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ON THE COUCH: China, the second sun in the firmament

George Yeo is one of Asia’s pre-eminent thinkers. A former Singaporean foreign minister, airforce brigadier and now businessman, Yeo is the current chair and executive director of Kerry Logistics Network.

Amid a global geopolitical shakeup of a scope not seen for decades, we sat down with Yeo to secure his thoughts on the changes.

We started by him talking about his thoughts on an emerging and disruptive China in an established global order.

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GY: In China memories of the opium wars of 1842 are still vivid because of the humiliation and sense of injustice. Even in Singapore, my mother would remind me. 

"Western countries will have to accept China not just as an economic equal but also as an ideological equal. It will take time.” - Yeo

For a long time Western powers have been used to being superior in relation to Asian societies. Now they are finding Asians beginning to bark back. And they are beginning to see in China someone who will not only bark back but can stand up to the west.

When the internet started we thought well ok that’s something we can’t stop, Google, Facebook, whatever. But China decided, no - and created its own internet within China. A separate cyberspace universe.

It showed people a different model and provided inspiration to the rest of us in the developing world that, yes, there is an alternative to the west.

This creates angst in the west which we are seeing at the moment. Especially in the US which sees itself as top dog. China is very conscious of this reaction and trying to manage and ameliorate it. But, with growing strength, lower officials have become more arrogant, sometimes without realising it.

This tension is going to continue for a few more decades. Western countries will have to accept China not just as an economic equal but also as an ideological equal. It will take time.

I have been watching this evolution with fascination for a number of years now, the moves China is making. A friend of mine in Rome sent me a copy of a report on a delegation from China to the Holy Cross University in Rome. It was about the Roman Catholic Church in the historical evolution of European civilisation.

The Chinese are fascinated by the church. How could a religion play such a huge role in fashioning a civilisation? It is something that never happened in China. When Europeans went to China they were fascinated you could have a civilisation with a moral order not based on religion.

AC: Both Australia and New Zealand are middle powers but from the west. You’ve made the point that Australia should be part of the region but, if it is, it can’t be a US agent. How should Australia and NZ respond to this evolving situation? Should they, for example, seek to formally join ASEAN?

GY: there have been such proposals in the past. I don’t think joining ASEAN would work but it should be a very special relationship. After all, Australia and New Zealand have contributed much to the development of Southeast Asia. When I was a young officer in the armed forces, we had advisers from Australia and New Zealand. It did us a world of good.

Without Qantas, Singapore Airlines could not have taken off. Many of their technicians were trained by Qantas. Today SIA is a rival to Qantas. But SIA should never think it is superior to Qantas.

Our separate national interests are advanced by a stronger bilateral relationship between Australia and New Zealand and ASEAN. It is good for both sides. It also enhances the value of Australia and New Zealand’s counsel in the west. Singapore is in a kind of intermediate position in Asia too but has a different position from Australia.

You are western but very close to Asia. We are Asian but rather western. But Singapore is not of the west and our voice cannot carry as much weight as yours in western councils.

AC: Maybe. What then is the role of Russia in this emerging order?

GY: The US is strangely pushing China and Russia together. There is a natural tension between them going back to Czarist days. They share a long border. The east of Russia is very sparsely populated, China is densely populated.

Chinese farmers in Russia are able to work on the cold soil to grow vegetables, cucumbers and tomatoes, much more than Russians are able to. So there is demographic tension. With global warming more of Siberia will become arable.

There will be natural pressure from Han Chinese. There is natural suspicion between the two sides which Chinese and Russian leaders have worked hard to overcome.

The Chinese have a deep admiration for the Russians. In technology, especially in military technology, they still see the Soviets as elder brothers.

Three years ago I was in Red Square on a beautiful summer’s day. I overheard chatter among Chinese tourists comparing the dimensions of buildings around the Red Square with Tiananmen Square. The tomb of Lenin with that of Mao. They have an abiding respect for the Russians – and the Russians for the Chinese. But they also fear the Russians.

So, from a cynical western perspective, you should divide Russia from China. But so far the policy of the west has been to push them together – which to me is quite strange.  China is happy to see Russia standing up to the west in a way China cannot or would not do.

AC: You are relatively dovish then about China’s rise. What is it that gives you that confidence? Is it the experience of your decades dealing with China? Is it individuals? The consistency of their message?

GY: I am not hawkish or dovish. I am just being realistic – about that second sun coming into our firmament. You never want to fly too close any sun because you’ll get burnt.

The Chinese are becoming like the Americans in some ways. It used to be when the US President was in town, his security personnel would physically elbow people away. So better to keep your distance. It is the same now when China’s President visits.

So we just take a realistic view. As China become bigger and more powerful it expects you to become more sensitive to their feelings. And they can put more pressure on you because they can offer you so many things and you can offer them so few things. If you don’t offer the things they want, they can walk away and offer things to your competitors – some of whom are you neighbours – to make a point to you.

In the old days China could learn from Singapore and they looked up to Lee Kwan Yew. But those days are gone. They still give us special access in a way they don’t give others but we have to know our place and not take liberties.

From time to time, they study Singapore as a small specimen with similar genetic material - like a bonsai. If we play the game well and take advantage of the fact we know each other culturally, in a way other countries don’t, that’s good for both sides. I’m not saying we understand them fully but it helps.

For us, in a small way, we can offer a view of western ways which the Chinese don’t see. In the same way we offer to the west a view of China which is sometimes different from the received wisdom.

AC: You’ve been instrumental in the trade agreements between Singapore and New Zealand and the first Australian agreement in 2003 which has just been revised. Do you see the same fundamental drivers at play today for such relationships or has the emphasis shifted, towards defence for example?

GY: I think it is exactly what we foresaw when we embarked on these agreements. Of America remaining in the frame, of China becoming more important, of the region becoming more integrated –of us having to scratch out a living in this new dispensation. The advantages of everyone working together despite competition. We have been completely justified by unfolding events.

AC: You talk about the importance of trade agreements being symbolic as well as their tangible impact. Do you think Singapore should further expand its range of agreements, as much for the signal it sends as direct benefits?

GY: Singapore is very welcoming as far as trade agreements go. That has been our position from the beginning.

We don’t always get what we want because we are too small. We can’t complain about what Trump is doing or what China is doing. You have to take these things for what they, the reality, and ask, how can I find an angle, an opportunity to arbitrage?

We have to be smart and fast. It is no good having fixations, arguing about what happened in the past. It’s like complaining about who moved the cheese.  For us, the cheese is moving all the time. We are always on the lookout. We never feel fully secure in Singapore. Which I suppose is good training for business.

AC: When we look at the rise of China, there is no western champion anymore – or that is the argument.

GY: There is no justification for the west moving to the other extreme and losing confidence in its own deep underpinnings.

I was reading a history of Rome from the Republic to Imperial Rome, called SPQR, about the role of the people and the senate. In the Western European mind, there is always a preference for a separation of powers. The cacophony in the US congress today had its echoes in the Roman Senate and Assembly.

Many of the names we use today came from ancient Rome and Greece. When Chinese tourists visit Europe, when they are at St Peter’s square, they are spellbound. What is it which creates the efflorescence of western civilization

What drove it? Western civilisation persists and will always be different from China’s. Look at Catalonia or Scotland or Estonia, each, despite small populations, have their own history, their own sense of independence. Europe remains a collection of tribal nations. It is European diversity which enabled it to make the greatest contribution to global civilization.

In contrast, the Chinese people are more homogeneous that any other human group on the planet, always making up a quarter or a fifth of its population, much more than any other group. This is its strength but also its weakness. The west is a cacophony - that is its strength and its weakness. Diverse and chaotic. The phenomenon of Trump is not outside the western tradition.

AC: And after all the Roman Empire didn’t end with Caligula.

GY: Going back to this visit by the Chinese delegation to the Holy Cross University, the report ended by noting the University is one of seven Catholic universities in the Piazza di Sant’Apollinaire, all dedicated to science.

In other words, religion is not all about superstition - as was once taught in China. Of course part of this is aimed at preparing the ground for China’s reconciliation with the Vatican. But it is an unexpected insight by the Chinese delegation.

AC: Two questions from the floor: should Japan join ASEAN? And how will we know Xi Jinping has stayed too long?

GY: Given the time, I’ll stick with Japan. Japan has been obsessed with the rise of China. China was always the source of its higher culture but had to be kept at a distance.

Japan is very proud that it never paid tribute to China, except once, during the Tokugawa era, when the third shogun did and he has since been condemned by Japanese scholars.

On a few occasions, Japan invaded Korea but failed because of China. It tried to conquer China in the 20th century, the way the Manchus did in the 17th century, and also failed. Now the rise of China creates great angst.

One answer is for Japan to be closer to the US. But Japan doesn’t want to be subservient to the US either, which it has to be today. So what is the answer? I think Japan will re-Asianize and play the role of a major maritime power in contrast to China as principally a land power.

Japanese leaders like Abe want Japan to become a normal country again but this requires it to be fully reconciled with China and Korea which can only happen if there is sufficient recognition of what happened during the Pacific War.

Andrew Cornell is managing editor at bluenotes

To celebrate the Lunar New Year, ANZ hosted a special event in Singapore with George Yeo Yong-Boon to discuss the rapidly changing geopolitical environment and the rise of China.

One of Singapore’s most-distinguished politicians and thinkers, George is the current chairman and executive director of Kerry Logistics Network, based in Hong Kong but his career has spanned the military, Singaporean politics and global advisory.

He was also the Chancellor of Nalanda University and member of the University Governing Board. George represented the People's Action Party (PAP) in the Singapore parliament from 1988 to 2011, losing his seat in Parliament at the 2011 general election.

In that time he served in the Singapore Cabinet from 1991 to 2011 as the Minister for Information and the Arts (1991–99), Minister for Health (1994–97), Minister for Trade and Industry (1999–2004) and Minister for Foreign Affairs (2004–11).

Prior to entering Parliament, George was a Brigadier-General in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). His book, George Yeo on Bonsai, Banyan and the Tao, a collection of speeches and writing, spanning a diverse array of topics, was published in 2015.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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