How Singapore can play a crucial role in the emerging Pax Sinica by bridging East and West

  • Ho Kwon Ping says China views its rise as the fulfilment of a historical destiny and is willing to play a long game to achieve it
  • Singapore is well positioned to mediate between the world views represented by the US and China in a new co-civilisation era
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 3:03am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2018, 9:26am

What once was an American policy of constructive engagement and then became strategic rivalry is now almost active containment of China. Whether it be near-collisions of warships, the trade war or allegations of electoral interference, examples abound of a more aggressive US stance to block China’s ascendancy.

But tensions today cannot just be seen through the cold war lenses of superpower competition for dominance. No doubt, cold war analysts note that within two decades, China’s total economy will be one-third larger than the US economy, but with a lot more room for growth as per capita income will still be less than half that of the US. Others warn that Chinese military spending is currently double that of Russia.

However, a containment strategy towards China may be too little, too late. To China, Trump reflects a historic inflection point, when America’s turning away from its post-war global role coincides with China’s stepping onto the centre stage of history.

Whereas a few decades ago, China heeded Deng Xiaoping’s guidance to keep a low profile, there is an almost unanimous view that this current crisis must be faced frontally. China’s ascendancy has been thwarted for two centuries by colonial humiliation, and cannot be further blocked.

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In China there is a palpable sense of destiny that it will soon be an advanced civilisation no less equal to the Western world, and will not be forced to play by the rules created by the West to China’s detriment.

Watch: Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s place in the world

That is why “Made in China 2025” is not just bombastic propaganda, but an ambitious yet achievable road map for China to attain global rank or even supremacy in critical fields, including artificial intelligence and climate change technologies. This is, to China, its destiny.

To the Chinese, Pax Sinica is a legitimate reversion to its centuries-old, historically validated destiny

So, too, is the Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks to restore China’s connectivity to the world. The Chinese view of American supervision of international waterways is that if the US can patrol off the coast of China, then China should be able to send warships to the Gulf of Mexico to ensure that the Central American nations are protected from American transgression of international waters off the coast of the US. In other words, a Pax Americana is not a special, God-given order of things due to some American notion of exceptionalism.

To advocates of a world order where the US is the ultimate global peacekeeper and policeman, a new Pax Sinica may sound sinister, like a hidden form of Chinese imperialism.

However, to the Chinese, Pax Sinica is a legitimate reversion to its centuries-old, historically validated destiny. There have been previous Pax Sinicas during the Han and Tang dynasties, the golden eras in Chinese history, when China was open, cosmopolitan and enlightened.

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The Chinese point out that even in those centuries, China never sought to conquer nations thousands of miles from its borders, unlike European colonialism.

Reclaiming this destiny is the long game China is prepared to play for the rest of this century.

Watch: Belt and Road Initiative explained

However, a somewhat benign Pax Sinica is not particularly reassuring to many of China’s neighbours. China will have to convince sceptics that its emergence from the Cultural Revolution will not relapse, that its political governance is stable, responsive and just, and that its status of a global superpower is deserving of the trust and respect of the world.

Since we are moving towards a world of coequal civilisational tension between East and West, a new type of multilateralism which will no longer resemble the American-led post-war global order should emerge.

It is beginning to happen – South Korea, Japan and China are beginning to realise that without an unconditional American security umbrella decades from now, they must complete their own rapprochement.

Similarly, the 600 million people who make up Southeast Asia are creating linkages that did not exist before. The dynamic middle class and positive demographics of the region’s market are well known to businesspeople, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’s strategic role has yet to be realised.

Co-equal civilisations mean that the institutions and norms of Wall Street capitalism or Western liberal democracy may no longer be the yardsticks by which Asian societies measure themselves. The communitarian traditions of East Asia will be increasingly reflected in uniquely Asian forms of capitalism and governance. One ramification of the decline in Western liberal democracies is growing confidence by Asian societies to craft and practise their own responses to future challenges.

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How will Singapore fit into all this? No doubt, size confers power, and Singapore is small. But perspective gives strategic insights, and it has unique perspectives to guide its principles.

Speaking truth to power, maintaining a constructive neutrality, and adopting policies that are in Asean’s, America’s and China’s core interests are some principles Singapore intends to uphold. Singapore’s history as a nation rooted in Asian culture, but also comfortable with Western norms, gives us a unique sensitivity to today’s civilisational tensions.

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Those at the crossroads of civilisations understand best how to interpret shifts in civilisational paradigms. It is in this spirit of deeply understanding, empathising and yet being constructively honest with the aspirations and anxieties of both the West, as represented by the US, and the East, as represented by China, that Singapore can play an important role.

From multilateral governmental meetings to global business conferences to bilateral private summits, Singapore has become popular not just because of its excellent transport and communications infrastructure, nor its operational efficiency, but also its ability to transcend parochial perspectives to be truly global in outlook.

In the new economy, truly global cities will play an outsize role. Singapore will continue to be a test bed for smart city technology, innovative forms of social behaviour amid changing demographics and good governance rooted in Asian communitarian traditions rather than Western notions of liberal democracy.

In a deeply divided and yet increasingly globalised world, the soft power exerted by global cities which can cross that divide will be transformational. It would be audacious for Singapore to aspire to that role, but it is not impossible.

Ho Kwon Ping is executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings. This is an edited version of his speech at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum on November 6