In a keynote speech, ESM Goh Chok Tong said that there can be no real regional cooperation if China does not have the confidence and trust of its neighbours. Achieving real cooperation requires more than a change in the tone, style and language of public communications, he said.
Mr Goh outlined 3 principles to reinvigorate regional cooperation in Asia in the speech that was delivered virtually at the 9th World Peace Forum on 4 July 2021.
1. Maximise areas of cooperation, and minimise areas of dispute. Where possible, we should try to resolve issues amicably and rationally. Where possible, compromise. Even when resolution is not possible, disagreements and disputes in some areas need not stand in the way of cooperation and collaboration in other areas that are mutually beneficial.
2. Prosper thy neighbours, not beggar them. It is better to cooperate to grow and share the pie equitably than fight over our share of a fixed pie.
3. Reflect and learn from history, and not be shackled by it. If we cannot let go of historical wounds and wrongs, and if we can never forgive, we will not be able to move forward.
These principles, he said, will provide the overarching framework for a peaceful Asia that all stakeholders respect and abide by.
Making reference to an analogy he made at the first ASEAN-China Summit in 2003, Mr Goh said, “I observed to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that China was like an elephant entering a swimming pool where there were other smaller animals. No matter how gentle the elephant was, it still needed to be careful of its every move, because it might, even unintentionally, step on the toes of the other animals. Two decades on, the elephant is much bigger and still growing, but the size of the pool is still the same,”
“I have been to China many times since my first visit in 1971. I have had the good fortune of meeting all the top Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. I have positive impressions and good vibes of China. I believe that China is focused on uplifting its people through economic growth, rather than seeking hegemony in Asia or challenging the US for global dominance. I am convinced that China’s growth is positive for Asia and the world,”
“But there are people who fear that China may become a less than gentle elephant,” he added. In particular, critics have drawn attention to China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”, the perception of an increasingly muscular and aggressive China.
“While I understand why China needs to stand up firmly for its interests, how China conducts its diplomacy does shape how others view China,” Mr Goh pointed out.
“In May, President Xi Jinping urged Politburo members to portray an image of a ‘credible, lovable, and respectable’ China,” Mr Goh said. “President Xi’s words are welcomed. The world will no doubt be watching China’s actions closely to see what will change and what will not change,” he added.