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China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, takes part in military exercises. Photo: AFP

US, China must learn to cooperate or war could ruin us all: Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong

  • ‘Everything is to be lost’ in the event of a military conflict between the world’s two largest economies, and casualties would be a certainty, warns Lee Hsien Loong
  • Even if Washington and Beijing cannot learn to trust each other fully, they must learn to cooperate on areas such as climate change and health, he says
The United States and China must find ways to cooperate even if there is no full trust between them because if relations continue to plummet, the possibility of military conflict would have dire consequences for the rest of the world, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.

Speaking during an interview at the inaugural Global Forum on Economic Recovery, hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Lee said if the two countries clashed, “everything is to be lost”.

“You are going to have a state of tension – anxiety at the very least and conflict possibly – all over the world,” Lee said, adding: “This is going to be bad, not just for other countries big and small, but for both America and China too.”
Lee noted that the world’s two largest economies had enormous economic and technological power and strong armies, and it would be impossible to avoid casualties and damage on a massive scale in the event of war.

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Therefore, the two sides not only had to work together and accept each other as they are, Lee said, they also had to find ways to cooperate in areas such as climate change, non-proliferation, public health, and future pandemics.

Such cooperation was necessary even if the two sides did not “fully trust” each other, Lee said.

Over the past two years, ties between the world’s two largest economies have declined precipitously as they sparred over tariffs and trade, technological dominance, claims of Chinese threats to US interests and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The two countries have also clashed over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, its tightening of controls in Hong Kong and claims of genocide in China’s far western Xinjiang province.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. File Photo
In recent months, both China and the US have stepped up their military presence in the South China Seas and in areas surrounding the Taiwan Strait, raising concerns of a military confrontation in the region.
Lee said the US and China would have to reconcile their international stances with their domestic political opinions.

“And both have domestic political opinions, even the Chinese. And [both countries will have to] overcome the nationalist instinct to say ‘we will look after our country’s interests, but we will do so by cooperating with other countries’.”


He said both countries would need to be of the mindset that “Whether or not we fully trust them, and whether or not they are our bosom friends, they have to be our partners on this planet.”

As government level ties between the countries have declined, so too have public perceptions.

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A Pew Research Centre survey this year found nine in 10 Americans viewed China as a competitor or an enemy while a majority were in favour of pressuring Beijing on human rights and economic issues.

Meanwhile, a growing number of Chinese have expressed dissatisfaction over what they perceive as US efforts to prevent China’s rise as an economic, military and technological powerhouse.

Lu Xiang, a senior researcher on China-US relations with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Lee’s remarks were a sign that many countries including Singapore were increasingly anxious about the growing tensions.

Lu said US President Joe Biden’s administration had made no efforts to reverse the anti-China policies of his predecessor and that his advisers appeared keen to turn Biden into “another [Donald] Trump”. This approach had deepened the anxiety of countries in the region, he said.


World must reject ‘cold war mentality,’ says Chinese President Xi at Boao Forum for Asia

World must reject ‘cold war mentality,’ says Chinese President Xi at Boao Forum for Asia

“They are obviously worried that once there is a conflict between China and the US, they will not only face the difficulty of choosing sides, but will also be placed in a crisis situation where they have little control and no way of escape,” Lu said.


Bo Zhiyue, the founder and president of the Bo Zhiyue China Institute, a consulting firm providing services to government leaders and CEOs of multinational corporations, said there was a worrying lack of a mechanism for crisis management.

Bo said that while such a mechanism existed during the Cold War between the US and the then-Soviet Union, the US-China hotline – though technically in existence – did not appear to be in use.

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This month, US Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell said in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that China was not interested in using the hotline.


Chinese military expert and commentator Song Zhongping argued in a Global Times article last week that due to a lack of trust it was impossible for China to use the hotline to avoid possible conflicts.

However, Bo said China should not turn its back on the hotline as it was a vital part of crisis management.

“Not picking up the hotline also does not conform to international norms,” Bo said, adding: “Conflicts between major powers are understandable. But right now, there no longer seems to be any form of communication mechanism and channel between the two countries.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Singapore PM warns ‘all lost’ if pair clash