SINGAPORE — It is important at this juncture for the United States and China to articulate their overarching foreign policy objectives towards Asia, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.
During a panel discussion at the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Germany, Dr Ng said the US’ ability as a military power to continue its presence and influence in the Pacific was “not in doubt”. “But this military prowess, while necessary, is insufficient for continued stability and progress in Asia,” said Dr Ng.
Likewise, China, as a rising power, must spell out its “inclusive vision for Asia and beyond”. This vision, while serving China’s interests, will not do so exclusively. “(The vision) must also provide other countries the assurance of clear, common and acceptable rules around which countries can evolve a new order,” he said.
He added that some initiatives have already begun or are in the works, such as the One Belt, One Road initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Singapore “fully supports and will facilitate” these initiatives, he said.
Dr Ng reiterated Singapore’s position that the US and China’s engagement with each other and other Asian nations would be “the key consideration” for Asia-Pacific’s stability, referring to East Asia, the Korean Peninsula and the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean).
Meanwhile, citing US President Donald Trump’s “America first” pledge in his inauguration speech, Dr Ng said the question was on what basis would the US’ continued presence and influence in Asia be legitimised under this policy.
If US foreign policy is de facto “predominantly anti-China”, it would be a “frustrating decade” for many in Asean and Asia, as it would be if China’s efforts are seen as a means to usurp the US as the resident power in the Pacific.
“Countries will de facto have to choose sides and be put into lose-win situations,” he said. If US foreign policy is transactional-based, “then I think the genesis of trading, (and) even security blocs, has begun”, Dr Ng said.
Under such a foreign policy, the US would provide the security umbrella in exchange for trading privileges or commercial gains. For China, conversely, security considerations can be a barter for countries needing inroads into Chinese markets.
Dr Ng said Mr Trump’s “America first” message was “quite a different” one from that of former president John F Kennedy’s at his 1961 inauguration.
The late president had proclaimed a US that would “pay any price, bear any burden to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.
Of particular note to Asean states, Kennedy had said: “One form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far, more iron tyranny.”
It was this American exceptionalism, which formed the raison d’etre of the US’ presence in the Asia-Pacific against the threat of communism, that provided a common cause with which countries could enjoin, said Dr Ng.
The US had also led the way in establishing institutions that form the “fabric of globalisation” today.
Amid uncertain times now, Dr Ng said existing platforms, including the Asean Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, must play productive roles to foster better understanding with the US, China and other nations.