Real regional cooperation not possible unless China has 'confidence and trust' of neighbours: ESM Goh

SINGAPORE – If China does not have the confidence and trust of its neighbours, real regional cooperation will not be possible, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong on Sunday (July 4).

And achieving such trust requires “more than a change in the tone, style and language of public communications”, he added.

“While I understand why China needs to stand up firmly for its interests, how China conducts its diplomacy does shape how others view China,” the former prime minister said at this year’s World Peace Forum, organised by China’s Tsinghua University.

Mr Goh, who delivered his speech virtually, recounted how he had once observed to then Premier Wen Jiabao that China was like an elephant entering a pool occupied by smaller animals. No matter how gentle the elephant was, it would still have to take care not to tread on any toes, he said.

“Two decades on, the elephant is much bigger and still growing, but the size of the pool is still the same.”

The annual forum is a high-level international platform where politicians, academics and businessmen discuss how to promote cooperation on security. This year’s theme was on upholding and practising multilateralism in the post-pandemic era.

Speaking on Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the world not to underestimate China’s determination and capacity “to uphold the country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests”.

He also stressed the importance of practising “true multilateralism”, adding that doing so was the only way to break zero-sum games, resist unilateral bullying, and truly achieve lasting peace and security.

In his speech, Mr Goh outlined three principles needed to reinvigorate regional cooperation.

First, countries should maximise areas of cooperation and minimise areas of dispute, resolving issues amicably and rationally where possible. Even where resolution is not possible, such issues should not stand in the way of cooperation in other areas, he said.

Second, countries should play a “positive-sum game” – working together to grow the pie and share it equitably, rather than fighting over shares of a fixed pie.

Lastly, they should learn from history, rather than be shackled by it, Mr Goh said. “If we cannot let go of historical wounds and wrongs, and if we can never forgive, we will not be able to move forward.”

While these principles apply to all countries, the behaviour of larger and more powerful countries such as China determine the peace and prosperity of Asia, he added.

Mr Goh stressed that he is convinced that China’s growth is positive for Asia and the world. But some critics have raised concerns over what they see as an “increasingly muscular and aggressive China”, he pointed out.

He noted how Chinese president Xi Jinping in May urged Politburo members to portray an image of a “credible, lovable and respectable” China.

“The world will no doubt be watching China’s actions closely to see what will change and what will not change,” he had said.

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In his speech, Mr Goh also laid out his vision for a prosperous Asia.

The region would be interconnected through the free flow of goods, services and investments, he said, adding that the top priority now is to keep supply chains intact.

Countries should also press on with economic integration through multilateral trade agreements, Mr Goh added, urging China to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact.

Doing so would signal China’s intent to “abide by higher standards of free trade and economic integration”, he said.

A prosperous Asia is also a greener region, as well as one that is innovative and inclusive, Mr Goh said.

He suggested that the World Peace Forum could contribute to this vision by coordinating a joint multi-national forum with a small group of other think tanks in the region. The discussions from such a forum – a concrete example of reinvigorating regional cooperation – would ideally bear fruit that would make the whole of Asia take notice, and work to translate to reality, Mr Goh said.

He also spoke of an Asian century of peace and prosperity, listing three conditions under which this would be able to take place.

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First, Asian leaders must be “international statesmen who look beyond their national interests” and understand the benefits of cooperation. They must agree on a shared vision for Asia and common principles to abide by. And countries must come up with new and substantive ideas to collaborate on.

Mr Goh recounted how he grew up in an Asia that was neither peaceful nor prosperous – months after he was born, the first bombs dropped on Singapore as World War II erupted.

“I still worry about bombs being dropped once again if relations between neighbours go wrong in the future,” he said. “Hence, our work to advance regional cooperation is never done.”

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