Understanding China and Asia

By Shlomo  Maital     


Bilahari Kausikan 

One of the wisest persons I know is Biliahari Kausikan, formerly Permanent Secretary of Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, and now Ambassador at Large.  He has an exceptionally clear view of global and Asian geopolitics; I’ve been ranting and nagging him for years to write a book, or at least a regular blog.

    Here, for my readers, is an excerpt from his recent document “A World in Transformation”. 

    The world is undergoing a profound transition of power and ideas. The modern international system was shaped by the West who prescribed its fundamental concepts, established its basic institutions and practices and influenced all major developments. That era is now drawing to a close. No one can predict the future and we do not know what will replace the western dominated system. But we can at least glimpse some of the issues that will have to be confronted.

      Washington and Beijing are now groping towards a new modus vivendi. Neither finds it easy and establishing a new equilibrium will be a work of decades and not just a few years. Sino-US relations are already the most important bilateral relationship for East Asia, setting the tone for the entire region. As the 21st century progresses, Sino-US relations will become the most important bilateral relationship for the entire world influencing almost every aspect of international relations, just as US-Soviet relations did during the Cold War.

    The Chinese government and people are rightly proud of what they have achieved. Never before in history have so many people been lifted out of poverty in so short a time. Still it would be a dangerous mistake to try to understand the global and regional transitions that are underway by simplistic slogans such as ‘Asia rising, the West declining’ as some Chinese intellectuals and even some officials occasionally come close to doing.  The changes in the distribution of power that are occurring are relative not absolute. The global patterns of trade, finance, investments and production chains that have evolved as a result of East Asian growth cannot be characterized by geographically defined dichotomies. Many economic roads now pass through China and many more will in the future. Nevertheless the final destination is still more often than not the US or Europe. China is certainly rising. But it is always a mistake to believe one’s own propaganda and the west and in particular the US is not declining. All who have underestimated American creativity, resilience and resolve have had cause regret it.

   Two competing visions of regional order are in play: a Sino-centric vision built around the ASEAN plus Three (APT) forum which comprises the ten Southeast Asia states with China, Japan and South Korea, and a broader and more open architecture built around the East Asia Summit (EAS) which is the APT with the addition of the US, Russia, India, Australia and New Zealand.

     Given the growing centrality of East Asia in the world economy and the strategic weight of the US and China, the outcome of the debate over a new East Asian architecture will be the single most important influence on the global architecture of the 21st century. This is the strategic significance of what has been dismissed by western observers who do not really understand what they observe, as talk shops. No option has yet been foreclosed. Both the APT and EAS are experiments. But China’s preference is clear.