Prerequisites for a Peaceful and Prosperous Asia
Beijing，4 July 2021
Thank you for inviting me to speak at the 9th World Peace Forum (WPF). When I last spoke at the 8th WPF in 2019, I called out the growing trust deficit between China and the US as well as the fraying consensus on free trade and globalisation.These forces are still in play today.
Now, we have the COVID-19 pandemic. This black swan underlines the importance of international cooperation. Because no country is an island.
I want to focus on the fundamentals needed to reinvigorate Regional Cooperation.
Theoretically, it should be easier to cooperate regionally than globally. After all, we live in the same neighbourhood and there are fewer countries to deal with. As the Chinese saying goes,a neighbour is better than a relative who lives far away.
However, this is not always true. So I would like to add a qualifier,“helpful”. I insert this qualifier because we all know that if neighbours are at loggerheads, faraway friends are better!
Asia is a diverse continent of many different ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures and civilisations. And it is still burdened by lingering historical legacies and disputes. So it is to be expected that some countries look to faraway friends to secure themselves.
But this does not remove the need for building good neighbourly ties. Hence, the importance of reinvigorating regional cooperation.
How? By building understanding, confidence and trust.
The most important element in this process is to have a shared goal for all countries in Asia to work towards.
My proposed vision is a Peaceful and Prosperous Asia. It is a simple and clear goal. No one should disagree. Although achieving it is far from straightforward, it can be done.
Peace in Asia
Let me illustrate with the example of ASEAN. ASEAN was formed about 55 years ago. Five countries—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore—came together to promote political, economic and social stability in Southeast Asia amid rising tensions in Asia. They were not politically close. You might say they were distant neighbours. Their leaders, Suharto, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Ferdinand Marcos, Thanom Kittikachorn and Lee Kuan Yew had the wisdom to advance their national interests through collective interests. These national leaders had the vision of international statesmen. The same vision motivated ASEAN to expand to 10 member states. All member states are very different from one another in terms of geography, history, political systems, languages, religions and stages of economic development. But they share the same vision of a peaceful and prosperous Southeast Asia.
Recent developments in Myanmar are a litmus test for the ASEAN Way. ASEAN needs to act quickly to implement the Five-Point Consensus reached during the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting. This will be a crucial step to facilitate Myanmar’s return to peace, stability and normalcy.
ASEAN Member States have enshrined their principles of cooperation in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Beyond ASEAN, more than 30 other partners have also acceded to the Treaty. These include the US, China, Japan, South Korea, and India. The treaty commits countries to: respect each other’s independence and sovereignty;not interfere in one another’s internal affairs; and settle differences and disputes by peaceful means and in accordance with the international rule of law.
To reinvigorate regional cooperation in Asia, I offer three more principles: First, maximise areas of cooperation, and minimise areas of dispute. Where possible, we should try to resolve issues amicably and rationally. Where possible, compromise. Even when resolution is not possible, disagreements and disputes in some areas need not stand in the way of cooperation and collaboration in other areas that are mutually beneficial. Second, prosper thy neighbours, not beggar them. Let’s play a positive-sum game, not a zero-sum game. It is better to cooperate to grow and share the pie equitably than fight over our share of a fixed pie. Third, reflect and learn from history, and not be shackled by it. This is easier said than done as histories shape citizens’ collective memories and sense of national pride. But if we cannot let go of historical wounds and wrongs, and if we can never forgive, we will not be able to move forward.
These principles will provide the overarching framework for a peaceful Asia that all stakeholders respect and abide by.
Who are these stakeholders? China is the principal protagonist. Napoleon once said,“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world.” In the 1980s and 1990s, after Deng Xiaoping kick-started China’s approach of reform and opening-up, the key question within the international community was,“When will China rise?” After China’s accession to the WTO and explosive growth, the question evolved to,“How will China rise?” Then-President Hu Jintao assured the world of a“peaceful rise”. Lee Kuan Yew pointed out to Zheng Bijian, former Central Party School Executive Vice President, that“any rise is something that is startling”. Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew was right. China’s rise has startled and disconcerted the US. We should heed Graham Allison’s warning of the Thucydides Trap. Today, the question is,“Now that China has risen, what does it mean for my country and for the world? Will China play a positive-sum game?”
China holds the key to Asia’s future and to reinvigorating regional cooperation. In 2003, at the first ASEAN-China Summit, I observed to then-Premier Wen Jiabao that China was like an elephant entering a swimming pool where there were other smaller animals. No matter how gentle the elephant was, it still needed to be careful of its every move, because it might, even unintentionally, step on the toes of the other animals. Two decades on, the elephant is much bigger and still growing, but the size of the pool is still the same.
The principles I shared earlier on regional cooperation apply to all countries. But in the world of realpolitik, the behaviour of the larger and more powerful countries determines the peace and prosperity of Asia.
I have been to China many times since my first visit in 1971. I have had the good fortune of meeting all the top Chinese leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. I have positive impressions and good vibes of China. I believe that China is focused on uplifting its people through economic growth, rather than seeking hegemony in Asia or challenging the US for global dominance. I am convinced that China’s growth is positive for Asia and the world.
Prosperity in Asia
Let me now turn to prosperity, and the three features of a prosperous Asia.
First, a prosperous Asia is interconnected through the free flow of goods, services and investments, within Asia and beyond. In the near term, our top priority should be to keep supply chains intact. Trade, especially in essential supplies, can then continue to flow unimpeded. Cooperation on the digital economy is also key. Countries should jointly develop the interoperable frameworks needed for an open and integrated global digital economy.
Most importantly, we should press on with economic integration in the region through multilateral trade agreements. Last November, 15 Asia-Pacific nations, including China and Singapore, signed the landmark Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, despite challenging circumstances. The RCEP boosts confidence in regional trade and investment and opens up new opportunities for our businesses and peoples. This is timely as we move ahead to secure our region’s recovery from the disruptive economic impact of COVID-19.
I encourage China to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP. Joining the CPTPP will signal China’s intent to abide by higher standards of free trade and economic integration. It will have a positive impact on Asia’s prosperity.
The second feature of a prosperous Asia is a Green Asia. As countries around the world work to recover from COVID-19, Asia must build back cleaner and greener from the pandemic and realise our joint commitments to the Paris Agreement goals.
Third, a prosperous Asia is innovative and inclusive. It is teeming with new ideas to improve the lives of its peoples. It joins hands to ensure that economic development and regional cooperation lift all boats.
To make all these ideas a reality, we need the appropriate fora for Asia’s leaders to come together for substantive discussion and collaboration.
Both the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus Three Summit can play this role. They are established and inclusive multilateral platforms. But first, leaders must step up to the plate and set the agenda for cooperation. Not only as national leaders, but also as international statesmen. To propose a common vision for Asia. To tackle regional challenges together. To initiate win-win collaborations. To bring all on board with ideas for a peaceful and prosperous Asia.
How can the World Peace Forum contribute towards building a peaceful and prosperous Asia? This is my suggestion.
Many countries in Asia have their own annual forums and conferences that bring together top minds to discuss important regional issues. They can multiply the reach of these messages and ideas several folds if, once every two or three years, they get together to organise a joint multinational forum. This is a collaboration amongst a consortium of think tanks across Asia to promote a common vision of peace and prosperity. It will be a concrete example of reinvigorating regional cooperation. The World Peace Forum can pilot this with a small group of 4 or 5 other think tanks in the region. Think of this as a Track 2 channel which explores new ideas for regional cooperation, especially to address longer-term challenges such as green growth. Focus on quality of participation rather than quantity of attendance. The outcomes of the discussions must be such that the leaders and peoples of Asia will take notice. Hopefully, some of these ideas will be taken up in multilateral platforms like the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Plus Three Summit, and be translated into reality.
A Peaceful and Prosperous Asia
Let me conclude. I grew up in an Asia that was neither peaceful nor prosperous. Eight months after I was born, bombs were dropped on Singapore. I am grateful that we now live in a region that enjoys relative peace and moderate prosperity. But I still worry about bombs being dropped once again if relations between neighbours go wrong in the future. Hence, our work to advance regional cooperation is never done.
This can be the Asian century of peace and prosperity, if first, leaders in Asia are international statesmen who look beyond their national interests; leaders who see that regional cooperation consolidates peace and advances prosperity; leaders who understand that the benefits accruing from cooperation are more than if they were to go it alone. Second, our leaders agree on a shared vision for Asia and a set of common core principles to abide by. Third, countries in the region come up with new and substantive ideas and programmes to collaborate on.