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The Future of Asia 2019

US and China must face 'new realities,' Singapore deputy PM says

Heng says Washington has 'no better option' but to work with Beijing

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat discusses the implications of U.S.-China trade tensions at the Future of Asia conference on May 30. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

TOKYO -- The U.S. and China should accept "new realities" and find ways to cooperate, Singapore's deputy prime minister said on Thursday, as prolonged tensions between the world's two largest economies threaten smaller, trade-reliant countries like his city-state.

"Fundamentally, the U.S. has to accept that it has no better option but to work with China, because trying to contain it will result in worse outcomes," Heng Swee Keat told Nikkei's Future of Asia conference in Tokyo.

On China's end, Heng said the country needs to recognize that "its increased strategic and economic weight comes with greater international responsibility."

Heng, who recently visited both countries, noted that Americans suspect Chinese initiatives such as the Belt and Road infrastructure drive are designed to supplant Washington's leadership. On the other hand, in China, he observed that American moves are coinciding with rising nationalistic fervor as the country commemorates the May Fourth Movement -- a demonstration against Western powers' unfair treatment of the Chinese a century ago.

Given Singapore's position as a trade hub, the escalating tensions have particularly serious implications. The city-state's economic growth rate slowed to 1.2% in the January-March period, the weakest result in 10 years.

Meanwhile, Heng argued, Singapore and the rest of Asia must also shoulder greater responsibility in shaping the global order. Referring to the region's huge growth potential, he said, "This is an opportunity for Asia to shape an international order in a way that will support the development and stability of Asia and the world."

Heng, who doubles as finance minister, noted that recent moves to create two large free trade frameworks -- the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) -- will bring the region closer.

If the U.S. and China work together, and the rest of Asia does its part, Heng said, "I believe we can arrive at yet another stable global order."

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