Asia can enjoy a bright future in the next 20 years if the region's major players - China and Japan, in conjunction with the United States - work together and accommodate one another, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in Tokyo.
If not, a less rosy scenario might arise: one where Asia is fraught with territorial and nationalistic tensions.
Lee, sketching these two scenarios in a speech on what could happen in Asia in the next 20 years, said that on balance, he was confident Asian countries would cooperate to achieve the happier outcome. In such a scenario, there would be a stable and prosperous Asia, where countries work together “to advance their shared interests”, he said.
The US, which would remain the world’s top superpower, would continue to engage Asia in not just security matters but also trade, investments and education, he said in his keynote speech on Thursday marking the 20th anniversary of the annual Nikkei Conference.
The US would also reach a new working arrangement with China, which by then would have established itself as a status quo power that adheres to international law and norms and gives smaller countries space to thrive, Lee said.
Meanwhile, Japan would revitalise its economy and work with its neighbours to put the shadow of World War II and other conflicts behind them, he added.
Against this stable geopolitical backdrop, regional economic cooperation would thrive and Asean would continue to play a central role in the region as “an effective neutral platform for major powers to engage one another”.
But this is not a foregone conclusion and a “less benign” scenario is also possible, Lee said. That could result if “the tremendous growth in China’s size and power proves too much for the regional order to accommodate”.
Should that happen, US-China ties would be marked by distrust, China’s influence in the region would be “merely tolerated” by smaller countries, and friction would fester among Asian countries amid “unresolved historical issues, territorial disputes and nationalist populism”. It would be a setback to economic integration and force Asean countries to choose sides, he said. “Everyone loses in such a scenario.”
Which scenario awaits Asia will depend on two main factors, Lee said. The first is the evolution of US-China relations – “the most important bilateral relationship in the world”, Lee said.
“On both sides, there are those who doubt and distrust the other’s intentions,” he noted. “It will require great restraint and wisdom to overcome this distrust and reach a workable and peaceful accommodation.”
The second factor is how nationalism develops in the region: whether as a source of national pride and beneficial competition across borders, or as a virulent sentiment fuelling defensiveness and insecurity.
Individually, the US, China and Japan also face challenges, Lee said. The United States is steeped in a mood of “angst and withdrawal” from the strain of having to play the world’s policeman, while China has to transform its society and politics to meet the needs of a new generation.
Both China and Japan also have to deal with their ageing populations and manage relations with their neighbours, he added.
But the positive scenario is more likely, Lee concluded. “I am confident the US will not relinquish its decades-long position as an Asia-Pacific power, and I am hopeful that as China’s power grows, it will find ways to continue integrating smoothly into the international system.”
Both scenarios, however, assume there will not be war in the next 20 years; otherwise, “all bets are off”, Lee said. He warned that war in Asia was not impossible, saying growing tensions over territorial disputes and the Korean situation remained flashpoints.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in his keynote speech at the event, called on Asian leaders to promote economic integration, tackle rising inequality and ensure that regional tensions are dealt with through diplomacy.