The global order is going through choppier seas, and how well Asia can navigate these changes will determine its strength after Covid-19 ends. 

The foremost issue is a strategic competition between the US and China, as a fracture in relations will be “hugely destabilising”, says Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat.

Speaking at the 24th Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference, DPM Heng urged both parties to remain constructively engaged with the region, after US and Chinese officials traded barbs over two days of talks in Anchorage, Alaska last week.

See: With Covid-19 and digital revolution, Asia’s economic growth 'not foreordained': DPM Heng

“Despite the tough rhetoric, it is a step in the right direction. The meeting showed a recognition from both sides on the need for dialogue and cooperation. It is important that they persevere, maintain open channels of communication, find a way forward to deal with the differences and manage the tensions and frictions,” says DPM Heng.

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“It is in the interest of both sides to cooperate on common challenges, including tackling Covid-19 and climate change. I'm glad that both sides have acknowledged that there are areas they could work together on despite the competitive tenor of the relationship,” he adds. 

See also: Singapore growing 'green node' for Asia's sustainability efforts: DPM Heng

While tensions “could intensify for some time”, DPM Heng hopes that the parties will develop a framework for cooperation. “Fair, healthy competition can be positive, if it spurs innovation to achieve better solutions for the many complex challenges that the world faces.”

Within Southeast Asia, DPM Heng called on Asean to remain united and work to advance collective interest. “For Southeast Asia, we must continue to work with all parties. Not just the US and China, but with any country that wants to work with us.” 

“It is not a question of choosing sides, but of retaining our ability to make choices for ourselves. This is what Asean centrality is about,” he adds.

“Should US-China tensions escalate, our region must firmly remain anchored on Asean’s own interests and to keep ourselves open and relevant through practical steps. This will enable us to emerge stronger from this crisis,” he says.

Closer to home, DPM Heng highlights the situation in Myanmar as a test of Southeast Asian relations. 

“The situation in Myanmar is a case in point. Singapore is appalled by the violent crackdowns against civilians. It is crucial that all stakeholders in Myanmar come together to find a long-term peaceful solution and return to democratic transition,” he says. 

“For Asia to realise its considerable promise, the region will therefore have to navigate the shifting geopolitical tides and ride the next wave of economic opportunities together.”