Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong delivered remarks virtually at the 3rd Hong Kong Forum on US-China Relations on 19 January, organised by the China-United States Exchange Foundation and the China Center for International Economic Exchanges. The theme of the conference is “Beyond Differences, Towards Cooperation”.
The full text is appended.
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MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS
19 JANUARY 2022
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1 Good morning and also good evening. Thank you for inviting me to the third edition of the Hong Kong Forum on US-China Relations. The world has changed beyond recognition since I last spoke at the inaugural Forum in 2019. What remains unchanged is the global strategic importance of US-China relationship. Let me first speak on how I see the problem, before suggesting how best to move forward.
2. If trust is the currency of the realm, then the main deficit in the geopolitical ledger is the mutual strategic distrust between the US and China. It stems from a difference in values, ideologies, worldviews, political systems, and perspectives on global governance. If this distrust cannot be overcome, the world will be condemned like Sisyphus to roll the boulder of a contentious US-China relationship up a hill for eternity.
3. The US has assessed that China is, in President Biden’s words, “deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world”. It views China as its main strategic competitor and a threat to American national security and values. The US has therefore bolstered its military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific, and strengthened its alliances and partnerships through platforms like the Quad and AUKUS. It has also drawn attention to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as to what it views as China’s coercive behaviour in other parts of the world. From Washington’s perspective, China is not following the established rules of the global order despite being a chief beneficiary. Instead, China is seeking to rewrite these rules in its favour.
4. At best, China sees this as a US containment strategy to prevent its rise as a global power. At worst, it sees this as a long-term strategy to weaken China and break it up. It sees the US’ framing of “democracy versus autocracy” as a move to undermine China’s political system and the dominance of the CPC. A similar ideological battle brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
5. The Chinese leadership takes the view that foreign powers managed to exploit China in the past because it was not strong enough. Till today, Chinese leaders frequently remind its people of China’s Century of Humiliation, including on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC. Hence, China is building up multiple defensive and offensive capabilities – at sea, in the air, out at space, and through cyber warfare. The ultimate weapon will be nuclear. The threat of mutually assured destruction is the best deterrence.
6. China reasons that these capabilities are needed to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. But to the US, China’s military build-up harbours offensive intent, particularly as it sees Beijing to be reluctant to engage in global discussions on managing the build-up of nuclear capabilities. To China, the US should instead scale down its immensely superior nuclear capabilities.
7. At their recent virtual summit, President Biden called for “common-sense guardrails”, while President Xi compared the two countries to two giant ships that must forge ahead together without colliding. Actions on the ground should reflect the two leaders’ words. The US and China must see that it is in their own interests to maintain a stable and peaceful international environment. Both countries need to implement “trust but verify” agreements as they try to resolve outstanding bilateral issues while attaining their geopolitical ambitions.
8 What now? Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the US’ approach to China will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be”. Building on this frame, I suggest that the US and China should “Avoid Conflict over Differences, Embrace Healthy Competition, and Maximise Cooperation”.
9. My biggest concern is whether Taiwan becomes a casus belli. I do not think the Mainland wants to invade Taiwan and reunify it through force. However, if it sees no prospect for peaceful reunification, it may believe it has no choice.
10. Beijing has reiterated on countless occasions that Taiwanese independence is its redline. But the big unknown is what is the tipping point that would force the Mainland to act. The more international space Taiwan gains, which Beijing sees as the result of tacit encouragement from the US, the more the Mainland will ratchet up pressure on Taiwan.
11. The US and China should negotiate guardrails to avert conflict over Taiwan. It is better to create the 21st-century equivalent of the “Red Telephone” than risk spiralling escalation and military conflict through miscalculation.
12. Beyond merely avoiding conflict, the US-China relationship should be underpinned by healthy competition and driven by cooperation where possible. President Xi has said that "We should advocate fair competition, like competing with each other for excellence in a racing field, not beating each other on a wrestling arena". President Biden has also said that the US would “insist that China play by the international rules of fair competition, fair practices and fair trade”. Taken at face value, there is common ground to work together.
13. The US and China will have to address what exactly healthy competition will look like, in accordance with international law and the existing international rules-based order. There are many pressing global issues that require both the US and China to cooperate closely as global powers. Free trade, climate change, global pandemic preparedness, and religious extremism, are a few of them.
14. Besides the two protagonists, what can the rest of us do? I have been speaking about the Voice of Moderation since 2019. This Voice represents the concerned countries, leaders, institutions, media, business, think-tanks and people who want to avert a catastrophic clash between the US and China. It advocates strategic rationality, peace, growth and prosperity within an interdependent, open, inclusive, rules-based multilateral order. The Moderate Voice must urge the US and China to play a “positive-sum game”, not a zero-sum game, and certainly not a negative-sum game. All countries in the world want a positive and constructive relationship with both the US and China.
15. Peace through acceptance of differences is a practical way forward. ASEAN is a prime example of how countries with very different geographies, histories, languages, and political systems came together to share a common vision of a peaceful and prosperous Southeast Asia.
16. ASEAN can be a substantive Voice of Moderation. We have consistently encouraged both the US and China to remain productively engaged in the region across different sectors. Both countries are Dialogue Partners of ASEAN and we hope to continue engaging both China and the US at ASEAN meetings at the highest level.
17. Your forum, too, is a meaningful Voice of Moderation. I hope that when CUSEF and CCIEE convene the next forum, both major powers would have made good headway in managing their mutual strategic distrust. Doing so will require wisdom and statecraft of the highest order. I believe both Presidents Biden and Xi possess these qualities. I pray that they will be able to build up strategic trust between their countries and peoples.
18 Thank you.
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