Jovi Ho Fri, Jun 03, 2022
The US’ involvement in Taiwan is a negative-sum game, and should a proxy war break out between the US and China in the South China Sea, China’s military will win, says emeritus senior minister Goh Chok Tong.
Speaking at UOB’s Private Bank 2H2022 Investment Forum on June 3, Goh pointed to the “asymmetrical” scenario should the US support Taiwan in a hot war against China.
“China’s military expenditure is only one-third that of the US… [but] strength on paper is not the same as real strength. Where the South China Sea and Taiwan are concerned, those who have analysed it say China has asymmetrical defence, and therefore offense,” says Goh.
Should a war extend beyond the Asian theatre, however, the US would emerge victorious, Goh adds. “The US has 5,500 nuclear weapons. China has 300. Who would win?”
Goh also answered questions about the impetus for a potential war. Already, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has coloured the Americans’ view of China, as the US become increasingly suspicious of China, says Goh. “China has said its ties with Russia are ‘without limits’ and it does not condemn the invasion. The US has warned China not to invade Taiwan. It has moved to strengthen its relationship with Taiwan and war over Taiwan cannot be ruled out.”
On May 23, President Joe Biden, in response to a question, said that the US would intervene militarily if China attempts to take Taiwan by force. This warning appeared to deviate from the deliberate ambiguity traditionally held by the US. The comments were slammed by China.
“China can say: ‘I am prepared to fight because Taiwan is a part of China.’ It is a very complex situation,” says Goh.
A patient China
My hope is that there should be no war, says Goh. “I hope China will be very patient… I hope China grows its economy.”
“I look at the way the US is preparing to deepen its ties with Taiwan; I feel there will be no good outcome,” says Goh. “No good will come out of this; that is my worry. Both sides should understand one another, especially the US. What are the long term aspirations of China?”
While analysts repeatedly refer to China as the world’s second largest economy, Goh points to China’s GDP per capita, which is one-sixth that of the US. “This is never emphasised.”
As of 2020, China’s GDP per capita stood at US$10,500.40, while the US’ figure stood at US$63,543.58.
“The inner areas of China are still very poor. The duty of any government is to raise the standard of living of everybody, of the rural population. That is the priority of China.”
The genie is out of the bottle
In a prepared speech, Goh reminisced about his time as prime minister of Singapore between 1990 and 2004. “During my time as PM, the world was globalising. Asean Plus Three [which began in 1997] included China, Japan and South Korea; China became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001 and the US extended a hand of friendship to China.”
“That might have been the golden period of geopolitics,” he adds.
Today, Goh says he is “pessimistic about the future of the world”, a perspective he has held “even before the invasion of Ukraine”.
He says: “The world is becoming unstable and more dangerous. It will be a world polarised and divided between the big powers: US and China.”
The US is not going to give up its dominant role to anyone, adds Goh. “It sees the rise of China as a long-term strategic threat.”
Goh cites US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s outline of the Biden administration’s broad foreign policy agenda from March 2021. Then, Blinken said: “Our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.”
“But China is not going to roll over,” says Goh. “The genie is already out of the bottle.”
The US has outlined its fight against China as one of “democracies versus autocracies”, says Goh. “It would have been better had the US defined the fight as good governance versus bad governance.”
He adds: “the end result is that the US’ relationship with China will end up as a negative-sum game, not even a zero-sum game.”
Even if there is no global hot war, there will be an estranged relationship between both sides, says Goh. “At best, a bipolar world. At worst, there will be a world of bipolar disorder: sometimes sane, sometimes insane. A world [where countries are] forced to take sides.”
“Instead of building more bridges, I’m afraid more walls will be built. This is the world Lawrence Wong and the 4G team will inherit.”