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Yeo on Singapore, ASEAN and the rise of China

From a western perspective the rise of China is both an immense economic opportunity and a geopolitical disruption. A new hegemon in the region understandably creates anxiety as it brings radically different ideas of government, security and culture.

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I was recently fortunate enough to interview one of the world’s most-insightful interpreters of China’s rise, former Singapore airforce brigadier and eminent politician George Yeo. 

"The rise of China is the single biggest cosmic event affecting us.” - Yeo

Yeo has a fascinating and – from a western perspective – more dovish view of China’s rise (although he would dispute my characterisation).

The analogy of a second sun in the firmament is quite striking and captures the magnitude of the global shift but it is how Yeo distinguishes between American and Chinese ambition - which I’m sure will generate the most dispute.

Yeo was also instrumental in the first Australia-Singapore free-trade agreement and so has an important perspective on the role Australia – and New Zealand – can play in ASEAN and the region more generally.

To do his erudition and analysis justice, I think it’s worthwhile providing an edited transcription of his thoughts. You can read the full Q&A of our discussion here.

Australia’s northern-most territory

“When I concluded the Australia-Singapore free-trade agreement with Mark Vaile at the end of 2002, I remarked that the FTA made Singapore Australia’s Northern-most territory. It was half in jest and Mark wasn’t sure quite how to react,” Yeo said.

“But Australia-Singapore relations are special and unique in the region. Singapore fell to Japan’s Imperial Army on Feb 15, 1942. Out of over 20,000 Australian POWs in the region, many were Army troops from the 8th Division captured in Malaya and Singapore. About 8000 died in captivity.

Over 5000 were concentrated in Singapore and Johor at the end of the war. Singapore is imprinted in the collective mind of Australia.

Australia’s defence forces also played a role during the Malayan Emergency and Konfrontasi in Singapore and actually the last Mirage squadron only left in late 1982.

There are deep links between Australia and the Singapore Airforce. And now Australia provides major training facilities for RSAF and the Singapore Army.

I could go on: Australia provided critical assistance to Singapore during early years of independence. There was the Colombo Plan. Advisers. Training of people in different fields.

Now when we come to today, as large parts of Asia re-emerge, it is not surprising that Singapore is one of the most convenient portals for Australia to plug into Asia. There is a reservoir of goodwill on both sides.

I see the FTA as part of this. In 2015, it was upgraded to the CSP. There is indeed a great overlap in our strategic views of world politics and economics.

For both of us, there is great iimportance placed on the role of the US as a stabilising factor especially in keeping the sea lanes open and the region’s response to China’s rise.”

The China event

“The rise of China is the single biggest cosmic event affecting us. It is like a second sun entering the solar system, it changes the gravitational field and affects everyone’s orbit. And obviously such a cosmic shift brings dangers and opportunities,” Yeo said.

“China is either already or becoming the most important trading partner for all its neighbours. If we look 10 years ahead, China’s weight in everyone’s calculation will change further.

The position of the US in Asia is profoundly affected. In recent reviews of the US defence posture, China has been identified as a key rival in response to which the preponderance of US military forces is shifting to the Pacific.

We have seen already some responses including attempts to build up the Quad alliance – US, India, Japan, Australia - and to redefine the region as Indo-Pacific.

But no one wants China to be an enemy if they can help it. And everyone wants the US as a friend if the US agrees to it. However, if the US forces a choice, it is not clear which side will be chosen. I do think however the US can be a free rider if it positions itself well.

If we consider some scenarios, the various responses to the AIIB and Belt and Road Initiative reflect the tension inherent in the changing power balance. Meanwhile, the internationalisation of the South China Sea disputes are causing nervousness and anxiety all round. Now this is perhaps inevitable but it is also a possible flashpoint.

For countries in this region, our strategic perspective is very much affected by our view of China as it grows stronger. There are profound differences between the US and China. The US, by self-definition, is a missionary power seeking to spread democracy.

China is, self-avowedly, the opposite. Sometimes criticised for being amoral in its international relations.

This is fundamental: the US cannot accept moral equivalence between its intentions and those of others. China has no interest in exporting its model to others.

Of course that doesn’t mean China is going to be quiescent. That a China that is everyday becoming more conscious of its growing strength should be more assertive of what it considers to be its rights and prerogatives in the world is to be expected.

Singapore, which is three quarters Chinese, generally takes a more benign view of China than Australia with its historical ties to the US. But Australia itself is changing. I read with some interest the recent critique of former foreign minister Bob Carr recently of the current Australian government’s China policy. This debate will continue for years to come.

Ironically, it is China which is now espousing the advantages of free trade which both Singapore and Australia are dependent on.

Stepping back, I would argue it behoves Australia to move closer to ASEAN. Indonesia will always be complicated but it has become a robust relationship. Singapore can play a helpful role in pulling Australia in.

But an Australia that still sees itself as the US ‘Deputy Sheriff’ – a term used by former PM John Howard - in the region will be viewed as an outsider in Southeast Asia.  It is not a good position for Australia.

No one is interested in the deputy if he can talk to the sheriff himself.  A deputy is also constrained in taking a position different from that of the sheriff.

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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