21 June 2017
21 June 2017 | 5 pm
Marina Mandarin Singapore
All but one of the pieces in this volume were written after I retired. When the Straits Times Press first approached me to collect and publish them, I was reluctant. They were occasional pieces written in response to specific events now past. I did not think there was much value in preserving the ramblings of a pensioner.
It was only when Tan Lian Choo persuaded me that there was some utility in doing so and, perhaps recklessly, agreed to take on the onerous task of editing them that I agreed. I am grateful for her efforts. I am also grateful to Professor Jayakumar for agreeing to be Guest of Honour and to Mr Wong Kan Seng for attending this book launch, as I am to all of you for being here. I thank all of you.
The world is in a phase of more than usual uncertainty and unpredictability, and has been for some time. It is crucial that Singaporeans try to understand events dispassionately and with reference to our own national interests. We should not uncritically accept other people’s judgements which are based on entirely different considerations.
This particularly so when we consider the new American administration. What happens in the United States has a profound influence on our region and the world. It is essential that we understand developments in that country clinically and independently.
In March this year I visited Washington DC and spoke to many old friends, mainly Asian experts of both parties. Few had anything good to say about the Trump administration. And if you read the American media you will get the impression that everything the new President has done is wrong: from the way he chooses to eat steak – which the Washington Post lampooned — to his reaffirmation of the one China policy which the New York Times depicted as weakness and a retreat. The European media and foreign policy experts have adopted similar attitudes.
This is gross and dangerous exaggeration. I do not mean to suggest that everything is honey and roses. Certainly the cancellation of the TPP was a serious blow to American credibility, as was the disavowal of the Paris Agreement on climate change. The possible direction of American trade policy is deeply troubling, as is the perception that the administration may be Islamophobic.
But it is factually incorrect to suggest that nothing Mr Trump’s administration has done is right. Some of the criticism and mockery is downright irrelevant. So Mr Trump chooses to eat his steak well-done and with ketchup instead of, say, medium-rare and with Sauce Béarnaise. So what? And why was it wrong to reaffirm a policy that has stood since 1972?
We should not let Mr Trump’s flamboyant personality and penchant for apparently spontaneous pronouncements get in the way of analysis. What the President tweets is good copy; what his administration does is more important. In East Asia, the Trump administration’s foreign and security policies have been within the general norm. This should not be surprising since the range of realistic options is not overly broad. Some aspects are improvements over previous policies.
I have already referred to the reaffirmation of the one China policy. The administration has also reaffirmed the importance of American alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia; when he visited Indonesia earlier this year, Vice-President Pence announced that President Trump would attend the forthcoming APEC, EAS and ASEAN-US Summits; the 7th Fleet has not stopped operating in the South and East China Seas and recently conducted a FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the SCS (South China Sea) with the promise of more to come.
It is not as if everything previous administrations did was correct. For example, the Obama administration’s policy of so-called “strategic patience” towards North Korea – a euphemism for doing almost nothing – was a serious mistake which gave Pyongyang eight years to develop its nuclear and missile capabilities. It was correct for the Trump administration to have deployed carrier strike groups to and near Korean waters in response to North Korean missile tests.
I do not think North Korea can be prevented from proceeding with these programmes. Sooner or later North Korea will have nuclear-capable ICBMs that can reach the continental United States. But the Trump administration can hardly be held responsible for this. We are on the cusp of major strategic change in the Northeast Asian security environment. All the more important therefore to demonstrate resolve now through a show of over-whelming force so as to maintain deterrence in the not-too-distant future.
There are other examples of mistakes by previous administrations, both Democrat and Republican. There are also other instances where the Trump administration’s approach has, I think, been an improvement. It was a brilliant stroke to have launched an attack on Syria while at table with President Xi Jinping. It did much to ameliorate the impression of weakness and indecision when President Obama drew a red line over Syria’s use of chemical weapons but failed to enforce it.
The attacks of the western media and foreign policy establishments on the Trump administration are often driven by their inability or unwillingness to come to terms with Mr Trump’s election. Some of it at least partly reflects political agendas of one sort or another. Such motivations may be understandable, but strictly speaking none of our business.
Whatever we may think of their policies, Singapore must work with any American administration, just as we must work with any Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Russian, Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai or for that matter, if the need arises, Ethiopian government. We have to take the world as it is, irrespective of whether or not it suits our preferences or convenience.
But the herd instinct is strong among scribbling and chattering classes, and I think some of our own have succumbed to it. A fashionable trope is that the Trump administration’s abdication of leadership rebounds to China’s advantage. This is an oversimplification.
I do not think America under the Trump administration has forsworn leadership, although it has a different definition of leadership. In so far as there is a deficit of global leadership, Mr Trump’s election was a symptom not a cause, as was the election of Mr Obama before him. The current global order was fraying at its edges well before Mr Trump was elected. I do not think that China can easily fill a deficit of global leadership. And no matter what they may say, I think Chinese leaders know this.
In January this year at Davos, President Xi delivered an eloquent defence of globalization. This was regarded as demonstrating China’s confidence and willingness to lead in place of America. Perhaps. But President Xi’s defence of globalization could also be read as a tacit admission that there is no alternative to the current American designed and led world order and concern over what it might mean for China should that order further unravel.
President Xi’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) is a bold and ambitious vision of great potential. But it is largely still only just that: a vision and not yet a reality. It is a vision worth supporting, but it rests on the foundation of the current global order, as does China’s continued growth. OBOR is not a substitute for the current global order. Can OBOR succeed if the current open, inter-connected global order crumbles and the world descends into protectionism?
To lead an open global order, one must oneself be open. The Chinese Communist Party is ambivalent over further opening and reform because it is unsure what the effect on its rule may be. So far the Party’s emphasis has been on tightening central control. And it is not as if China is without serious internal challenges of its own.
It is not my intention to defend the Trump administration any more than it is my intention to criticise the Trump administration or any other government. My intention is simply to illustrate that things are more complex than may appear and hence the need for clear, balanced and independent judgements. That too is what the pieces collected in this book are intended to illustrate.
The Trump administration is only six months old and events may well prove me wrong. A wrong assessment can always be revised. But a rush to judgement based on uncritical acceptance of other people’s assumptions of failure made for reasons that are irrelevant to Singapore may lead to wrong policy choices. This could trap us in path dependencies that will be difficult to escape. And that is my essential point.
Last updated on 07/05/2019