Navigating a changing world: Perspectives of a small state (PART 2)

Professor Ezra F. Vogel and Singapore's Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

By Goh Chok Tong

ESM Goh Chok Tong was invited to Harvard University Asia Centre in October as an Ezra F. Vogel Distinguished Visitor. Prof. Vogel is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard.

While at Harvard in Oct. 2012, ESM Goh gave a public speech on the role of small states in the global arena. His full speech is as follows:




Changing Strategic Landscape

But when there are gale storms and tectonic changes, it is a different story.  The sails may be torn apart and the boat blown off-course.  We are witnessing today a shift in the international balance of power and the emergence of a different global order.  I do not know how this will pan out, but it is evident that the clearly defined structure of the Cold War bipolar system is behind us.

Where power used to be concentrated in the two superpowers during the Cold War, there are now more influential players in the international system.  There has been plenty of talk about the world moving beyond Pax Americana to a multi-polar order.  The increasing global prominence of major emerging economies such as the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and the formation of the G20, has lent weight to this view.

However, this argument does not tell the whole picture.  Instead, our present international order can be more accurately described as ‘asymmetrical multi-polarity’.  Here, the US is still at the pinnacle of the global hierarchy.  For all the talk about its relative ‘decline’, the US still has the largest economy in the world.  At US$15 trillion, it accounts for approximately one-fifth of nominal global GDP, which is more than double the size of the second largest economy (China), and almost three times larger than the third largest (Japan).  For many countries, particularly in East Asia, the US will remain a key market for the foreseeable future, and the position of the US dollar as the dominant international reserve currency is unlikely to change in the medium term.

The US maintains the largest defence budget in the world at US$525 billion (FY2013) with peerless force projection capabilities.  This is over five times that of China’s, the second largest defence budget in the world, and exceeds the sum total of the next nine largest defence budgets.  America also remains the undisputed leader in technology, ideas and innovation.  To illustrate, it was an American company, Apple, which put the iPhone in our pockets.  It is home to the world’s best universities, including this one.  The US continues to be a country of great diversity and depth of resources, and the reach of American popular culture is unrivalled.

For these reasons, the US will remain the single most important player in the international system for many years to come.  However, the last decade has shown that America can no longer act alone.  The US now has to exercise a different kind of global leadership.  Where it used to ‘command’, it now has to persuade and collaborate.  It has to work with others, negotiate coalitions to manage international issues, and create new rules for international governance.  This will not be easy.  Unlike during the Cold War period, there is no overriding strategic imperative to compel countries to accept US leadership.  The US also has to contend with increasing demands by other major powers for greater say on how international issues and institutions such as the IMF and World Bank should be managed.

The difficulty will be compounded because the desire for a greater say does not equate to ability or willingness to exercise greater global responsibilities.  The individual BRICS countries are important but they are, for the foreseeable future, still primarily regional powers.  In fact, the term BRICS was never meant to be a geopolitical concept – it was an acronym coined by a fund manager to promote investments into these emerging markets!  Similarly, notwithstanding its growing global stature, China is still a developing country with significant challenges of its own.  There are still some 100 million Chinese living below the poverty line – that is about a third of the US’ population.  The EU’s capacity for leadership has diminished with the economic turmoil in Europe.  The Eurozone crisis has not only roiled the European economies, it has also laid bare the political and economic contradictions of the EU model.  While the G20 must be credited for taking decisive action to prevent the 2008 financial crisis from causing a full-blown global recession, it is still too early to say for certain how the G20’s global role will evolve.

Amidst this uncertain backdrop, it is clear that the US-China relationship will shape this century.  No other global dynamic will have as great an influence on international relations.  As China grows, some degree of competition with the US is inevitable.  Historically, transitions in the international system have often been tumultuous.  However, unlike US-Soviet relations, there is no fundamentally irreconcilable ideological divide between the US and China.  Both want essentially the same things – stability in their relations and in the international system to pursue economic growth and a better life for their peoples.  So there is no reason why competition cannot take place within a stable framework, with both countries exercising their responsibilities as international stakeholders.

A constructive relationship between the US and China is good for both parties and vital for the rest of the world, especially for us small states.  There is another African proverb which says, “When elephants fight, the grass gets hurt”.  Small people are sacrificed by warring chiefs and small countries suffer collateral damage from conflict amongst big powers.  Countries such as Singapore have a vested interest to ensure elephants do not fight.

Closer to home, Singapore’s regional environment is also changing.  India and China are the two main growth engines in the region.  Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have good economic potential.  Even Myanmar has decided to open up its politics and economy.  Its President has declared in the United Nations that the reforms are irreversible.

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