SR: It is sometimes said that Singaporean diplomats, of which you were one, are experts at maintaining a balance between the Asia Pacific’s two biggest powers, the US and China. That’s a skill which will be in high demand in this century.
Australia, for instance, has had the good fortune throughout its history of having a major strategic partner (first the UK, then the US) which was also its major economic partner. Now China is our major trading partner. So how do countries like Australia strike a balance between Washington and Beijing, who have aims and ambitions which are at times directly at odds? And what must we give up in order to maintain this balance? Does it include the freedom to criticise China’s human rights abuses?
KM: There is no doubt that the geopolitical competition between the US and China will increase significantly in the coming decades. There is also no doubt that this will put all countries in the Asia Pacific region in a difficult position, especially if they have to choose between leaning in favour of the US or China.
Some countries will have even greater difficulties. One such country is Australia. Its heart and soul is linked to the US. Its mind and material interests are increasingly linked to China. Australia will therefore have to make some painful decisions in the coming decade. It will have to become more sensitive in the area of promotion of human rights and democracy. In the past, Australia automatically joined other Western countries in such promotion and happily said: 'This is what we Western countries do.' Now Australia can no longer join the other Western countries automatically because its national interests are no longer the same as, for example, the European countries. Australia has to weigh the economic consequences of alienating China.
Fortunately, there is a silver bullet solution for Australia. To create a political buffer from being squeezed in the increased geopolitical competition between US and China, Australia can move closer to ASEAN. ASEAN is essentially a huge geopolitical gift to Australia. The time has come for Australia to stop looking a gift horse in the mouth.