I attended a half-day seminar on Jan. 7, 2017 sponsored by LKY School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) of the National University of Singapore (NUS) and ‘Foreign Affairs’ journal published by the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) of the USA. It was a priced event and I thought it was worth paying S$100.00 for it. It was not a bad bargain, in the end. It had one key note speech and two panels. Keynote speech was delivered by DPM Tharman. It was a bit on the shorter side. In the short-term, he said that he was pessimistic. He stretched the short-term to more than a few years, in the Q&A.
He did not say anything direct about President Trump or the Chinese President or any particular country.
The keywords from his speech were regeneration and not re-distribution, reflection and a German word, ‘geerdet’ (being grounded, I suppose, it is about being grounded in reality or being humble and not hubristic).
The first panel was about the new U.S. administration. It was chaired by Jonathan Tepperman of ‘Foreign Affairs’. He was a typical ‘liberal’ American who was sarcastic about Trump without any attempt at reflecting on the failures of the other side that has brought someone like Trump. Evidently, he had not listened to DPM Tharman’s speech.
Second, there was also no attempt to consider the possibility that, may be, there is more to Trump than what they imagine because, in their own words, he has defied all predictions of his spectacular defeat. Instead, as we read, the attempt is to pin it all on Russia.
This is not only stupid but also suicidal and counterproductive for world peace.
The rest of the panel was not so bad. A former Italian PM was there. He is Enrico Letta. He was PM for about ten months from 2013 to 2014. He was not bad. He conceded that Europe had to focus on security, migration and terrorism in 2017. He was, of course, critical of both Brexit and Trump’s victory because he felt that both were about bringing back the past and not looking forward to the future. These are double-edged arguments. The past is a prologue usually as history repeats itself. But, he was not a mindless critic. He was, overall, thoughtful.
He said that political parties in Europe and in the USA had lost touch with the grassroots. For example, he said that one of the principal reasons for Trump’s victory was that the possible Presidential election contest a year or so ago was Clinton II vs. Bush III. How could that be exciting to voters?
The other panelist – James Goldgeier – made the point that many non-blacks voted for President Obama in 2008 and in 2012. So, what he meant to say that the country could not become ‘racist’ overnight. Only eight years, did the country elect a black President and re-elected him four years ago. He also said that the focus on ISIS, if it happened under President Trump, would be a positive. In that context, he said that a good relationship with Russia would be a useful thing for America. But, immediately, he brought in a caveat. Fighting ISIS might give a blank cheque to authoritarian/dictatorial rulers in Turkey, Syria and Russia!
The panel moderator or the audience should have connected the dots. If the country voted for Obama twice and some of the same states had swung (even marginally) towards Trump, was it not an indictment of his tenure and of the candidate that the democratic party put up? That was the point that the former Italian PM was making. Indeed, during the Obama years, the number of regulations passed outstripped two of his immediate predecessors. I had blogged on it recently.
I think those who are anointed or assumed to be or who accept that they are both ‘intellectuals’ and ‘Liberals’ are still insufficiently reflective.
Anyway, the next session was about Asia: ‘Managing the rise of Asia’.
You can understand from the title that the ‘rise of Asia’ is being taken for granted. That is quite complacent and is inconsistent with recent developments in Asia – both political and economic. The session moderator was Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, dean of LKY SPP. He thinks it would be Asia’s century, principally led by China. He is a major champion of this thesis. I am one of the (deep) sceptics.
Quite a few of the panelists actually pushed back against this idea. Mr. Chris Hill felt that China was not willing to assume responsibility. Its desire to pick off each and every single sovereign state of ASEAN (Cambodia, Laos, Philippines and Malaysia, for example) was actually an indirect attempt to undermine the collective ASEAN itself. Also, its heavy-handed dealing with South Korea was improper. He was unambiguous that the U.S. must back South Korea’s security needs.
He said THAAD deployment in South Korea was correct and that the security cooperation had to be solidified further. In this regard, this article in ‘South China Morning Post’ is a fascinating, if long, read. Perhaps, it reveals the extent of China’s statecraft. I do not know. That is my guess.
He was positive on Tillerson, the candidate for Secretary of State in Trump Administration. Mr. Chris Hill had negotiated with North Korea, on behalf of the U.S. He cited some examples to say that they are impossible and unpredictable.
Cheol-Hee Park felt that China does not listen well and that it needed to earn the respect of other nations. He said that that had not happened. He was quite apprehensive about the relationship between China and Japan. Also, he was surprised that Korea and Japan allowed the statue matter to escalate.
There was not much discussion on Russia or India.
Now, if you put these and the following together, does it give you a sense of assurance about the ‘inevitable rise of Asia’:
(1) China has issues with Vietnam, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.
(2) Japan and South Korea have a spat over the issue of comfort women.
(3) Malaysian regime has lost credibility
(4) Indonesian Islamists are trying to weaken the President
(5) In South Korea, the President has resigned and China is targeting South Korean companies.
(6) India has gone and put its own short-term economic and political future under a big question mark.
(7) Pakistan remains an important source of global terrorism. Nothing has been done about it.
On top of that, there are big economic question marks over China’s near future. I think it could be a 5-10 year problem. The China Outlook 2017 report of Goldman Sachs published in November 2016 is a very important read.