In a recent semester, I had my graduate class in International Relations “role play” United States (US) and China negotiators. The thirty-person class was divided into five groups, with six members in each group: three donned “American” hats, and the other three “Chinese” hats. Their task was to identify two issue areas where cooperation was possible, and two where they just had to “agree to disagree”. Across the five groups, the one issue area in which cooperation or agreement was deemed most possible (and urgent) was containing the COVID-19 pandemic.
That in real life the US and China have behaved so differently speaks volumes about the strategic distrust between them. China was perceived by the US as late in informing the world about the virus; while the Trump administration thought it had done enough by banning travellers from China, President Donald Trump embarked on a blame game that sought to stigmatise China for allowing the spread of the virus, once infection and death rates mounted.
Trump’s gambit was premised in part on his need to deflect attention from his mishandling of the crisis in the wake of the presidential elections. Under his watch, the US suffered one of the world’s highest infection rates per capita and among the top few in per capita deaths.
But his administration’s China hawks have had China in America’s crosshairs since 2017. Previous administrations, they claimed, had allowed China to grow so strong that it had become an economic and security threat to the US.
Ramifications of Current US-China Relations
The pandemic is but the latest example of the inability of the US and China— Asia’s two superpowers—to work together. What can Singapore and the region learn from this?
The first and perhaps most important lesson is that this is not just about President Trump. Having lost but not conceded the election, Trump has nevertheless left the White House. Joseph Biden, inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States in January 2021, has pledged to jettison the unilateral “America first” policies of the Trump administration, and to return to the more multilateral approach of previous administrations. The US has rejoined the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization (WHO), and is reviving its participation in the Iran nuclear deal (complicated by the recent assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh), while adopting a less protectionist approach to trade.
The Asian international system has two superpowers whose comprehensive power are way ahead of those below them. In such a system, strategic rivalry is the dominant dynamic.
The Biden administration, however, will also have China in its crosshairs. On the one hand, the Biden team will give human rights and democracy a much more prominent spot in their foreign policy agenda. China is coming under greater pressure for its policies on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. More crucially, there is now a consensus in the US foreign policy establishment that China needs to be constrained or contained. China is closing in on the US in terms of its comprehensive power. The Lowy Institute’s 2020 Asia Power Index puts China’s comprehensive power at 93% of that of the US (in Asia). The issue is a structural one: the Asian international system has two superpowers whose comprehensive power are way ahead of those below them (such as Japan, Russia, India, etc.). In such a system, strategic rivalry—of the kind we saw during the US-Soviet Cold War—is the dominant dynamic. Cooperation is possible in some areas, but discord and competition will characterise the relationship. Put another way, the first lesson is that the downturn in US-China relations in the last four years is a symptom of a larger dynamic at work— strategic rivalry between two nearly equal powers in a contained area (Asia).
The second lesson is that America has changed. Looking beyond the Biden administration, it becomes an open question whether the US has the will and ability to lead. As many observers of America have argued, it has become entirely possible to imagine the country being one day led by a Republican who is capable of pursuing Trump’s “America first” policies with more discipline and less narcissism. Like many of its Asian neighbours, Singapore has tended to view the US as a “benign hegemon”: the predominant power in the region who leads with the consent of its many followers. The majority have consented to US leadership because, since World War II, the US has chosen to pursue its interests in a “win-win” way with its followers in Asia and elsewhere: providing security via bilateral military alliances with Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines, and opening up its markets to those who chose “free market capitalism”—including Singapore—as the path to economic development. Such leadership entails costs, including tolerating uneven economic playing fields (for allies such as Japan and South Korea during the Cold War) as well as putting boots on the ground when US hegemony was challenged in Korea and Vietnam. The latter Asian land wars cost the US over 100,000 battle deaths.
Based on past experience, the world has also come to expect the US to take the lead in mitigating the consequences of global crises and natural disasters by bringing together the relevant parties and (international and regional) organisations to tackle such events. The US did so with the AIDs/HIV epidemic, the 2004 tsunami, the 2008 financial crisis, and the 2014 Ebola epidemic. The Trump administration’s decision not to assume a national and global leadership role in confronting the COVID-19 crisis—with devastating consequences for the US itself—raises questions about US will.
Trump may be gone, but Trumpism is not. America’s allies and partners will have to factor this into their dealings with the US.
More important than the will to lead globally is the ability to lead domestically. America today is so ideologically fragmented, politically disunited, and dysfunctional that mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic became a heated political issue. Republicans and Democrats view each other as sworn enemies; the Trump administration renounced national leadership on confronting the pandemic, “devolving” responsibility to the state governors. As the world watched in horror at the rising number of Americans infected and dying, conclusions were drawn: if the US is unable or unwilling to lead locally, can it be counted on to lead globally?
This is relevant to Singapore and the region because of the belief that America’s leadership—occasioned by the latter’s predominant economic and military power—has been crucial in maintaining the peace and stability that Asia has enjoyed in this half century or so.
Although Singapore’s leaders are pragmatic decision-makers who will ensure that they can work with whoever is in charge in Washington, D.C., they are probably relieved that the new Biden administration is likely to pursue a broader, less transactional view of America’s interests while taking multilateralism seriously.1 In a recent interview, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (PM Lee) noted the promise of a “new direction for America” under Biden, but he also saw fit to point to the challenges for the new administration. Asked by Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait if “Trump has done permanent damage or changed the way that America is viewed in the region”, PM Lee replied that the Trump administration’s “narrow definition of where America’s interests lie” will have “some long-term impact on perspectives on America”. Anticipating the future, PM Lee reminded his audience that Trump “collected more votes than Barack Obama… He has not disappeared, nor the pressures which he represented.”2
I interpret PM Lee’s remarks to mean that while America’s allies in Europe and Asia will be overjoyed to work with an administration that takes allies, multilateralism, and cooperation seriously, there will be one nagging factor in their interactions with the erstwhile hegemon. The fact remains that 74 million Americans wanted another four years of Trump despite his dismal failure to stem the pandemic, despite their having to pay more for goods because of the trade war, and despite the growing disunity and acrimony of the last four years. Trump may be gone, but Trumpism is not; it will be sticking around, hobbling the Biden administration’s domestic and foreign policies, and introducing a new factor into the future calculations of America’s interlocutors in their strategic interactions with the US.
The consensus about America’s role in upholding the liberal international order has been shattered: without such a consensus, it is hard to have a coherent foreign policy and sustain it over time.
This new factor will be especially salient in the medium (after 2024) to long term (around 2030). America’s allies and partners will have to factor this Trumpism in their dealings with the US. Many hoped and assumed that Trump’s “America first” foreign policy was an aberration, and that US abdication of its global leadership in the last four years was a one-off. The question is: will the next Republican President—the inheritor of Trump’s base, take off where Trump left off?
If America’s allies and partners cannot be sure that the US can be counted on to live up to its international commitments, they will hedge against the US, i.e., be more cautious or circumspect about following the US or doing its strategic bidding. When we look back on Trump’s and Biden’s foreign policies many years from now, what we are likely to conclude, I wager, is that the consensus about America’s role in upholding the liberal international order has been shattered: without such a consensus, it is hard to have a coherent foreign policy and sustain it over time.
For the US, there is a way out of this disunity and lack of consensus, and that is to find or construct an external enemy. Samuel Huntington has argued that America needs an external other or rival in order to know who it is and what it stands for. There are indeed two ready-made others: China and Russia. The Trump administration has kickstarted the construction of China as “the other” with the trade war, blaming China for the pandemic, criticising China on Xinjiang, and confronting it on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea. China has not helped itself by some of its policies on these issues. Ultimately what makes China a lead candidate as America’s other is the fact that China is closing in on the US in comprehensive power terms, and the US is fearful that China will replace it as the hegemon in Asia.
The third lesson stems from the US’s fear of China replacing it as the predominant power in Asia. As the strategic rivalry intensifies, each superpower will put pressure on the region’s key players to align with it. Singapore has been among the most articulate in asking the two superpowers not to force countries in Asia to choose. Recall the choices made by Singapore and ASEAN in the last decade. Joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and most recently, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) all advanced Singapore’s interests; they also showed positive economic-political engagement with China. The US actively sought to dissuade its allies and partners from signing on to the AIIB and BRI—the Obama administration’s displeasure with Britain’s joining the AIIB, for example, led to accusations of the UK being too “accommodating” (just one step shy of appeasement) to China. Once the UK joined, it opened the floodgates for the rest of the European Union to sign on to the AIIB. For now, the AIIB’s lending standards are like those of existing financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, but that should not obscure the point that it is a China-led regional economic institution.
As the strategic rivalry intensifies, each superpower will put pressure on the region’s key players to align with it.
Welcoming the Obama pivot to Asia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership similarly advanced Singapore’s strategic-economic interests while reiterating Singapore’s belief in the helpful role of America’s forward military and economic presence in maintaining peace and stability in Asia. Yet there are signs that the two superpowers are getting impatient with such nuanced approaches to hedging. Speaking at the launch of a photo book celebrating 30 years of Singapore-China diplomatic relations, former Chinese vice-minister (Foreign Affairs) He Yafei spoke in favour of building “regional supply chains to better utilise resources…in the region”, but went on to warn that the strategy of hewing “economically close to China but relying on the US for protection is a bad choice and is not going to work”.3
Choices Facing Singapore and the Region
Viewed from the perspective of US-China competition, the COVID-19 pandemic presented two choices for Singapore and the region, both of which were easy to make. The first had to do with whether to participate in the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility, the WHO-based multilateral initiative to distribute vaccines equitably when they become available. While the US had earlier chosen not to participate in the COVAX Facility, the new Administration announced in January 2021 that the US would join the Facility. China signed on, as did Singapore and the small and middle powers in Asia. This issue here is less about choosing sides than about one’s approach to multilateral cooperation and by implication, international leadership.
The second choice presented by the COVID-19 pandemic concerns the “blame game”. Stated this way, it was a no-brainer—only Australia chose to go with the US in calling for an independent investigation of the origins of the virus. The rest of the world, Singapore included, was content with a WHO-based inquiry after the emergency phase was over. Australia’s call for an independent investigation implied that it, like the US, distrusted the WHO to carry out the investigation. This hit a nerve in China; together with Australia’s earlier decision to cut out Huawei from its 5G infrastructure, this has led to a serious deterioration in China-Australia relations, with significant economic costs for the barley, copper, and most recently, wine sectors in Australia.
If our choices repeatedly seem to favour one side, then we may have actually ended up choosing a side.
The point is that such choices will present themselves more frequently in the years to come as the rivalry between the two superpowers goes into high gear. The recent signing of RCEP, the largest trading bloc in the world that includes China but not the US, suggests to some that it is yet another sign of the ASEAN countries being drawn increasingly closer to China’s economic orbit. It is a truism that when presented with such choices, Singapore and its neighbours will choose on the basis of what serves their national interests best. Yet the lesson here is that we should be aware of the possibility that our choices may add up. If our choices—albeit based on case-by-case calculations of our interests—repeatedly seem to favour one side, then we may have actually ended up choosing a side.
Finally, it is also necessary to consider who is proposing the initiatives or plans that Singapore and the region are choosing from. On initiatives like the AIIB and BRI and Huawei, for example, it is China. On the pivot to Asia and the TPP, it is the US. The TPP was perhaps the most significant multilateral economic initiative appropriated (from Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore— the original four), and then championed, by America since the end of the Cold War. As then President Obama put it, quite apart from the economic goals, the political-strategic rationale was to ensure that the US continued to set the rules of the international economic game. But it was jettisoned by Trump on his first day in office. RCEP, contrary to many media presentations, is more ASEAN than China inspired, although it is true that as the largest RCEP economy, China will reap significant economic as well as rule-setting advantages. Perhaps that was why India pulled out of the agreement. It appears that China is putting more “dishes” on the table. How palatable those dishes are does not just depend on the economic priorities of individual countries; each country will also have to factor in the strategic implications. Yet the economic logic of growing with the largest economy (in purchasing power parity terms) will be hard to resist.
Navigating a New Era of Superpower Rivalry
To sum up, the three lessons of US-China relations in the time of COVID-19 for Singapore and the region are: (1) The deeper cause of US-China discord— including their inability to cooperate on stemming the COVID-19 pandemic—is structural. China’s catching up with the US in comprehensive power suggests that there are now two superpowers in Asia and the logic of the situation is one of strategic rivalry; (2) The Trump administration’s mishandling of COVID-19 raises questions about US will and ability to continue in its role as global leader; the recent US presidential election, in which half of the American electorate were content to have another four years of Trump, suggests that Trumpism and the “America first” approach are not aberrations; (3) Singapore and its neighbours should expect increasing pressures from the superpowers to side with them on new issues and initiatives in the years ahead. Although choices are likely to be made on the individual merits of the issue or case, it is probably wise to approach such choices with some conception of an overall strategy, lest, through a series of discrete choices, one inadvertently ends up choosing one side over the other.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Khong Yuen Foong is Vice Dean (Research and Development) and Li Ka Shing Professor of Political Science at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), National University of Singapore. Prior to joining the LKYSPP in 2015, he was Professor of International Relations and a Professorial Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford University. His research interests include United States foreign policy, the international relations of the Asia Pacific, and cognitive approaches to international relations. His publications include Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (1992, 2006), “The US, China, and the Cold War Analogy”, China International Strategy Review (December 2019), and “Power as Prestige in World Politics”, International Affairs (January 2019).
- Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh put the issue in perspective in a recent article: “During the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a global shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). President Trump issued an order to all American companies manufacturing PPEs outside America to ignore their contractual obligations and send their production back to the US.” Koh’s hope was that Biden’s foreign policy will revert to a more benign and less “America first” policy. See: Tommy Koh, “Biden’s Foreign Policy: A Prognosis”, The Straits Times, November 17, 2020, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www. straitstimes.com/opinion/bidens-foreign-policy-a-prognosis-0.
- See: Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore, “Interview with PM Lee Hsien Loong for the Bloomberg 2020 New Economy Forum”, November 17, 2020, accessed March 25, 2021, https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/Interviewwith-PM-Lee-Hsien-Loong-for-the-Bloomberg-2020-New-Economy-Forum.
- Aw Cheng Wei, “Online Showcase Traces Growth of S’pore-China Ties”, The Straits Times, December 4, 2020, B10, accessed March 24, 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/online-showcase-traces-growth-of-spore-china-ties.