'Generational twilight struggle' if US, China cannot reconcile differences: Lee Hsien Loong

Nicholas Yong
·Assistant News Editor
·3 min read
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda Week on 29 January 2021. (PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information/Prime Minister’s Office)
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking at the World Economic Forum Davos Agenda Week on 29 January 2021. (PHOTO: Ministry of Communications and Information/Prime Minister’s Office)

SINGAPORE — Despite China’s outsize influence in the world, it must work to earn “legitimacy and acceptance”, while the United States has a “very difficult adjustment” as the world’s only hyperpower sees the Asian giant as a challenger, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (29 January).

“China’s influence in the world has grown so much that it has to take on a greater responsibility for providing global public goods”, said Lee, in areas ranging from security to trade to climate change.

While the Americans view China as “almost as a threat”, they must accept that “China is not going to collapse the way the Soviet Union did”.

Delivering the closing address virtually at the World Economic Forum (WEF) Davos Agenda Week, Lee spoke of, among others, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the distribution of vaccines, and the critical need for global cooperation.

He was also asked by WEF president Borge Brende what concessions the US and China would have to give in order to recalibrate their relationship. Brende noted that “a full decoupling of the world’s two largest economies would have serious consequences for economic growth and prosperity”.

Lee said that many countries, including Singapore, have benefited from China’s growth since it opened up under Deng Xiaoping in 1978. However, the strategic landscape has changed so much that “what used to work is no longer politically wearable in many countries”.

“Concessions made to China when it was small, when it was backward...have to be reconsidered and recalibrated,” according to Lee. “China has to recalibrate its position, in order that its influence in the world is not only there because of its own power and energy, but also there because of the legitimacy and acceptance by other countries, that this is something which is benefiting other countries, and which is not at the expense of other countries.”

On the other hand, even though the US remains far ahead of China in terms of “technology, sophistication and military might”, it must develop a constructive relationship with the Chinese.

“Because if you cannot work together...it becomes all round an adversarial relationship, you are in for a twilight struggle. It will not end, you will not have a quick win...you’re in for a bad time, for a long time, and so are many other countries.”

Furthermore, persuading their people - the population, Congress, the intelligentsia, - of the need for this policy shift will take “leadership of a pretty high order”, said Lee.

Noting that the new US administration under President Joe Biden is an opportunity to steer the relationship towards “safer waters”, the PM added. “Given the enormous stakes, difficult as it will be, it cannot possibly be too late for the US and China to reset the tone of their interactions, and avert a clash between them.”

This May, Singapore is set to host the World Economic Forum for the first time ever, hosting around 1,000 delegates. It will be the first time that the WEF is held in Asia.

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