SINGAPORE — Although tension between the United States and China is growing and making others anxious, the world must accept economic and military rise, according to Singapore’s prime minister.
Lee Hsien Loong gave a keynote address at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue regional security summit, in which he said Sino-U.S. relations will “define the tenor of international relations for years to come,” but added that competition won’t inevitably lead to conflict.
He called on China to “take an enlightened and inclusive long-term view of the world” and to peacefully resolve disputes with other nations through international law and frameworks like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
He also urged China to convince other countries through its actions that it doesn’t take a transactional and export-maximizing approach to trade, citing a current lack of “strategic trust” between Washington and Beijing.
He also noted that American businesses — which he said had been the “strongest supporters of China because they benefited directly from China’s growth and economic opportunities” — have grown wary over a range of issues. However, he also said the rest of the world needs to accept and accommodate China’s rise, while acknowledging that as the current preeminent global power, the U.S. will have the most difficult adjustment to make.
Lee also emphasized with China’s desire to strengthen its own military, noting that the country sees a need to protect its trade routes and interests. However, he added that the U.S. military remains the most powerful force and that this won’t change.
Nonetheless, he took issue with the recent description of China as a “revisionist power” and suggestions that the ongoing friction was a “clash of civilizations.” Unlike the Cold War, he said, this was not an irreconcilable clash of differing ideologies, as China has adopted a variety of economic policies and is not trying to overturn the international order despite its communist political structure.
When asked by a delegate what both countries should do to improve bilateral relations, Lee suggested that one approach involves candid, top-level dialogue where concerns are dealt with individually, be it in trade, cybersecurity or technology.
Lee added that if both sides treated the trade dispute purely on its own merits, he is confident their “highly competent” trade negotiators will be able to come to a resolution. But he also warned that “if either side uses trade rules to keep the other down, or one side comes to the conclusion that the other is trying to do this, then the dispute will not be resolved, and the consequences will be far graver than a loss of GDP,” affecting investments, technology and bilateral relations.
“Every action taken by one side will be seen as a direct challenge to the other, and will elicit a counter-action,” the prime minister said.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.