China is right to stay calm in its trade dispute with the United States, says Singapore’s former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.
“China is reacting in the right way, restrained, dignified and not trying to ratchet up the dispute … that’s the right way to behave at this stage,” he told This Week in Asia .
He shared these comments when relating a recent conversation in which he was asked what Lee Kuan Yew would advise the Chinese if he were alive today.
Lee, Singapore’s founding prime minister who died in March 2015, had over the years developed close ties with top Chinese leaders and on occasion acted as an honest broker with the Americans, communicating with them how the Chinese viewed the world.
But, according to Goh, the issue for China now was trying to figure out who speaks for the White House, rather than who could serve as an intermediary to the Americans. The Chinese were less dependent on intermediaries such as Lee, Goh said. “I said times have changed. Lee Kuan Yew would have no role today. But I did tell them what Lee Kuan Yew would tell the Chinese: just stay calm, restrain yourself. Just don’t get into a fight, stay calm. Wait out your time.”
The US and China are embroiled in escalating trade tensions that have included US accusations of Chinese spying and technology theft.
Goh has just launched a book on his early life and recollections during his years as Singapore’s second prime minister from 1990 to 2004. During his tenure, he spent considerable time building Singapore’s external economy.
Goh, who still has a parliamentary seat and carries the title of Emeritus Senior Minister, now spends his time thinking about over-the-horizon issues for Singapore. “Can we continue for 50 years? I don’t mean Singapore will disappear but that same kind of vibrancy, community, cohesion we have, 50 years.”
Externally, he is concerned with the changing global order and how Singapore will position itself between the US and a rising China.
“You’re on the US or Chinese side. Some neighbours of China are already taking sides. But we always try not to take sides. But earlier than we expect to, we may be forced to take sides.”
Singapore should do its best not to take sides and learn to navigate between the two big powers. “That’s for the new leaders of Singaporeans to decide how to navigate.”
His other big worry is Islamist radicalism in the region. Would the tide of conservative forces win over the more moderate forces, he asked.
Overall, however, his concern remains the economic prosperity of the region. If one country was not doing well economically, would there be repercussions on the others? Singapore wants its neighbours to succeed.
“I am concerned that most Singaporeans are not aware of the existential questions about Singapore’s future in the longer term. I am not talking about internal politics and problems. Those we can cope with. I am talking about Singapore’s external environment and changing world order.” ■