world for the last 200 years of Western dominance was how to adapt to a Western-defined modernity. Only a few countries, almost all in East Asia, have successfully confronted the issue. Ironically, the international system is now being transformed by the very transformations forced upon these countries by the West.

The most successful East Asian countries are those that have most thoroughly adapted. Whether its leaders admit it or not, China is the most important example.

Communism, no less than the market economy, is a Western ideology. This is the key reason why simplistic dichotomies between "Asia" and "the West" are misleading. This does not mean that the Chinese or other East Asians must or want to become "good Westerners". What does that term even mean? By changing itself, China changed the world and many Western countries are now struggling to come to terms with what China's re-emergence implies for their own histories and sense of identity.

US-China ties

IN EAST Asia, and in China above all, capitalism flourishes without liberal democracy. The West regards this as unnatural. Yet "democracy" is a protean term and the inconvenient historical fact is that every Western country was capitalist before it was either "liberal" or "democratic".

Still, the perceived anomaly unsettles many in the West, particularly since the political failures that led to the financial and other crises of recent years must raise the possibility to all but the wilfully blind that that the failures were systemic; that liberal democratic values, taken to extremes, have become self-subverting and that the Western system is in danger of metastasising into something less than entirely benign.

Europeans are particularly disquieted and hence tend to oscillate between bumptious defensiveness and obsequiousness when dealing with China. Americans are not immune from these attitudes. But America has always been a far more confident and resilient society than a tired and insecure Europe.

This is fortunate because questions of identity and historical trajectory are not abstract philosophic issues, but infuse attitudes that affect international relations.

The relationship that counts most for East Asia is the one between the US and China. Bipartisan recognition that the US must work with China has held for more than 30 years. Other major powers are strategic adjuncts of the US, play only sporadic and secondary roles or are irrelevant to East Asia.

US-China relations are multi-dimensional and dynamic.

Sober heads in Washington and Beijing know that any American attempt to "contain" China will be as futile as any Chinese attempt to remove the US from the East Asian strategic equation. But both have domestic politics that are occasionally inebriated, and rivalry between major powers is a fact of life.

Still, rivalry is not necessarily conflict and some form of accommodation is possible. The US and China are groping towards a new modus vivendi. No one yet knows what trade-offs they will make, who in East Asia will pay the price (great powers never pay for themselves), how long it will take or what the region will look like after a new equilibrium is reached.

China has no reason to love the current regional order which led to what the Chinese call "a hundred years of humiliation". Yet over the last 30 years, the current order has also facilitated China's re-emergence and there is no compelling reason for China to kick over the table. China is still a free-rider on a system whose original creators and beneficiaries cannot now afford to maintain without help.

But the US is still uncertain what price to pay for help. And given the ambiguity with which China views the status quo, it probably also does not yet know what price to ask.

China will want its position and interests in East Asia acknowledged. That is only natural. But acknowledged within what framework? Some recent Chinese actions in the East and South China seas have fuelled doubts about the depth of China's commitment to international law and inter-state relations based on the formal sovereign equality of states.

There is cause to wonder if some in Beijing may not be tempted by atavistic notions of international relations. The crux of the issue is simple: China is bigger than the rest of East Asia combined; big countries have a duty to reassure that China has as yet only partially fulfilled.

Necessary but not sufficient

AT THE same time, a broad consensus has emerged across East Asia that while the US presence is still necessary for peace, it is no longer sufficient and now needs to be supplemented by a new architecture to preserve stability for the region's continued growth. China shares in this consensus, as does the US. But this does not in itself prescribe a solution: Debate over a new architecture is at the core of contemporary East Asian diplomacy.

The main axis of the debate is whether the new architecture will be defined by the ASEAN Plus Three or APT grouping - the 10 Asean members with China, Japan and South Korea - or the East Asia Summit, with the addition of the US, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand to the APT.

Or to put the issue starkly, between a racially defined structure with China at its centre or a more open, balanced and inclusive construct. Beijing has made its preference clear and is binding South-west China and South-east Asia into one economic and strategic space with investments in infrastructure, generous aid and preferential trade deals.

No country in East Asia wants to choose between the US and China. Beijing and Washington both say they do not want any country to have to choose between them. We should take them at their word. But to maintain at least the modicum of autonomy that would make such pieties meaningful requires conditions that are not to be taken for granted.

Small countries can enjoy autonomy only when there is balance between major powers and they can maintain a balance between them. This is ever harder under conditions of enhanced flux and unpredictability. The US is the only conceivable counterweight.

It took a long time to convince the US that the new East Asian diplomatic game was worth the candle. And given the vagaries of American politics, its short time horizons, the general impatience and occasional incoherence of American decision-making, America's responsibilities in other volatile regions and urgent domestic preoccupations, it is uncertain if interest will be sustained.

Some in Washington believe that concern over China will inevitably cause East Asia to gravitate towards America. This is simplistic. China is a geographic fact whereas the US presence in East Asia is the consequence of a geopolitical calculation which can be recalculated. The inappropriate metaphor of "pivot" or "rebalance" inadvertently drew attention to this. America too has a duty to reassure that of late it has only partially fulfilled.

For the Asean countries, autonomy additionally requires that Asean continues to integrate. It cannot otherwise hold its own as a minimally attractive partner amid the swirls and eddies of great-power relationships.

Integration involves difficult political trade-offs. Such choices now have to be made under increasing time pressures. The world will not await Asean's convenience and events are unfolding at an accelerating pace. Several Asean members are undergoing complex internal political transitions; not just routine electoral changes of governments or leaders, but systemic transformations whose outcomes are still indeterminate.

Coupled with the general and increasing difficulties of governance in the Internet age, this reduces the capacity of individual members and the organisation for timely adaptation at the very historical moment when regional and global developments place a premium on nimbleness.

As a small country whose trade is some 300 times our gross domestic product, Singapore will be more affected by these complexities than most.

These are uncharted waters. Singapore cannot achieve national goals unless we navigate its many reefs and shoals.

Curiously, however, our national debate across almost the entire range of issues is conducted by some self-anointed leaders of public opinion as if we were a universe in ourselves.

This is a dereliction of responsibilities that they have taken on themselves. More dangerous still are the first faint but distinct attempts to use foreign policy for partisan purposes. If unchecked, that will surely lead to shipwreck.

The writer was permanent secretary and is now Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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