Asean countries should facilitate US-China dialogue, says scholar

KUALA LUMPUR: Asean countries should take the initiative to speak out and call on both the United States and China to have dialogues with one another, says an eminent scholar.

Prof Kishore Mahbubani (pic), a Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said it was important for Asean countries to be less passive, and instead, switch gears to urge both superpowers to talk more with each other.

"In my experience as a diplomat for more than 30 years, getting people in the same room talking to each other makes a big difference," he said.

Kishore was speaking at the 30th edition of the Tunku Abdul Rahman (TAR) Lecture series titled "Will ASEAN (and Malaysia) be torn or prosper from the US-China geopolitical contest?" at a hotel here on Tuesday (May 2).

The TAR Lecture series was inaugurated by the Malaysian Institute of Management (MIM) in 1970 to commemorate the premiership of Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.

Since then, the event has been regarded as the platform for fostering thought-leadership.

Kishore added that Asean’s great strength was its ability to convene fora for various countries.

"We should use that power to get these people into the same room and push them to speak with one another.

"Asean shouldn’t feel helpless in these situations," said Kishore, who also noted how the tussle for influence between the US and China was bound to have ripple effects in various dimensions.

"This geopolitical contest is going to be incredibly complex. It won’t be black and white, we have to master the complexity of the matter to understand how it plays out.

"(And) there will be lots of twists and turns along the way," he said.

He also emphasised how no Asean country, including Malaysia, should take sides in this geopolitical contest.

"One lesson of history is that when a small country allies with a great power, the great power will be nice (to the smaller country) if the interests are aligned.

"If the interests are one day not aligned, the small country will be dropped," he added.

The geopolitical contest between the two powers too would prospectively bring good news to Asean countries, given how countries here would be courted ferociously by the US and China, said Kishore, widely considered to be one of Asia’s leading public intellectuals who has enjoyed three distinguished careers in diplomacy, academia, writing, and speaking.

In diplomacy, he served in the Singapore Foreign Service for 33 years (serving also as permanent secretary of the Foreign Ministry and two stints as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

He was also the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS, deemed to be the premier school in Asia in its field.

On matters related to the South China Sea, Kishore said it was important to ensure that no outside powers got involved in the dispute.

"If the Chinese wanted to claim areas in the South China Sea, they could within 24 hours, but they haven’t and I think they won’t as they realise the sensitivity.

"What we have to make sure however, is that outside powers don’t get involved here," he said.

Also in attendance was Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia, Vanu Gopala Menon, MIM president and chairman Tan Sri Dr Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas, MIM vice-president Datuk Ng Tieh Chuan, and MIM deputy chief executive officer Kabenesh Eliathamby.

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