NOTE: The following is the keynote remark by Goh Chok Tong on the 3rd Hong Kong Forum on U.S.-China Relations held from January 19 to 21, 2022 and co-hosted by China-United States Exchange Foundation (CUSEF) and the China Center for International Economic Exchanges (CCIEE). Against the stark backdrop of the ongoing global pandemic, the online forum — themed “Beyond Differences, Towards Cooperation” — brought together more than 30 global leaders and experts to examine key challenges and areas of cooperation facing the United States and China.
We aim to capture the forum in its entirety with the publication of all keynote remarks. The transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity.
The world has changed beyond recognition since I last spoke at the inaugural forum in 2019. What remains unchanged is the global strategic importance of the U.S.-China relationship. Let me first speak on how I see the problem, before suggesting how best to move forward.
If trust is the currency of the realm, then the main deficit in the geopolitical ledger is the mutual strategic distrust between the U.S. and China. It stems from a difference in values, ideologies, worldviews, political systems and perspectives on global governance. If this distrust cannot be overcome, the world will be condemned, like Sisyphus, to roll the boulder of a contentious U.S.-China relationship up a hill for eternity.
The U.S. has assessed that China is, in President Biden’s words, “deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.” It views China as its main strategic competitor and a threat to American national security and values. The U.S. has therefore bolstered its military capabilities in the Asia-Pacific and strengthened its alliances and partnerships through platforms like the Quad and AUKUS. It has also drawn attention to alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, as well as to what it views as China’s coercive behavior in other parts of the world. From Washington’s perspective, China is not following the established rules of the global order despite being a chief beneficiary. Instead, China is seeking to rewrite these rules in its favor.
At best, China sees this as a U.S. containment strategy to prevent its rise as a global power. At worst, it sees this as a long-term strategy to weaken China and break it up. It sees the U.S. framing of “democracy versus autocracy” as a move to undermine China’s political system and the dominance of the CPC. A similar ideological battle brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Chinese leadership take the view that foreign powers managed to exploit China in the past because it was not strong enough. Chinese leaders have frequently reminded the people of China’s century of humiliation, including on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC. Hence, China is building up multiple defensive and offensive capabilities — at sea, in the air, in space and through cyberwar. The ultimate weapon will be nuclear. The threat of mutually assured destruction is the best deterrence.
China reasons that these capabilities are needed to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. To the U.S., China’s military build-up harbors offensive intent, particularly as it sees Beijing to be reluctant to engage in global discussions on managing the buildup of nuclear capabilities. To China, the U.S. should instead scale down its immensely superior nuclear capabilities.
At their recent virtual summit, President Biden called for “common-sense guardrails,” while President Xi compared the two countries to two giant ships that must forge ahead together without colliding. Actions on the ground must now reflect the two leaders’ words. The U.S. and China must see that it is in their own interest to maintain a stable and peaceful international environment. Both countries need to implement “trust but verify” agreements as they try to resolve outstanding bilateral issues while attaining their geopolitical ambitions.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that the U.S. approach to China will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.” Building on this frame, I suggest that the U.S. and China should “avoid conflict over differences, embrace healthy competition and maximize cooperation.”
My biggest concern is whether Taiwan becomes a casus belli. I do not think the mainland wants to invade Taiwan and reunify it through force. However, if it sees no prospect for eventual peaceful reunification, it may believe it has no choice.
Beijing has reiterated on countless occasions that Taiwan independence is its redline. But the big unknown is what is the tipping point that would force the mainland to act. The more international space Taiwan gains, which Beijing sees as the result of tacit encouragement from the U.S., the more the mainland will ratchet up pressure on Taiwan.
Given the high risk of miscalculation, the U.S. and China should indeed negotiate guardrails to avert conflict over Taiwan. It is better to create the 21st century equivalent of the red telephone than to risk spiraling escalation and military conflict through miscalculation.
Beyond merely avoiding conflict, the U.S.-China relationship should be underpinned by healthy competition and driven by cooperation where possible. President Xi has said that “We should advocate fair competition, like competing with each other for excellence in a race, not beating each other in a wrestling arena.” President Biden has also said that the U.S. would “insist that China play by the international rules of fair competition, fair practices and fair trade.” Taken at face value, there is common ground to work together.
The U.S. and China will have to address what exactly healthy competition will look like, in accordance with international law and the existing international rules-based order. There are many pressing global issues that require both the U.S. and China to cooperate closely as global powers. Free trade, climate change, global pandemic preparedness and religious extremism are a few of them.
Besides the two protagonists, what can the rest of us do? I have been speaking about the voice of moderation since 2019. This voice represents the concerned countries, leaders, institutions, media, businesses, think-tanks and people who want to avert a catastrophic clash between the U.S. and China. It advocates strategic rationality, peace, growth and prosperity within an interdependent, open, inclusive, rules-based multilateral order. The moderate voice must urge the U.S. and China to play a “positive-sum game,” not a zero-sum game, and certainly not a negative-sum game. All countries in the world want a positive and constructive relationship with both the U.S. and China.
Peace through acceptance of differences is a practical way forward. ASEAN is a prime example of how countries with very different geographies, histories, languages and political systems can come together to share a common vision of a peaceful and prosperous Southeast Asia.
ASEAN can be a substantive voice of moderation. We have consistently encouraged both the U.S. and China to remain productively engaged in the region across different sectors. Both countries are dialogue partners of ASEAN, and we hope to continue engaging both China and the U.S. at ASEAN meetings at the highest level.
Your forum, too, is a meaningful voice of moderation. I hope that when CUSEF and CCIEE convene the next forum, both major powers will have made good headway in managing their strategic distrust. Doing so will require wisdom and statecraft of the highest order. I believe both presidents Biden and Xi possess these qualities. I pray that they will be able to build up strategic trust between their countries and peoples.