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No need to choose between a rising China and an influential America

Updated On: Aug 03, 2009

SOMEONE pointed out that a recent picture of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew showed him wearing Chinese-style robes while he was in China. Mr Lee was also reported to have mentioned the Confucian tradition and to speak in Mandarin.

Should, the person implied, Singapore be so close to the mainland?

This is more than a navel-gazing question about Singapore as a multiracial, yet predominately Chinese society in South-east Asia. The question comes into focus with a picture of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At the recently-concluded meeting with Asean, the headlines were that the United States is "back in South-east Asia".

Engaging with the US has been second nature to Singapore. Yet, ties with the mainland have been growing since the 1980s. So how should we choose between Beijing and Washington, DC - if indeed we have to choose?

Two young Singaporeans I asked gave instinctive but different answers. China, one said, because of ethnic ties and that everyone knows China will rise.

America, the other insisted, because of the influence, attraction and openness of their democratic system.

Like them, Singapore would be in something of a dilemma if we have to choose. More than three-quarters of Singaporeans are ethnically Chinese. Most are relatively newcomers, hyphenated as Chinese-Singaporean.

Despite identity cards, there is still no strong recognition that Chinese-Singaporeans are distinct from the Chinese, say as Australians are different from the English.

On top of this, there is an ongoing influx of China-Chinese-Singaporeans which has been changing the texture of society.

An affinity for China shows through. When the Olympics was held in Beijing last year, Singaporean sentiment was one of pride by association, and most seemed to condemn protesters in Europe who tried to stop the Olympic torch because of China's actions in Tibet.

Affinity is magnified by the economic gains from being close to China. More and more Singapore companies and entrepreneurs try to participate in, and gain from, the boom in China. One symbol of this is the "Raffles City" complex built by CapitaLand, a Government-linked company, exporting the name, style and investment to the centre of Shanghai.

Yet, Singapore has also been close to the US.

Not physically - as I realise, being based in New York, an 18-hour flight away on the other side of the earth. Nor are we linked by ethnicity.

But in the presence of American businesses, brands and what is on television and at the multiplex cinemas. Even in the language and phrases Singaporeans use, the original English colonial influences have given way to Americanisms.

In geopolitics too, Singapore is close to the US with strategic framework and free trade agreements. The Minister Mentor and others have always sought to engage the US as a guarantor of stability in Asia. Singapore even supported the controversial Bush decision to invade Iraq.


So, Singapore is tied to both the US and China. We are not alone in this. Across Asia, interdependence with both is evident.

For many Asian economies, trade with China has been growing the most, surpassing direct trade with the US. However, most of the China trade is in intermediate goods that are aggregated in the mainland before then being exported to the US as the final destination.

If there is an either/or between the US and China, all will be less well off as a result.

Yet for a long time, people have predicted a rivalry and eventual conflict between the US and China, as the present power and a rising one. Collision is not inevitable.

American President Barack Obama has just re-emphasised that the US does not seek to contain China. Mrs Clinton visited Beijing and instead of emphasising human rights or other points of difference, she suggested that both work together to tackle climate change.

China, on its part, has reassured all of its peaceful rise and development.

It has recognised its economic interdependence with the US, whereby so many products made in China end up being sold to American consumers.

This week, Obama administration officials engaged in a dialogue with their Beijing counterparts about strategic and financial issues. Yet, areas of competition and differences remain.

Differences over democracy and human rights, for example, led to friction over Tibet.

In the wake of the financial crisis, concerns have been expressed in China over the longer-term role of the US dollar.

The build-up by the Chinese armed forces is seen by some as a growing threat, even if the Americans remain far ahead at present.

It seems likely the US will emerge from the crisis diminished while China - still growing - will emerge relatively stronger. Some also advise that Asians must develop their own markets, rather than overly relying on the American consumer.

Let's hope none of this sharply diminishes interdependence and increases rivalries.

Mr Lee may wear Chinese robes and speak Mandarin to the mainland about Confucianism.

But he does also wear dark suits and ties, and speak about modern politics when in America and the West.

Like him, we should refuse to make a choice between "either/or" and instead embrace the power of "and".

Simon Tay
About the author: 

The writer is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and, for 2009, Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society in New York.

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