The world is currently witnessing a dynamic transition regarding international power relations, with multiple poles of influence becoming the newfound state of affairs. China’s rise as a global superpower necessitates the need to evaluate the established dominance of the United States as the single world power. These observations and reflections were shared by Mr. George Yeo, former Minister for Foreign Affairs (2004 to 2011), at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ (SIIA) annual Year Opener, in partnership with UBS Singapore.
Mr. Yeo provided his thoughts pertaining to such a world in transition and China’s increasingly important and central role in global power dynamics. Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA, served as the moderator for the session.
Contextualising the World in Transition
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine signalled a new page in history for both Europe and the world, shattering three decades of relative peace, and along with it, Russia’s relationship with the West and its allies. Mr. Yeo noted that in the decades before the invasion, Russia was simultaneously afraid, but eager to join and participate in Europe’s activities. The war has now definitively positioned Russia at odds with the rest of the continent, going so far as to push countries like Sweden and Finland closer to the Western Bloc and consolidating animosity against the Russian Federation.
Mr. Yeo remarked that China, as well as other countries in ASEAN, have needed to carefully balance their neutrality in order to preserve their relations with both parties. Most Southeast Asian countries were indeed measured and muted in their response to the invasion, with only Singapore imposing sanctions on Russia and Indonesia promptly criticizing Putin’s actions. Emergent powers like Indonesia and India also present another component of the world in transition that must be accounted for. These countries constitute a significant portion of the global population and their economies will eventually grow to become some of the largest in the world. As these countries develop and exert more influence on the world stage, Mr. Yeo emphasized the need for people of different beliefs and cultures to understand each other in order to peacefully co-exist in this new multi-polar world.
A Multi-Polar World
With relations between countries crystalising along increasingly salient alliances, Mr. Yeo anticipates that Asia’s role in the new world order will only grow more significant.
China, especially, will enjoy greater prominence and influence on the world stage, with the balance of power shifting towards it. Mr. Yeo pointed to the growing relations between Saudia Arabia and China as evidence of such a shift. While the US has historically enjoyed a valuable alliance with Saudi Arabia, the kingdom recently welcomed Chinese president Xi Jinping in an extravagant ceremony that outshined the subdued reception that greeted US President Joe Biden several months prior. Such a move signals the Saudi’s intention to diversify their strategic partnerships, but most concerning for the US, it alludes to a key regional player pivoting away from their sphere of influence. This reorientation hints at the growing influence that China will play, not only in the Middle East, but also on the global arena. He added that the status of the United States as the lone, global superpower is an uncommon anomaly in history; and thus, the seemingly emergent transition towards a multi-polar world order is simply a return to historical precedence.
China’s International Presence and Foreign Policy
When describing China’s foreign policy, Mr. Yeo used Chinese philosophical wisdom to illustrate the basis of their approach. He said that China is best typified by the character 中 (zhong), wherein the people envision the country as a balanced state, akin to the concept of yin and yang. He referenced Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as another source of foreign policy inspiration, specifically the maxim, “In war, prepare for peace; in peace, prepare for war.” He highlighted how China has never started or participated in a war since 1979 and prefers to avoid it altogether. As such, their foreign policy approach often searches for positive-sum solutions to prevent war from breaking out; though, they are simultaneously aware that there is a need to always be prepared for armed conflict and so maintain their military strength accordingly.
China’s economic growth and political influence have naturally allowed it to emerge as the main regional power. As such, Mr. Yeo stated that projects like the Belt and Road Initiative are thus a natural consequence of their position in the global ecosystem as one of the largest economies in the world. It is an organic development, rather than a mere political strategy, that China’s neighbours gravitate towards its sphere of influence to seek logistical and infrastructural support.
Finally, Mr. Yeo noted that the increasing multi-polarity of the world reminds Singapore that there are limits to what the country can do on its own. A stronger ASEAN, with Singapore front lining it, along with maintaining its global links and utilizing its internal diversity, are strategies that will enable the country to remain competitive and successful despite growing international division.