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Chinese Navy sailors stand on a Chinese Navy frigate visiting San Diego in December. Photo: AFP

‘China doesn’t want to be the new America’: why Trump needn’t clash with Beijing

During a recent speech in Hong Kong, former Singapore foreign minister George Yeo gave an expansive view of US-China relations amid uncertainties about how president-elect Donald Trump would handle the relationship. This is an edited version.

Sino-US relations are probably the single most important set of relations in the world today, and they are complex.

We have, from January 20, a new United States president. I think president-elect Donald Trump has to be taken seriously, despite all the jokes made about him and some of his remarks.

His remarkable achievement was not in defeating Hillary Clinton. It was in defeating a whole line of Republican candidates, many of whom were pretty credible. But one after another they were toppled, and that’s because he was able to plumb deep and tap upon a deep undertow of dissatisfaction and disaffection.

But that’s American politics. He has assembled an impressive group of people to help him. And right now they speak with divergent voices because they’ve got to clear US Senate approval and everyone has to play to the gallery.

Rex Tillerson is not ignorant, or unreasonable. Photo: AFP

So you get remarkable comments like that made by (secretary of state nominee) Rex Tillerson that the US should prevent China from accessing what China takes to be her islands in the South China Sea – which must lead to war. I don’t think he’s that ignorant, or that unreasonable.

We do know that Trump has certain deep instincts. He sees a lot of problems in American society. He wants to reinvigorate it. So trade has to be fair, in his mind. I’m not sure it’s going to help just by arm-twisting automobile companies to manufacture in the US, because the global economy is much more complicated than that.

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But it does win him applause from the gallery, and some things we must expect him to do for political reasons. As he himself has said, he’s from Wharton business school, so he can’t be stupid. And he’s not. To think that he is would be a serious miscalculation.

To an extent, Donald Trump has to play to the gallery. Photo: AP

He says, “Look, we’ve got to deregulate.” He wants to simplify the tax code and reduce the general level of taxation. He wants to revamp infrastructure in America, much of which has gone to disrepair. And that’s the right direction to go in. He wants to control the borders better. Again, he may have made outrageous remarks, but the deep intention is, “We’ve got to have a handle on illegal immigration, and also to control conduits which may bring in radicals and terrorists.”

But there are two things which are troubling. One, it is easy to spend, it’s easy to reduce taxes, people would cheer you. But how do you cover the deficit?

The other area which is a bit troubling is what appears to be a very deep conflict between Trump and the intelligence agencies. He has become very distrustful of them. And he takes a practical approach towards international security. Must we interfere in Syria? Was it right – Iraq, Libya, and the cornering of Russia? Maybe this is driving them into the arms of China. Does it make sense?

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There are many people whose entire careers are formed on a certain perspective and he’s challenging them. It’s important to get past the common criticisms against Trump, quoting him against him, laughing at some of his inanities, and ignoring his deep purposes. I think it’s much more important to look at his deep purposes because he’s not a man to be disregarded.

On the Chinese side, President Xi Jinping has been absolutely remarkable. He could not have done what he did without (his predecessor) Hu Jintao refusing to stay on in the Central Military Commission for two years. His enemies already showed their hand before he took over.

So with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) behind him, he cracked down on the internal security apparatus. Having subdued that quadrant, he turned back to tackle corruption within the PLA itself. And after that, he set about cleaning up the Communist Party Youth League. In less than four years, he has done much to restore the moral authority of China’s leadership.

‘Remarkable’: Chinese President Xi Jinping. Photo: Xinhua

China is a very unusual country. It has always been governed as an administrative state, one where all lines report to the emperor – for administration, for intelligence, for policing, for military matters, water control and so on. So they have developed a bureaucratic class of people, very smart people, who are rotated around, so that their loyalties are never to the provinces they come from, but to the centre.

When China’s core is healthy, the management, the governance of the country is a matter of administration, almost like a company. It’s logical – what are the problems, what are the needs, you draw a plan, you find the money, you have control measures, and you implement.

Today, it is the only major country which can exercise a national will. They have already built more high-speed rail infrastructure than the rest of the world combined. They want to double it. And 80 per cent of Chinese cities will be linked by fast rail. It’s completely transformed the sense of distance, on a continental scale.

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And they’re now using big data for governance. If you read The Economist, it says it’s just a way of controlling the lives of individuals. Yes, it could also do that, for political control. But it is much more than that. What they are in fact doing is to use the revolution in IT to govern human society in a way which has never been done before.

And that is breathtaking.

Using big data now, they are monitoring the health of, say, Peking University, or a province in China, or an ethnic group, or a generation of people. There are just too many Chinese for anybody to monitor individually. But they get a shape of what is healthy and what is not.

Last July, Rand Corporation published a report called War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable. It said that if there were a war today, the US would be bloodied but China would be pulverised.

In a war 10 years from now, however, the US will also be bloodied. There must be strategic thinkers who say, “Look, it’s better to fight now, better not to wait.”

A Chinese navy formation, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, during military drills in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

The Chinese know that, but they are saying: “Must we be in this Thucydides Trap, where big power relations are a zero-sum game?” They say no. Prepare for the worst, but let’s work on a new pattern of big power relations.

The US fears that China will behave in the same way when it becomes the biggest economy on Earth. A clash then becomes inevitable, in the way that there was an inevitable clash between the US and the former Soviet Union.

But China is not like that. This is a civilisation which has deep knowledge of its own past and of its own nature. And because of that, China will never harmonise with the rest of the world. Whether we’re talking about cyberspace, cultural policy or capital markets, China will never harmonise with the rest of the world.

Yes, there will be normal traffic, but there’s always a semi-permeable membrane, which ensures that what is good gets in, and what is considered subversive can’t get in. And because it can’t harmonise with the rest of the world – for that is in the nature of Chinese civilisation – a large part of America’s worry about China is not justified.

The Chinese have no wish to play America’s role in the world.

The Chinese view is that you can be an Islamic theocracy, you can be a Sultan, you can be Salafi, that’s your problem so long as you don’t hurt me. If you hurt me, I may have to hurt you. But I have enough problems looking after my own family. How can I interfere in your family’s matters? I’ve got enough headaches of my own.

So they take a very detached approach to the internal policies of other countries. The Western view is that this is amoral.

But does the West really want China to be a proselytising power, a missionary power? Because if it is, it’s going to purvey a different set of values to the West. And this leads to an inevitable clash.

The Chinese are very serious when they talk about a new pattern of big power relations, though this has been pooh-poohed by many commentators. The problem is a lack of understanding about the nature of Chinese civilisation.

Jared Kushner is Trump’s son-in-law and confidante. Photo: AP

Many people say it’s just a matter of time before the yuan will be internationalised. It’ll never be completely internationalised. Because if it’s completely internationalised, China will lose control of its own economy. I don’t believe anyone governing China would ever allow this loss of control over its own financial system.

So does Trump understand any of this? I don’t know. But he consults (former US secretary of state Henry) Kissinger, and Kissinger understands. And I’ve been told that he has asked Kissinger to tutor Jared Kushner (Trump’s son-in-law and confidante), which cheered me, because I think Kushner would play an important role within the inner circle. And if on the important issues he has regard for Kissinger’s views, then the risks would be managed.

If there’s a miscalculation, if there’s an escalating series of accidents which get out of control, and there’s a major conflict between China and the US, I think all of us here will have a miserable time. The injuries on both sides of the Pacific would be almost beyond imagination.

There is therefore a huge incentive for all of us, in ways small and big, to help build little bridges that promote understanding.

George Yeo

George Yeo is the former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore. This article first appeared in Todayonline