Hawks sit it out as Bloomberg’s Singapore forum calls for calm heads amid escalating US-China conflict

  • Speakers at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore feel there is plenty of room for cooperation between Beijing and Washington
  • The likes of Henry Kissinger and Wang Qishan are maintaining an optimistic outlook despite the ongoing trade war and current tensions
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 9:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 November, 2018, 3:05am

Political and business leaders gathered at the newest sanctum of the global elite – the Bloomberg New Economy Forum – on Tuesday preached realism as their mantra when reading the tea leaves on United States-China ties, and cautioned against excessive alarmism at the current state of feuding between the two powers.

Pitched as an Asia-and-Africa-focused rival of sorts to the annual World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, the first edition of the conference saw intense discussion on issues that have dominated the news cycle in recent months: the escalating US-China trade war, strategic tussles between the two, as well as the prospect of them eventually engaging in armed conflict.

Members of the commentariat who expected geostrategic hawks on both sides to slug it out at the two-day forum in Singapore were likely to have left disappointed.

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Speakers, ranging from Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan to American foreign policy doyen Henry Kissinger, overwhelmingly signalled that there remained ample scope for US President Donald Trump’s administration and Beijing to cooperate.

Setting the tone for calm heads to reign was Kissinger, the 95-year-old former American secretary of state who brokered US rapprochement with China in 1971.

“The objective needs to be that both countries recognise that a fundamental conflict between them will destroy hope for the global order,” he said in a brief dialogue session. “That objective can be achieved and I am in fact fairly optimistic that it will be achieved.”

Asked if that meant he was “fundamentally an optimist”, the veteran diplomat replied that he was “trying to be a realist”.

Wang too appeared eager to steer the conversation on American ties with China towards an optimistic path even as he condemned unilateralism.

[China should] stay calm and sober minded
Chinese vice-president Wang Qishan

He said China would “stay calm and sober minded”, adding that his government hoped to “work for a solution on trade acceptable to both sides”.

Kevin Rudd, the Mandarin-speaking former Australian prime minister from whom Western officials seek clues on Beijing’s thinking, was equally sanguine – although he warned China “sensed a decline in American power and America’s preparedness to use that power”.

While the global community had long accepted a “world order” led by the US, actions by the Trump administration had cast doubt on Washington’s leadership, Rudd said.

“The Chinese think of this in a very long stretch of time. Their abiding view of the United States and the global order has been emergence of what they call in their own language a period of strategic opportunity,” Rudd said in a panel on global uncertainties.

Still, observers who have sounded the alarm about the birth of a new cold war were “foolish”, the former Australian leader said. “I think it is vastly premature.”

S. Jaishankar, a former Indian foreign secretary, pointed to India’s significant involvement with the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a prime example of how countries usually described by observers as strategic rivals were able to cooperate.

I’m here from the future to tell you that absolutely there is a better way forward
Canadian Trade Commissioner Ailish Campbell

He said India had benefited from China’s rising global stature, citing the two countries’ ability to have a bigger say in world affairs as a result of their place in the G20 grouping, as opposed to the Western-centric G7.

On trade – the biggest sticking point between the two world powers – some panellists suggested there could also be scope for an alignment of positions, even if that was not apparent from the current state of the tariff battle.

The former European Union trade commissioner Peter Mandelson said China could play a role in reforming the World Trade Organisation – the institution Trump has said had been gamed by Beijing to give it an advantage.

Ailish Campbell, Canada’s trade commissioner and assistant deputy minister for international business development, said consensus with the protectionist Trump administration on trade matters was possible, citing her country’s recently signed pact with Washington and Mexico to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“I’m here from the future to tell you that absolutely there is a better way forward and a deal can be done,” she said.

Also cause for optimism was the conference itself, fashioned as a more emerging-markets-centric platform for discussions on world affairs compared to the 47-year-old Davos gathering.

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The forum featured a large number of figures from the southern hemisphere speaking on topics such as energy challenges in emerging economies, the integration of refugees into societies and the future of Asian businesses.

Bloomberg had initially planned for the event to be held in Beijing but later moved it to Singapore amid heightened US-China trade tensions and its clash with the Shanghai import fair.

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Michael Bloomberg, the founder of the American media conglomerate, hailed the city state for stepping in at short notice to host the conference.

“If you want to try and do something, do it in Singapore. Everything works here,” the billionaire former New York mayor said.

Jaishankar said it mattered less where the event was held.

“The issue is you need a fair agenda, a representative presence, balanced conversations and everybody’s issues comes on the table. It should not only be the issues of some countries and not others.”