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By Bilahari Kausikan

8 January 2015

ISEAS held its flagship annual conference on Thursday 8 January 2015 at the Shangri-La Hotel,Singapore. Executive summary please see here.  Mr Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large and Policy Advisor,Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore gave the keynote speech. 

In his analysis of East Asia in transition, Mr Bilahari Kausikan assessed the changing equilibrium inthe U.S.-China relationship to be the central strategic issue of our times. While the United Statesinitially created the conditions that facilitated growth in East Asia following World War II, there isnow a consensus across the region that the United States will remain a necessary but insufficientplayer for a stable regional architecture. The current regional order needs to be supplemented by anew architecture. Mr Kausikan stressed that in their process of finding a new equilibrium, conflictbetween the United States and China is not inevitable. While China is rising, the United States isnot in obvious decline. The changes in the distribution of power that are occurring are thereforerelative, not absolute. Both the United States and China face serious challenges but neither country should be underestimated. Mr Kausikan emphasized that the United States, China and Japan are all substantial powers and will remain so in the future.

Even so, Mr Kausikan made it clear that deep strategic distrust persists between the three powers,particularly in U.S.-China and Sino-Japanese relations, for which all three must share responsibility.At the root of this distrust is what may be termed the “psychological factor”. For example, China’srise has been disquieting to many Americans because Chinese capitalism flourishes without liberaldemocracy, undermining the western myth of the universality of certain political values.Consequently, the United States remains unable to endorse a key element of the Chinese-proposed“new model of major power relations”, which would lead to mutual respect for each other’s coreinterests. This is because China’s core interests include the preservation of communist party rulewhich the US would find difficult to accept. And unless Chinese concerns on core issues can beassuaged, strategic trust will not be established. At the same time, Chinese leaders do not quiteunderstand how China’s sense of destiny in reclaiming its historical place in East Asia can be areason for distrust and anxiety amongst its neighbours. The Communist Party of China (CPC) isalso increasingly relying on nationalism to legitimize its rule by primarily focusing on Japan,particularly regarding the CPC’s role in the defeat of Japan and Japan’s wartime record. It has notbeen lost on ASEAN that China’s attitude towards Japan’s wartime record has undergone severalshifts according to China’s political needs. Difficulties in the Sino-Japanese relationshipundermines Japan’s wish to become a ‘normal’ country and attain a more active role in SoutheastAsia.Mr Kausikan also addressed the impact of major power politics on Southeast Asia. Today, ASEANfinds itself at the intersection of major power interests. Maritime disputes in the South China Seahave increasingly become proxies for larger forces at play. Mr Kausikan stressed that in the SouthChina Sea, the primary risk is conflict by accident, not war by design. Rules of engagementbetween the United States and China, and between China and Japan are still rudimentary. AllASEAN member states want the best possible relationship with all major powers without having tochoose between them, and the formation of the East Asia Summit (EAS), along with other forums,was meant to channel great power relations into more predictable directions and promote the kindof omnidirectional balance that would enable ASEAN to maintain good relations with all majorpowers. These major powers in turn have found such forums useful as a supplementary means ofordering their relationship with each other and with ASEAN. However, ASEAN can only continueto play such a role if it remains neutral. Mr Kausikan emphasized that even as economic andsecurity imperatives pull ASEAN member states in different directions, it is crucial for ASEAN tocontinue its own economic integration project. Without economic integration, the centrifugal forcesgenerated by China’s growth could loosen the nascent development of a Southeast Asian identity,which in turn would adversely affect the development of a new regional security architecture.Integration can also be affected by rigidities that have emerged in ASEAN’s processes; and asdomestic situations in individual ASEAN states become more complicated, consensus will becomemore difficult to reach. Mr Kausikan concluded that continuing integration efforts in the future willrequire a sustained exercise of political will.