US-China relations: consequences from misses and accidents can happen and will be difficult to manage, says Lawrence Wong

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The trajectory of the US-China relationship is very worrying, says DPM Lawrence Wong. Clearly, the relationship is entering more dangerous terriroty. 

The relationship was already strained before the Russia-Ukraine war. With the recent visit by Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, tensions have gone up by one notch, Mr Wong said in an interview with  Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait.

Although both sides do not want conflict or confrontation, near misses, accidents and miscalculations can happen, and things could get worse.  

The dynamic is not helped by domestic politics, with the US having its midterms and China its party congress. This makes it difficult for either side to concede any ground, especially during this period, said Mr Wong

Accidents and miscalculations can happen

Mr Wong gave the example of the incident with the US spy plane that happened many years ago when US-China relations were much better than today. 

[The US spy plane incident happened in 2001 when the spy plane EP3 was intercepted by 2 PLA Navy J8 fighter jets.  A collision between the EP-3 and one of the J-8s caused a PRC pilot to go missing. He was later  presumed dead. The EP-3 was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan. The 24 crew members were detained and interrogated by the China authorities until a statement was delivered by the United States government regarding the incident. The exact phrasing of this document was intentionally ambiguous and allowed both countries to save face while defusing a potentially volatile situation.]

“If an accident were to happen today, the consequences may be more difficult to manage, and so we worry about these sorts of near misses and accidents and miscalculations, and we certainly hope that the leadership on both sides can continue to engage one another, especially at the highest level, and that sensible and rational decisions can be made to prevent things from worsening or deteriorating further,” said Mr Wong

The damaged US EP-3 at China's Lingshui air base

Singapore is not an ally of the US

On whether Singapore feels she is an ally of the US, and reassured that US is backing its allies in Asia, DPM Wong said, “We are not an ally to America.  We conduct our own foreign policy based on our own vital and core interests in a principled manner.”

Singapore has always upheld the one-China policy and oppose Taiwanese independence, he added. 

Sleep walking into conflict

On the possible China invasion of Taiwan, Mr Wong said that Taiwan is certainly a flashpoint. Recent events have shown that it can easily become very dangerous and even escalate quite quickly. Both the US and China understand the consequences of going into conflict

“But as they say, no one deliberately wants to go into battle, but we sleepwalk into conflict, and that is the biggest problem and danger,” Mr Wong said. 

Lawrence Wong

Singapore’s point of view

“From Singapore’s point of view, we look at it this way – we want to create a framework in the Asia Pacific, particularly in Southeast Asia, where all the major powers have stakes in the region, both the US and China. We think that will contribute to a more stable configuration, an overlapping circle of friendships, where everyone has stakes here and hopefully that will increase interdependencies and help make this a more stable configuration,” said Mr Wong

The world at a turning point

“The broader concern is that the world is at a turning point. We have, for decades, thrived on a multilateral system that was rules-based, that allowed countries, even though we may not be bosom friends, we may not agree on everything, but we can do business with one another. And that framework of trade and investments has brought about unparalleled economic transformation for the world. It has benefited many countries, especially poor countries, and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.

But I think this is changing. We are entering a new scenario, a new world order where increasingly, trade, economics, finance are being used as instruments of geopolitical contest. The old logic used to be that with more trade, we can damp down geopolitical rivalries. I think now there is another logic at play, which is geopolitics can undermine trade, and we worry about that because this will lead us to a more divided and dangerous world.”

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