The US’ tech curbs against China are but a temporary obstacle and will not succeed. Rather, the Americans’ increasingly hostile rhetoric may turn ethnic Chinese against the US, says Singapore’s former Foreign Minister George Yeo.
“Many of those involved in developing technology are ethnic Chinese and they have a certain affection for China,” he observes. “The more anti-China the US becomes, the more they feel uncomfortable even in the US. Some of them, a small minority, will say: ‘Oh, I should help my mother country.’”
Commercial products that have already reached the market are “much more difficult” to contain than military tech, adds Yeo at a forum on Nov 10. “We should not be overly excited about the fact that the US today is trying all means to prevent China from getting critical technologies… These attempts at long-arm jurisdiction will delay the process, but not for very long, because it’s too leaky.”
Yeo was speaking at the second annual Next STEP Global Conference, jointly organised by the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore.
Yeo, who is also a visiting scholar at LKYSPP, says the US will continue in this endeavour “until it fails”. “Then, the transition will continue and a new world will emerge,” he says.
The world is in that “great transition” today and the result will “inevitably” be a multipolar world, says Yeo, an outcome that the US resists. “It’s used to being dominant; it tries very hard to preserve its position by cobbling together a Western alliance. But I don’t think, despite all these efforts, we can prevent a multipolar world from emerging. It’s just the logic of numbers, and perhaps, historically speaking, a little unnatural,” he says.
Capability vs intention
Yeo notes a worrying trend today: the “weaponisation of everything — of the WTO (World Trade Organization), of the international financial system, of the US dollar; what we thought were public goods”.
Should China bristle and reject a multipolar world, the world faces a much tougher transition, adds Yeo. “If you are China and you look at all this and say ‘No, it will not be a multipolar world. It will be the US with its Western friends and the rest of us. We will develop our own responses and we will have our own circle of friends.’ [Then] it will be a darker world for all of us.”
In particular, the world’s democracies have a disadvantage, says Yeo. “We look at Europe today with the coming of winter — who’s more nervous? European leaders or Putin? Putin does not need to be re-elected for a long time.”
China is trying to make sense of all this, he adds. “The US feels in its bones that China, when it becomes stronger, will be a threat. I don’t agree with this, because China must be assessed in its own history.”
Yeo, a former Brigadier-General, cites his experience in the armed forces: “Capabilities can’t change quickly but intentions can overnight. When you distrust a person, you assess him on the basis of his capability, not on the basis of his intention. Today, we live in a period of great distrust.”
In an atmosphere of suspicion, everyone ends up in a position they would rather not be in, adds Yeo. He raises the example of Ukraine, with Russia, the US and Europe entering “a very long tunnel”. “There’s no easy way to reverse out of that tunnel. Let’s say we sit down to negotiate; the US cannot let Putin win, and Putin cannot lose. So, how do you square that circle?” he asks.
China is determined not to enter that tunnel, says Yeo. “It stands 60/40 in favour of Russia because if Russia collapses, China will feel much more pressure.”
Can the world take comfort in any proof that China is not Russia, asks Adam Posen, president of PIIE; and what do China’s sympathies spell for smaller nations like Singapore and Taiwan?
“I must say I was uncomfortable when you more than once spoke of Ukraine, Taiwan and Singapore in the same breath,” says Yeo. “Yes, we have some sympathy for Ukraine, because compared to Russia, it is a small country; we have certain sympathy for the underdog. But we also know that if we get involved in big-power conflicts, things will happen, which we would rather not happen.”
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Compared to Ukraine, Taiwan is “profoundly different”, argues Yeo. “We should not speak of Taiwan in the same breath. The Ukrainians are fighting for Ukraine. Singaporeans, I believe, will fight for Singapore. I don’t think [the] Taiwanese will fight for Taiwan. Because deep inside, they know they’re Chinese and that this conflict is not their conflict. It’s a conflict between China and America. All of us have professed repeatedly that we recognise only one China; Beijing is the sole legal representative of China.”
To China, the US is playing a game with Taiwan, says Yeo. “On the one hand, [the US is] affirming one China. On the other hand, [they are] actually making moves that suggest they don’t really agree with that. Naturally, the Chinese become very suspicious, thinking it to be a card that can be played.”
Chinese mentality of ‘building walls’
What role does China play in this transition to a multipolar world? Yeo says the country is aware of its own strength and is playing defensively. “It knows that in the end, it will become the biggest economy on Earth, and in some areas it will overtake the US.”
According to Yeo, China wants to avoid conflict. “It’s too old a civilisation. It knows that if it [is involved in a conflict], it will only bring trouble upon itself,” he says.
The Chinese mentality is one of building walls, says Yeo. “They like the world to be a Chinese world; it’s much easier to govern. So, if I have to lock down, the Shanghainese will cry blue murder; they’re traumatised, but in the end, they comply.”
The same cannot be demanded of Singapore or London, he adds, but the Chinese understand such measures. “They know in their history that disunity can lead to generations of hardship. So, they put up with what some of us may consider nonsense; but, of course, from the viewpoint of the leaders in China, [that is] for good reasons, reasons which are not always fully disclosed to their own people,” he says.
However, China has to get used to the fact that a multipolar world will be genuinely plural, says Yeo, and not a world where everyone else orbits around it.
What, then, could be the poles in this potential future, asks LKYSPP Assistant Professor Selina Ho.
Yeo first mentions India, whose population will “soon overtake that of China”; and in time, it will grow into the world’s “second- or third-largest economy”.
Europe, despite its relative decline, will always play a major role in human history, adds Yeo. “I think that in the Americas, Brazil, despite its current problems, will always be a separate pole [from the US].”
In Africa, the picture “is still not very clear”, says Yeo. “But eventually, poles will emerge around Nigeria and South Africa, and maybe around Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda [and] Rwanda.”
For most of human history, the world was multipolar, he adds. “I think that is natural and like the solar system, there are all kinds of heavenly bodies… I think it makes for a more beautiful world and it makes for a better world. And in the process, we learn from each other, we develop faster, because there are different fountains of knowledge and experimentation.”
Yeo adds: “The challenge is a moral one: that we don’t kill each other. Ultimately, all this depends upon the moral question of how we see each other as human beings in our competition.”