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Future50 – China in Asia: The Past, Future, and Singapore’s Responses

02 Feb Future50 – China in Asia: The Past, Future, and Singapore’s Responses

On Tuesday 31 March, the Singapore Institute of International Affairs organised a Future50 (F50) session on “China in Asia: The Past, Future, and Singapore’s Responses” at the Singapore Management University Admin Building, Mochtar Riady Auditorium, featuring remarks from Professor Wang Gungwu, Chairman, East Asian Institute (EAI), National University of Singapore and  Dr Xiao Geng, Vice-President (China), Fung Global Institute. We also held discussion groups after the panel, where participants were able to share their own views. Our F50 programme aims to examine “the 50-year future for Singapore in Asia and the world”, and is part of the SG50 calendar of events. For more information, visit

Date/Time: Tuesday, 31st March 2015 / 6.00pm – 7.00pm (registration at 5.00pm, talk commences at 6pm)

Venue: Mochtar Riady Auditorium, Singapore Management University

China has emerged as a rising power, deepening its presence in our region via trade, investment, and other business links. Over the past year, China has launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and revived discussions on the proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific (FTAAP). Yet at the same time, some remain cautious about Beijing’s increasing influence, chief among them the United States, but also others in Asia. As part of the SIIA’s Future 50 (F50) series, in conjunction with the nation-wide SG50 celebrations, this discussion examines China’s impact on the region and world over the next 50 years, and what this means for Singapore – with views from a renowned Singaporean expert on China and a leading international commentator


Prof. Wang Gungwu, Chairman, East Asian Institute and University Professor, National University of Singapore
Dr. Xiao Geng, Vice President, China and Senior Fellow at Fung Global Institute, China


Singapore and China

It is timely for us to discuss China in the context of SG50; as a small country, Singapore’s future and economic prosperity will always be affected  by China’s moves in the region. But Singapore also has a special relationship with China. In his opening remarks at the session, Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, noted that the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, was one of the first Asian leaders to reach out to Mr. Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader of China. Mr. Deng, in introducing the reforms that lead China on its path to opening up, saw Singapore as an example of where China could go.

China’s Reforms

Today, China is embarking on another phase of economic reforms, under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. “[Debt and inequality is] like a cancer in the Chinese economy,” said Dr. Xiao, “China wants to cut off the cancer”. According to Dr. Xiao, the current economic slowdown in China is like a patient being in the operating room, in life support – the economy is at a critical stage, but there is the prospect of recovery if China can strengthen its financial institutions, as well as promoting innovation and competition.

China’s Regional Initiatives

China is not only seeking to promote innovation and competition within its own economy, but across the region. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a new lending body established by China, confirmed its final lineup of founding member nations on Tuesday. But Dr. Xiao noted that while the AIIB is a new body, it is also a natural progression for China – overseas lending by the China Development Bank, an existing institution, is already larger than total lending by the World Bank.

Though many commentators frame China’s regional economic initiatives as a new era for Chinese foreign policy, Prof Wang argues that this current policy direction is heavily influenced by China’s past and historical experiences. Over the past few centuries, China has largely been a continental, not maritime power, focusing on its land borders and territory. But since the 19th century, China has begun to slowly realise that the sea matters. This lesson has come very late, and China is now trying to catch up. The fact that the 21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt was been confirmed as one of China’s key foreign policy objectives for 2015 illustrates this shift in China’s thinking.

However, China is not the only nation whose perceptions of the world have been shaped by geography and history. This is also an issue for ASEAN, which is split between largely continental countries like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, and more maritime-oriented nations like Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Indonesia. This makes it difficult for ASEAN countries to see eye-to-eye and understand each other’s concerns, especially when it comes to engagement with China and dealing with issues like the South China Sea territorial disputes.

Singapore and ASEAN’s Responses

As an island city-state dependent on good relations with other countries, Singapore needs to support China’s new initiatives like the AIIB and 21st Century Maritime Silk Route Economic Belt. Speaking in discussion groups after the panel, participants largely agreed that Singapore cannot afford to be left out of these new ventures. At the same time, Singapore cannot simply blindly follow Chinese directions – Singapore needs to look after her own interests.

Participants noted that ASEAN’s raison d’etre is to be a grouping to allow cooperation and commonality for Southeast Asian nations to stand up against their larger neighbours. ASEAN members therefore need to work together, in order to ensure their collective interests are adequately represented even as the region enters a new era of engagement with China.