Washington - According to conventional wisdom, Southeast Asia has much to worry about whenever tensions between the United States and China rise. However,Singapore's former ambassador to the United Nations, Mr Kishore Mahbubani, begs to differ. He believes that the region actually gains from such a situation.
In a speech to a high-powered audience of policymakers and Asian experts at the Brooking Institutions on Sept 27, Mr Mahbubani said he would prefer a state of "controlled tension" in US-China relations. This is because Asean stands to benefit when US and China vie with each other for influence in the region.
He argued that the Chinese government had reached out to share its growing economic prosperity with the region partly because of its tension with Washingtonand the possibility that the US might try to contain China.
Mr Mahbubani noted that when China proposed a free trade agreement with Asean, other nations, such as Japan and India, quickly followed suit and offered similar preferential trading arrangements.
"So Southeast Asia benefits a great deal from the controlled tension between the United States and China."
He added that this beneficial situation had helped create the right moment for the East Asia Summit that will be held in Kuala Lumpur in December. "This is where you will see an effort made to lay in place a broader Asian order that brings together all the major powers of Asia into a cooperative arrangement."
Mr Mahbubani also stressed that Asean wants the US to maintain a strong and sizeable presence in Southeast Asia. But he warned the US against trying to curbChina’s rise. Such a policy could lead to ties between the two countries becoming so antagonistic that Asean countries would be forced to choose between the two parties.
"You will put them in an invidious position because they know that America may leave the region, but China will stay," Mr Mahbubani said.
* 'Controlled US-China tension good for Asean' (The Straits Times, Sept 23)