SINGAPORE -- The clash between the U.S. and China, if left unchecked, could yield dire consequences for the two major powers and other countries, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned on Friday.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum's virtual sessions ahead of a planned in-person summit in his city-state in May, Lee urged Beijing and Washington to come together, stressing the need for an international order "underpinned by stable great power relations."
WEF President Borge Brende, speaking with Lee, floated the possibility that representatives of U.S. President Joe Biden's new administration and Chinese President Xi Jinping's government might even meet when the forum comes to Singapore.
China and the U.S. have had a fraught relationship the past four years with Donald Trump in the White House, bickering over everything from trade and technology to geopolitical flashpoints like Taiwan. Lee acknowledged that some competition and disagreements are normal, but argued that monumental challenges like COVID-19 and climate change require cooperation.
"Big countries naturally jostle and compete with one another for influence and power," he said. "But they also need to work with one another, to establish and accept rules and norms on issues which affect us all."
Biden's arrival in the Oval Office, he suggested, presents an opportunity for the U.S. to steer ties with China toward "safer waters."
"Given the enormous stakes, difficult as it will be, it cannot possibly be too late for the U.S. and China to reset the tone of their interactions and avert a clash between them, which will become a generational twilight struggle," he said.
At the same time, Lee expressed concern about internal pressures in both countries hardening their positions, with moderate voices marginalized. And he said the U.S. is not the only one that needs a new approach.
"China's influence in the world has grown so much that it has to take on a greater responsibility for providing global public goods ... whether it's for security, whether it's for trade, opening markets, whether it's for climate change."
Beyond the world's two biggest powers, Lee emphasized the importance of broader cooperation and multilateralism, noting that globalization was under pressure from "nativism" and "protectionism" even before COVID-19 hit.
He said that in the initial stages of the pandemic, countries scrambled to secure their own supplies of protective gear with an "each man for himself" attitude. But this gave way to a realization that "our fates were intertwined." Countries began to share tests and other supplies, repatriated each other's citizens, supported multilateral vaccine initiatives like COVAX and eventually opened up trade and travel corridors.
Now, with vaccines on the way, Lee said there is "some light at the end of the tunnel" -- though strong public health measures will still be needed for the time being.
"The virus is still raging in many countries in the developed world, the U.S. and Europe, and also in the developing world, in Africa, South America and South Asia," he said. "It is now critical that vaccines are rolled out quickly across the world."
On the upcoming WEF meeting in Singapore, Lee suggested it was just the ticket to promote the cooperation he advocates.
"The World Economic Forum plays an important role promoting dialogue, bringing together leaders in government, industry, and civil society. It's a forum where leaders from countries large and small alike can speak and be heard," Lee said.
He added that when he agreed to play host, it was "not a decision lightly taken." But he said Singapore is keen to contribute to the global discussion and will work with the WEF to ensure the summit is safe.
"I welcome all of you to Singapore in May," Lee vowed, "so that we can take these discussions forward and forge a new path ahead together."