Moderate Voices for a Shared World and Future

- A Plenary Speech on Regional Security at the 8th World Peace Forum

By Goh Chok Tong
Beijing, 9 July 2019

Thank you for inviting me to speak at the World Peace Forum. Amidst the rising discord and distrust around the world, it is timely to exchange views on how we can work together for peace, prosperity and a stable world order.

Asia’s security challenges are well-known. They have contributed to a “global political warming”. But the US-China strategic rivalry in particular threatens to change the geopolitical climate. It is imperative that all countries, leaders and people help secure a peaceful and prosperous shared world and future.

I share my views from the perspective of a very small country with broad, deep and long-standing relationships with both the US and China. As a small country with no natural resources, Singapore is always concerned about our survival and vulnerabilities. We protect our national interests on the basis of principles and a rules-based multilateral global order, and by building friendships and adding value to the world.

A Trust Deficit

This year’s World Peace Forum is held against a backdrop of a strategic trust deficit between the US and China. We are at risk of being shackled by history, blinded by suspicions, misled by misconceptions and destroyed by zero-sum superpower rivalry.

The US has openly labelled China as a strategic competitor and rival, and a revisionist power. It has introduced measures to protect any perceived threats to its national security. The US has also accused China of taking advantage of the openness of the American economy by denying American companies and exports to China equal access to the Chinese market. American companies have complained about forced technology transfers and an unequal playing field between foreign and Chinese companies in China. The US government has further accused China of commercial espionage. China has refuted these allegations by pointing out the structural causes of the US’ trade deficit with China. China has also asserted that her technological advancements resulted from its own hard work as well as from partnerships between Chinese and foreign companies. Given current perceptions by both sides, it is critical to rebuild trust. 

I am glad that President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump had a good meeting during the recent G20 Leaders Summit in Osaka. This was an important step to signal the intention at the highest level to continue talks, which will allow working-level discussions to continue more productively. More importantly, the resumption of dialogue has, at least for now, stopped the downward spiral and tit-for-tat actions in US-China relations. However, the process of building trust will take time to permeate down to the rest of the government, as well as to society.

When there is a trust deficit between the two largest economies in the world, how should the rest of the world respond? I am reminded of the African proverb: When elephants fight, it is the grass beneath them that suffers, meaning that innocent parties get hurt in conflicts between the powerful.

There is also a Chinese proverb – “静观其变”. Smaller countries could choose to watch passively from the sidelines, waiting to see how the situation unfolds, before deciding their next moves. 

Both scenarios are not ideal. 
Smaller countries, too, are part of this world. They can, and should, play an independent and positive role in shaping the international order. They should engage the global powers to understand their geopolitical ambitions, temperament, power and reliability as friends. Based on this understanding, they can convey their concerns, as well as collectively spell out the shared world and future they want – a safe, secure, peaceful environment where all countries, big and small, can compete and cooperate on a consensus-driven, rules-based, multilateral system.

The ASEAN Story

Let me share how we build trust in ASEAN. We are a diverse group of nations of different sizes, ethnic groups, religions, languages and political systems. Some members used to distrust one another and had fought wars. Differences still exist. 

That said, a key feature of the ASEAN model is decision-making through consensus. Though it takes time, building consensus is necessary to manage the immense diversity within ASEAN and marry long-term regional as well as national interests.
Therefore, over the past 52 years, we have been able to progressively overcome our own internal differences to work together for better lives for our people. We now share a common vision of a peaceful and prosperous ASEAN Community. 

Trust has also been built up gradually and steadily because ASEAN leaders meet often, formally and informally. In the 1990s, ASEAN member states built upon our foundation of trust to expand cooperation beyond the immediate region. The ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Plus Three, and East Asia Summit that followed laid the groundwork for closer economic and security ties to countries beyond ASEAN. They are part of the open, inclusive and ASEAN-centric regional architecture which has supported the region’s peace and stability. The ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, signed in Singapore in 1992, paved the way for more FTAs between ASEAN and other major economies in the 2000s. In fact, when the framework agreement for the ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA) was signed in 2002, it was the first such agreement between ASEAN and a Dialogue Partner. The ACFTA was upgraded in 2017. This was a big step towards our goal of achieving two-way trade of US$1 trillion and investment of US$500 billion between ASEAN and China by 2020.

Today, we are developing new areas of cooperation with our External Partners. For example, the ASEAN Smart Cities Network was launched last year to foster cooperation among External Partners, multilateral financial institutions, the private sector, and ASEAN cities to develop smart cities solutions. These partnerships have allowed us to further deepen our engagement with the rest of the world. 

The ASEAN model is one of trust-building through dialogue. I am sure a similar and regular tête-à-tête between leaders of our Asia-Pacific region can yield results. The one-on-one retreats between Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Xi were initiated to help build trust. They spent hours together to know each other better, and what each other’s problems, challenges and goals for his country are. 

How should other countries respond?
When enough countries stand together, their voices can be as loud, if not louder, than the trumpet of elephants. I call this combined voice the “Voice of Moderation”. 

This “Voice of Moderation” is not a bloc or new grouping, but simply the voice of concerned countries, leaders, institutions, media, business and people who want to avert a catastrophic clash between the US and China. It is a voice for strategic rationality, peace and stability, growth and prosperity, and an interdependent, open, inclusive, rules-based multilateral order. Only by speaking in unison, will the global powers take heed of us. 

ASEAN can be the central platform for countries in the region to speak in one voice on issues of common concern and amplify the regional “Voice of Moderation”. ASEAN-centric for a like the East Asia Summit also provide a natural platform for the US and China to meet, exchange views, and build trust. Other multilateral groupings, such as the Forum of Small States, which Singapore helped to establish in 1992, allow small states to have a bigger voice at the UN. Similarly, the APEC, which started out as an informal gathering of 12 like-minded economies has now grown into a grouping of 21 members, working towards the shared vision of an integrated, vibrant and prosperous Asia-Pacific.

We can do more than just speak up. Trade agreements like The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership are excellent examples of what countries can achieve by translating shared values into action. 

Future Standing of the US and China 

In addition to building trust and working together for a shared future, I would like to reflect on the future global standing of the US and China if present trends continue. 

The US

Domestic developments in the US have reshaped how American political leaders view the rest of the world. A growing number of American politicians – both Republicans and Democrats – now blame their country’s problems on globalisation. 

The US perspective of the world has changed. The US once took it as a matter of course that it should have a global security footprint to protect its international interests. However, it is becoming more difficult for US politicians to explain to their constituents why other countries seem to be growing at the US’ expense when large segments of the population are missing out on the benefits of globalisation. The US would like to see allies and partners contribute more to burden-sharing.    

I can understand the struggle to reconcile these differences. In fact, all leaders should put their national interests first. However, I would be concerned if the US cedes its position of leadership in the world if it defines its national interests too narrowly. Those of us who are friends of America should remind the US that the multilateral institutions and global rules-based order that it had a significant role in creating has been the bedrock of unprecedented global peace and prosperity for the last seventy years. Yes, times are changing, and old rules need updating. But for any system to work, the US and China need to work together with other countries to update the rules, and not up-end the system. The interests of other countries, big and small, must also be taken into account. 


When it comes to China, I speak candidly as an old friend who has visited China many times and has met its leaders, from Mr Deng Xiaoping to President Xi Jinping, and from Premier Li Peng to Li Keqiang. Singapore has been a consistent supporter of China’s development and integration into the global community. 

China needs to dispel anxieties over its long-term intentions and behaviour as a global power. After all, the objectives of “Made in China 2025” are no different from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative.

One reason could be due to the West’s concerns of a large, powerful, non-Western country under a socialist political system that has not liberalised along with economic reforms.

This is further complicated by the fact that China has grown rapidly into a huge elephant. I once shared with Premier Wen Jiabao that no matter how gentle the Chinese elephant was, it had to be very careful with every move it made when in the same pool with other animals. Smaller animals could be hurt or squeezed out of the pool even though the elephant had no such intentions. Of course, the other animals must also recognise the elephant’s right to drink and grow in the same pool. But alas, it is not just the smaller animals. The big American elephant feels threatened too.

China could consider some of these options: First, assuage concerns that other countries may have over China’s rise. The Belt and Road Initiative is a forward-looking plan with the potential to help address Asia’s enormous infrastructure needs. At the recent BRI Forum in April, President Xi had pledged to make BRI clean, green, transparent, financially sustainable and inclusive. I believe, over time, China’s fulfilment of these commitments will address the negative allegations directed at the BRI. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank can be a positive example of how an institution, operated in a manner that meets the highest international standards, could help build greater economic linkages and address the growing demand for infrastructure in Asia and beyond. 

Second, China could take on additional responsibilities and work to strengthen the international system that has benefited China, and the world, over the past few decades. For example, the WTO is ripe for a transformative change, and China could work with others to modernise and reform our global trading system. 

In the South China Sea, where multiple overlapping claims remain contentious, China could reassure the international community that it will observe and uphold international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.  China should continue to articulate its acceptance of the right of freedom of navigation in and over flight above the South China Sea, and its commitment towards peace, stability and peaceful resolution of disputes. This will help assuage worries over China’s intentions in the South China Sea, which has been an albatross around its neck in its interactions with the international community. The Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea is therefore an important opportunity for China to work with ASEAN Member States to build confidence and trust, prevent accidents, and manage any incidents on the ground within a rules-based order.  At the same time, the negotiating parties should take into account the concerns of international stakeholders in this vital sea line of communication. I am glad that China and ASEAN Member States are making steady progress in the negotiations towards the COC.

Building Bridges

In closing, the “Voice of Moderation” should facilitate the process of developing strategic trust and cooperation between the US and China, even as the two compete. There are many global challenges that would benefit from the leadership of both global powers, such as climate change and terrorism. At the same time, we should work with the US and China to engage constructively with the rest of the world, to reassure the world of their intentions and enhance their global standing. ASEAN can, and is willing to, play a central role in this trust-building process. 

Let me end my speech with another African proverb.“In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.” 

If the US and China fail to build bridges, there may be a new Iron Curtain dividing the world. It may set us on a path with catastrophic consequences, and the Thucydides Trap may become a reality for our generation. But China is not ancient Athens and the US is not Sparta. An all-out conflict between them is also an existential threat to many other countries, whether they take sides or not.

Trust is the glue that binds us together in a shared future. If the US and China can restore mutual trust, supported by the “Voice of Moderation”, the world will benefit immensely from a stable global system for mutual peace and prosperity. Let us take action today to build that trust and secure our shared future. 

Goh Chok Tong is former Prime Minister of Singapore.