Singapore on post-Saddam world: Who needs Europe?

America's victory in Iraq showed it has no need for
'Europe's military assistance or its political validation'

By Goh Chok Tong
Tuesday, May 21, 2003

Following are excerpts from an address by Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong to the Asia Society in Washington, D.C. on May 7.

Singapore's Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong geopolitical vision calls for a key U.S. role in the emerging "trans-Pacific community" at at time when trans-Atlantic relations have been strained.
I want to speak on some of the key geopolitical challenges for East Asia after Iraq.

The Iraq war focused attention on three sets of issues:

  • First, America's global pre-eminence. This pre-eminence is the key geopolitical fact of the post-Cold War world. American pre-eminence can be undermined only by a failure of will or by internal disruption. America is unlikely to be seriously challenged by any other country or group of countries for a very long time. The war in Iraq underscored this.

  • But the Iraq war also catalysed opposition to U.S. pre-eminence, which leads me to my second point: the resistance of France, Russia, Germany and others in the UN Security Council to military action against Iraq has raised grave questions about the future of the UN.

  • Third, America's victory showed that the U.S. did not need Europe's military assistance or its political validation. This raises profound questions about the future of trans-Atlantic relations; indeed, about the very definition of 'The West' that has been the cornerstone of global stability since the Second World War.

    I hope that a new modus vivendi for trans-atlantic relations can be reached. But this evening, I will focus on the first two issues: the reaction of East Asia to U.S. global pre-eminence, and secondly, the future of the UN.

    East Asian Reactions to U.S. Global Pre-eminence

    Throughout the 20th century, U.S. engagement in East Asia has been deep and decisive. Teddy Roosevelt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for brokering an end to the Russo-Japanese War. America preserved an 'open door' and China's territorial integrity. Washington was the pivot of a balance of power with Britain and Japan in East Asia in the 1920s and 1930s. After Japan's defeat in the Second World War and with decolonisation, America stood unique in East Asia. You remade Japan. You fought wars in Korea and Vietnam to hold the line against communism, buying valuable time for non-communist states to establish themselves. And not least, America's strategic alliance with China against the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s changed the world.

    Not every country will say so publicly, but we all know that America has been indispensable to East Asian peace, stability and prosperity. This consciousness tempered East Asian attitudes towards the war in Iraq.

    Of course, as in Europe, East Asia was divided on the war. Not every country supported the war. Many people in every country are profoundly uneasy with America's dominance and American policies. Still, all of America's principal East Asian allies and friends stood with you on Iraq. Australia provided troops. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines provided strong political support.

    So did Singapore. We saw it as a defining moment of history and supported the U.S..

    We explained to our people that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 ushered in a new type of global struggle. The U.S. is not the only target of these terrorists, but every country which has U.S. embassies, companies, assets and interests. So while U.S. leadership is vital to success against terrorism, we cannot leave the fight to the U.S. alone.

    9/11 also lowered the threshold of acceptable risk with regard to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). A WMD attack in densely populated East Asia will be catastrophic. SARS is only a small foretaste of the impact of a biological attack on East Asia.

    The U.S. is at the forefront of this struggle against terrorism and WMD proliferation. Once the U.S. decided to confront Iraq over its WMD, the issue became that of America's credibility. If action had not been taken against Iraq, or if America had failed in Iraq, America's credibility in the international community would have evaporated. What signal would this have given to regimes which aspire to have WMD and terrorist groups in East Asia and across the world?

    Indeed, North Korea had taken advantage of the international pre-occupation with Iraq to push forward with its own nuclear weapons programme. But after America's victory in Iraq, Pyongyang seems to be reconsidering its position. It is difficult to be definite about so opaque a system. And no doubt, there will be many more twists-and-turns. But I believe that the clear demonstration of American resolve and capability in Iraq has made a diplomatic solution to North Korea more likely. This is a major plus for East Asian stability.

    In this regard, the Chinese have a saying - 'sha yi jing bai'. It means 'punish one to awe one hundred'.

    Iraq could not have been disarmed without getting rid of Saddam Hussein. The war was necessary. But Americans should understand that the change in articulation of U.S. goals from 'removal of WMD' to 'regime change', has caused uneasiness in East Asia. 'Regime change' exacerbates existing insecurities for countries without a functioning democracy.

    Like France and Russia, China was already uneasy with a unipolar world. But unlike Paris or Moscow, Beijing drew on an ancient tradition of unsentimental realpolitik and never lost sight of its essential national interests. China understood that 9/11 had fundamentally changed the way America looked at the world. It recognised that resistance in the Security Council, however emotionally satisfying, could not change geopolitical realities.

    So China stated its views clearly in the Security Council. It did not compromise its principles. But it signalled early that it would not exercise its veto. China faces serious internal political and economic challenges. It has just undergone a leadership transition. It therefore wants stable relations with the U.S.. Beijing was not willing to jeopardise its relationship with the U.S. for Saddam Hussein's sake.

    This decision benefits East Asia, as the U.S.-China relationship is the key relationship in East Asia. If U.S.-China relations are strained, all East Asia is unsettled. But if they are stable, the region is calmed.

    Fortunately so, because East Asian countries with large Muslim populations face their own set of problems: political Islam.

    Southeast Asian Islam was traditionally moderate. Most of its governments are secular. But globalisation has heightened influences from South Asia and the Middle East. A greater religiosity is now evident as more austere forms of Islam take root. Furthermore, U.S. policies in the Middle East have made many Southeast Asian Muslims increasingly uncomfortable, thus giving an anti-American tinge to their religious beliefs.

    This has made fertile ground for extremists. In December 2001, Singapore exposed an Al-Qaida linked terrorist organisation with a leadership centred in Indonesia and a network that spanned southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Its tentacles even reached Australia. Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines moved quickly to cripple the network. After bombs went off in Bali, Indonesia did so as well.

    But in acting against the Islamic extremists, Indonesia and Malaysia must reckon with resurgent political Islam.

    In Indonesia, when Soeharto was removed, new political forces were unleashed. President Megawati stands for a secular, nationalist vision of Indonesia. But some of her opponents want to give Islam a more prominent place in the polity. In Malaysia, the ruling party, UMNO, faces a divided ground and a serious challenge from PAS, an Islamist party.

    The war in Iraq has added another dimension of complexity to these already intricate political dynamics in Indonesia and Malaysia. To protect its flanks, Megawati's government had to be critical of the war. But it also set clear limits to public protests and protected American citizens and property. In Malaysia, the government was sharply critical. As Chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement, Malaysia positioned itself as leader of Third World opposition to the war. But still, it channelled public unhappiness with the U.S. into a sponsored protest movement, instead of allowing free demonstrations.

    Southeast Asians were stunned by the swift U.S. victory in Iraq, and sobered by the jubilation of many Iraqis at the fall of Saddam Hussein. This helped contain protests. The confidence of terrorists and extremists was also seriously dented. On the other hand, the confidence of those fighting terrorism and extremism was boosted.

    But the story is far from over. The struggle against terrorism will not be won overnight. The challenge from political Islam is a continuing one. External influences on Southeast Asian Islam will not evaporate. Nor will apprehensions about the purposes of American power. If political Islam gains ascendancy in Southeast Asia, it will pose a global strategic problem. This is because Southeast Asia commands sea-lanes linking the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Japan, South Korea and Australia will be immediately affected. The U.S. too, will not be insulated.

    In this context, it will be of immense help to secular Southeast Asian governments and moderate Muslims if America's enormous power is now harnessed to bring peace to the Middle East. The Roadmap to Peace takes on a new urgency.

    A Role for the UN

    In the same regard, how post-war Iraq is managed will also have a significant impact on Southeast Asian politics. That is why many in East Asia were cheered when President Bush said that the UN would have a 'vital role'. A new debate is now shaping up in the Security Council on this very issue.

    Some countries want to use the UN to ensure they are not left out of post-Saddam Iraq. Americans, however, are understandably wary about ceding what was won with blood, to the control of institutions and countries that had obstructed action against Saddam Hussein in the first place. At the same time, opponents of the war do not want the Security Council to now legitimise it.

    Iraq's needs are urgent. I hope that this debate about the role of the UN will not get bogged down in recriminations or again overlook fundamental considerations.

    For example, I do not doubt that those countries that had blocked Security Council action a few months ago did so on sincerely principled grounds. But I wonder whether they had fully anticipated the strategic implications of their actions.

    The choice was then simplistically presented as between unilateralism and multilateralism. Yet it was not the first time that military action was taken without UN sanction. In fact, many opponents of the war in Iraq had encouraged America to intervene in the Balkans.

    And this dichotomy begged the core issue: can any international organisation detach itself from geopolitical realities? The world needs the UN. But leadership backed by power is needed to construct and sustain strong international institutions. When the Security Council failed to support the pre-eminent world power in a matter that was of vital interest to its security, multilateralism and the UN were the losers.

    In this regard, post-war Iraq now affords an opportunity to re-establish a realistic and sustainable role for the UN that should not be missed.

    Conclusion: Towards a Trans-Pacific Community.

    Let me conclude by sharing with you my analysis of East Asian geopolitical fundamentals, and my view of how they can be harnessed for the peace, stability and prosperity of the region.

    First, the U.S. remains vital to East Asian peace, stability and prosperity. After the Cold War, America's centrality to East Asia was further buttressed. Not everybody is comfortable with this. We may well be better off with a more balanced structure of power. But wishing will not make it so. And I do not think we were better off during the Cold War when there was a balance of power.

    The rise of China is the second key East Asian geopolitical fact. China is an immense opportunity and a great competitive challenge. A prosperous and globally integrated China is in all our interests. A poor and isolated China will pose challenges without opportunities. It will be like North Korea 60 times over.

    The over-arching strategic objective in East Asia must be to ensure that the region remains in harmonious balance as China grows. And only by working with the U.S. can East Asia achieve this objective.

    U.S.-Japan relations are an important piece of this East Asian security architecture. And Prime Minister Koizumi has brought Japan even closer to the U.S.. But America remains the linchpin. No other country or combination of countries can balance a growing China.

    I believe that U.S.-China relations are currently stable and, barring accidents over Taiwan, will remain so. China and the U.S. understand that they must work together, and, therefore, want the best possible relationship.

    This does not mean that American and Chinese interests will always coincide. As a rising power, China will not acquiesce to the status quo if status quo is against its interests. On the other hand, as the pre-eminent global power, the U.S. wants to preserve the status quo.

    Competition may therefore be inevitable. But confrontation is not. Washington does not want confrontation. The war in Iraq may have demonstrated beyond any doubt its military might. But America is not a warmonger. America's genius and talents are in the peaceful fields of arts, economics, commerce, finance, science and technology.

    Likewise, East Asia's basic interest is not in war but economic development. This does not erase competition but channels it to more creative and constructive directions. For example, China's proposal for a free trade agreement with ASEAN within ten years, Japan's immediate riposte of a Closer Economic Partnership and President Bush's Enterprise for ASEAN Initiative were opening moves in a new kind of healthy geopolitical competition. They are occurring in the context of a nascent East Asian regionalism that is slowly evolving around ASEAN's annual summit meetings with China, Japan and South Korea.

    I believe that America's victory in Iraq and its global pre-eminence will provide further impetus for East Asian regionalism. This regionalism is driven by a desire for peace and harmony in the region, and the need to respond to the global trend towards regionalism: the Americas coalescing around NAFTA and an expanding EU.

    The key issue is how to 'embed', to borrow a popular term, the U.S. in this process of East Asian regionalism, and ensure that the two sides of the Pacific remain in happy embrace. This is a strategic as well as economic imperative. Without the U.S., East Asian regionalism will, over time, be dominated by one player. This will give less breathing room for others in the region.

    Yesterday, I signed the U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with President Bush. It is America's first FTA with East Asia. The U.S.-Singapore FTA complements America's bilateral treaty relationships in the region and underscores the benefits of cooperation with the U.S.. I believe it has a wider strategic significance. Let me explain.

    The U.S.-Singapore FTA, Singapore's FTAs with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and those that we are negotiating with Canada, Chile, South Korea and India, have stirred great interest in East Asia. Thailand, the Philippines and even Malaysia are now interested in forging similar agreements, especially with the U.S..

    I urge America to consider this interest sympathetically. Not everything can be done at once. And we understand that the U.S. is upset that some friends had not supported you in the Iraqi crisis. But a web of inter-locking FTAs is a potential means of realising the positive benefits of cooperation with the U.S., and maintaining America's central role in a broader trans-pacific community.

    It will take time and effort to achieve this vision. But it is a goal worth striving for. America's enormous power and your unique status in East Asia and the world give you the ability to make this vision a reality.

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