China must be prepared for protracted struggle with the US
Published: Oct 30, 2023 05:49 PM

Editor's Note: 

With the APEC leaders' meeting just around the corner, increasing high-level interactions between China and the US signal that the US wants its relations with China to stabilize and even improve. Even if there's a new balloon incident, bilateral ties will not be blown off course again, George Yeo (Yeo), former Singaporean minister of foreign affairs, told Global Times (GT) reporters Li Aixin and Bai Yunyi in an exclusive interview during his recent tour in Beijing. Yeo also stressed that China must be prepared for a period of protracted struggle with the US. This is because, at least for now, the US does not trust China. But how does China get prepared? "China knows what to do," Yeo said.

GT: With the increasing high-level interactions between China and the US, as well as the upcoming APEC meeting, do you think there may be changes in China-US relations in the near future? 

Yeo: In the short term, I believe the US wants bilateral relations with China to stabilize, perhaps even to improve a little bit. There's an expectation that President Xi Jinping will meet President Joe Biden in San Francisco, because a lot of preparatory work has been done.

They had a good meeting in Bali, Indonesia, one year ago, which lasted over three hours. Unfortunately, the consensus reached was derailed by the balloon incident. The fact that the balloon incident could derail a broad agreement shows how fragile it was. I believe for this coming meeting, much more preparations have already been made. So even if there's a new balloon incident, bilateral ties will not be blown off course because both sides have interacted with one another much more deeply now. 

The point is, the US, in the short term, doesn't want bilateral relations to get worse. This is partly because the war in Ukraine is not making much progress from the US side. There is also concern about a serious economic downturn, and the US needs to cooperate with China. Without open channels, if a crisis arises, there may be no time to reach a mutual understanding on how to conceptually address economic challenges. 

I think these are the two main reasons why the US wants to improve its relations with China to a certain degree.

GT: From a long-term perspective, where do you think the relationship is headed?

Yeo: In the longer term, China-US relations will remain tense and difficult. This trial of strength between the two will continue for a while, because China is very likely to become the world's largest economy. The US feels that its dominance in the world is threatened by China, and it's hard for Americans to accept this. They even fear that China will want to replace or displace the US as No.1 in the world. China said repeatedly that it has no such ambition, but the US doesn't quite believe China. The US thinks that once China becomes economically strong and powerful, it will want to do what the Western powers did when they became strong and powerful. In this, I believe they don't understand Chinese history and Chinese civilization enough.

China has to be patient. There has to be a period of time where both sides test each other before a more stable position crystallizes. China must be prepared for a period of protracted struggle with the US. US politics also goes through periodic changes. There are elections all the time. It's easy for emotions against China to become inflamed, putting pressure on all candidates to take certain positions. 

GT: Do you have any advice on how China could communicate and interact with a US that does not want to believe China?

Yeo: It's not for me to give advice to China. China knows what to do. China will not escalate (tension). But at the same time, it does not want its reaction to be mistaken as weakness. It has to show firmness. At the same time, China must be able to explain its position to the Chinese people who are also judging their own government and wanting their own government to be strong and not weak. This is the balance that has to be struck. 

GT: You have been discussing the coming multipolar world. What roles do you think China and the US can play in this future world? 

Yeo: The world is becoming multipolar. The US resists it because it's used to being dominant and preeminent in the world. Many of the institutions that now enable us to communicate, travel and trade freely were shaped by the US after WWII. The US is finding that some of these institutions are no longer acting in its national interest. As a result of, we see the US weaponizing some of these institutions, and weaponizing the long-established practices. I would say that the US is now in a defensive position. It feels that it's got to protect its own interests.

China should take a constructive attitude to the reform of institutions like the WTO and it's important to make the US continue to feel that it gains by working within them rather than working outside them. 

George Yeo Photo: Yu Jiayin/GT

George Yeo Photo: Yu Jiayin/GT

GT: The Xiangshan Forum is being held in Beijing to discuss security cooperation. How do you view China's global security vision and its response to regional conflicts?

Yeo: It is important for Chinese and US' defense establishments and for the two armed forces to be able to communicate with one another in order to avoid accidents. 

China has been predictably cautious in its response to distant conflicts. 

Between Russia and Ukraine, China has triangulated very carefully. It doesn't want Russia to collapse, because that would not be in China's interests. At the same time, it doesn't want to supply weapons, because that's taking sides. China has been telling various parties: I don't want to be involved in your war, but one day when reconstruction is needed, we will be there to help. China is a peacemaker, not a troublemaker in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

It's the same with the Israel-Palestine conflict. China has taken a clear position condemning what Hamas has done but is sympathetic to the injustices suffered by the Palestinian people over decades. At the same time, it is telling Israel that China is not an opponent. That was what China's permanent representative in the UN said recently, in response to Israeli criticism. He said, it is wrong to treat China as an opponent. China has long upheld a two-state solution and pays equal importance to the security concerns and legitimate rights of both Israel and Palestine.

China has been very careful not to take sides unnecessarily and to triangulate as carefully as possible. We should not add fuel to the fire. We should be peacemakers, not troublemakers. 

However, you have to expect that when taking a balanced position, both sides may be unhappy with you at first, because each side wants you to be on its side. But over time, when the protagonists are exhausted by war, by violence, they will appreciate China's moderate position. 

GT: How do you view the US response? 

Yeo: The US is caught in a difficult position. It has a longstanding relationship with Israel. Israel has also become part of US domestic politics. Elections are coming up, so the US position is partly conditioned by electoral considerations. 

GT: Tensions between China and the Philippines have been on the rise lately. Some observers believe the US is inciting the Philippines to trigger an Asia proxy war. What's your take on the possibility of the South China Sea becoming the next flashpoint? 

Yeo: The current tension over Ren'ai Reef, or what the Filipinos call Second Thomas Shoal, is the result of the Philippines beaching an old ship with a small crew on an atoll which was controlled by China some years ago. This is the cause of the current tension. China doesn't want to remove the hulk forcefully. The hulk is rusting and breaking up. The crew there needs to be fed and provided with water. China is allowing food and water, but not allowing the hulk to be repaired, hoping that it will disintegrate and the problem will solve itself. 

I hope this tension will not get out of control. It is a small matter which should not be allowed to become big. The US predictably supports the Philippines. I only hope that US' support does not encourage the Philippines to take unnecessary risks, because China would then be forced to react. It's critical that at a political level, China and the Philippines meet and talk and keep the problem in proportion. 

GT: Some observers say the US power may be overstretched as conflicts worldwide intensify. Do you think the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Israel-Palestine conflict will increase or decrease the risk of a conflict erupting across the Taiwan Straits? 

Yeo: What has happened in Palestine has taken the international limelight away from Ukraine to the Middle East. This is to Ukraine's disadvantage, because Ukraine cannot sustain this war by itself. It needs Western help.

Both the Ukraine war and the problem of Palestine have taken away attention from the Taiwan Straits, because every leader has limited resources and only so much nervous energy.

It is difficult enough to devote time and energy to two crisis areas. The fact that US-China relations have taken a slight turn for the better will help reduce tension across the Taiwan Straits.

GT: What do you think other countries can do to ease the tensions between China and US? 

Yeo: Europe can play a very important role. If China behaves excessively, Europe should lean a little to the US. This will then restrain China. In the same way, if the US behaves in an unreasonable way, Europe should be a little away from the US and thus restrain its actions. Europe can play a critical balancing role to maintain peace and stability in the world. 

ASEAN refuses to take sides when our own interests are not directly affected, because we see no benefits in taking sides. ASEAN wants to remain neutral and friendly to all powers, not only to China and the US, but also to India, Europe, Japan and others. If any major power tries to bully ASEAN, we will shift in other directions. This will stop the bullying. This has always been ASEAN's strategy, which is to be dynamically balanced among the big powers and to be useful to all of them. 

So Wang Daohan, (then head of the mainland's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits), and Koo Chen-fu (then chairman of the Taiwan-based Straits Exchange Foundation) met for the first time in Singapore. The talk between President Xi and former Taiwan island leader Ma Ying-jeou was also held in Singapore. A few years ago, then US President Donald Trump met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore and after that in Hanoi.

Many countries meet regularly at the ASEAN regional forum. Everybody sits around the ASEAN table. ASEAN is friendly to everybody, and everybody feels comfortable and welcomed in ASEAN. That was why the G20 summit in Bali last year was so successful.

GT: Will Singapore play a more active role as mediator? 

Yeo: Singapore's role is very consistent. We are a peacemaker, we are never a troublemaker. We want the major powers to talk, to compromise, because this will conduce peace and is in our own interest. We derive no benefits from big power conflicts. 

In fact, we feel extremely uncomfortable if our friends are quarreling with one another. We encourage them to be courteous and reasonable when they visit us in ASEAN. 

GT: At present, China is also facing challenges like economic growth slowdown. What's your view on China's domestic political economic circumstances? 

Yeo: I don't think China's current economic slowdown is very serious. The country is still adjusting to the end of COVID. The government has decided that the way in which the real estate sector was over invested was not healthy. Too many people were buying houses and apartments as a one-way bet to make money. That resulted in excessive deployment of economic resources to real estate. By stopping it, the government has to be mindful of the systemic effects, because real estate is on every company's balance sheet. 

China also has an unemployment problem, but China has a lot of policy, flexibility. China did not have to print money during COVID. In fact, much of the money printed by other countries was collected by China. Financially, the Chinese government is in a strong position. In contrast to other major economies, interest rates in China are still trending down, which means that the government has a lot of fiscal room to address the economic downturn. I am therefore cautiously optimistic about the Chinese economy. That is good for the entire world.