US-China relations: we do not take sides as default, we take principled positions in our own national interests, says Chan Chun Sing

US-China relations: we do not take sides as default, we take principled positions in our own national interests, says Chan Chun Sing

Speaking at the 41st IISS-Asia Fullerton Lecture, Mr Chan said that sustained peace and progress are not beyond us if the US and China can arrive at a new modus vivendi that will set boundaries for competition and define areas of cooperation amidst competition, for the sake of the world and for themselves.

“But even if the US and China do not reach such a modus vivendi, the rest of the world should recognise their responsibilities and agency to play a constructive role in shaping our collective future,” Mr Chan added.


China sees itself achieving civilisational rejuvenation and regaining its rightful place in the league of nations and history, Mr Chan said.

“It sees itself as sui generis and does not expect others to be like it. It sees its circumstances as requiring solutions with their own unique characteristics. It believes that the key to its success throughout history will always be the unity of its purpose, people and leadership that allows it to achieve speed and coherence of actions.”

The US

The US which achieved unprecedented global leadership and dominance within just over 200 years is powered by a set of fundamental beliefs that it regards to be self-evident and universal, said Mr Chan. “It believes in the power of its set of ideals to attract the best around the world to come together to build a better society, if not a better world. It has firm convictions in promoting its values and beliefs for the benefit of the world.”

The US and China Relations

Neither the US nor China will become a version of the other and it is unproductive, it not counter-productive, to try to expect, or try to make the other more like themselves, said Mr Chan.

“Trade and economic development do not necessarily lead to convergence of social or political systems. The US and China want some convergence for fair, consistent, and mutually agreed rules for trade to take place. Indeed, the world shares this desire too.”

As major powers, both the US and China have a common interest in ensuring that the global order remains peaceful, stable, secure, and connected, and that the strategic lines of communication remain open, Mr Chan said.

US-China Competition

Unlike the US and Soviet Union which led two separate systems and competed to see which system will prevail, the US and China are both vital components of a single global system and compete within that system, Mr Chan said.

“Competition within a system is fundamentally different from competition between systems,” said Mr Chan. Thus, a strategy of containment based on an expectation of economic collapse is not viable, he said.

Success will be determined by the power of their example

“Success,”  Mr Chan said, “will not be determined by who is able to knock the other down. Neither will be able to do that to the other, not decisively, and not without causing damage to oneself.”

“Nor should that be their primary focus,” he added.

Instead, success will be determined by the one who can best manage their domestic challenges, and to exercise global leadership through the power of their example, rather than the example of their power.”

“Whoever can create more and better opportunities for the world, whoever can provide leadership for a more connected world, whoever acts in enlightened self-interest to benefit the world, rather than narrow self-interest to benefit only itself, will succeed through the power of their example,” said Mr Chan.

The world needs global leadership now more than ever

Global leadership is needed to lift the world out of the pandemic, to rebuild and reorganise the disrupted global supply chains, create the assurance of access to critical supplies, including vaccines, deal with climate change and many other pressing global challenges, said Mr Chan. There is tremendous opportunity for US and China to focus on these challenges and exercise their respective leadership to win the world over.

Rest of the World

The rest of the world must also understand that we have the responsibility and the agency to shape the outcome we desire,” said Mr Chan

To do this, the rest of the world must avoid a zero-sum mentality and the false dichotomy that one side must lose for the other side to win. It has to send a clear message that they will ‘act on principle and do not wish to be corralled into taking sides’.

Most countries, including in Europe, want to be partners with both the US and China, Mr Chan said. “Taking sides regardless of issues and context, breeds irrelevance. And if one is irrelevant, it will almost certainly require taking sides,” he said.

Mr Chan urged the rest of the world to stand on the side of principles for a rules-based, inclusive, open, and connected world order.

“The more countries stand for, believe and act upon this, the more viable the desired outcome for all of us. This is, perhaps, the classical Prisoner’s Dilemma in Game Theory – if we don’t hang together, we hang individually,” he said.

The CPTTP is a clear example of the power of geostrategic entrepreneurship and the signing of the RCEP in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic is ‘both a demonstration of the region’s desire for closer economic cooperation, as much as it is a statement of the desired, for a shared interest in each other’s success and progress.

“Whether it is between the US and China, or the rest of the world,

Where does Singapore stand?

“Singapore seeks to be a relevant partner to both the US and China, as well as the world,” Mr Chan said. “We do not take sides as default, without regard to the issue or context. Instead, we take principled positions in our own long-term national interests to uphold the rule of international law in the global order, so that might does not equal right.”

Singapore supports inclusive, open, rules-based and connected global security and economic architectures because we believe that these principles best support our interests to enhance Singapore’s continued survival and success, Mr Chan said.

Singapore will work with like-minded partners to achieve this. Like-minded partners include countries, corporates, and international organisations, who must all share in this endeavour to build a better world, said Mr Chan.

Mr Chan said the world can come together and transcend their differences to fulfil the potential of a global shared agenda. Such an agenda include establishing the new norms for the global digital commons to drive the next lap of global growth. In this respect, Singapore Singapore is pioneering pathfinder digital economic agreements with New Zealand, Chile, Australia, United Kingdom and Republic of Korea.

The world can also come together to create new and sustainable solutions for a greener world – from water to energy management and urban solutions.  It can also come together to recover from the current pandemic and prepare for the next.

“The world aspires and must now both move fast to overcome today’s challenges and move far to seize tomorrow’s opportunities. To achieve both – speed and distance, we need deep trust and interdependence. Deep trust to believe that we are committed to each other’s success. Interdependence to manifest our shared destiny,” said Mr Chan.

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