You have been here before. As you settle into your comfortable seat for the long flight ahead, a voice crackles from the cockpit.
“Our flying time today will be 12 hours, 40 minutes with some pockets of turbulence along the way,” your captain says, sounding vaguely assuring. “We suggest you keep your seatbelt on.”
These were the words greeting me on my recent Singapore Airlines flight home. It prompted several hours of musings from my seat 30,000 feet in the air about what lies ahead in the new year. Storm clouds looming on the political horizon include:
1. US-China: rivalries among
Three recent developments sum up the precarious state of relations between the world’s two main powers, now on a tentative 90-day hiatus while Beijing and Washington struggle to dial down an escalating trade war.
First, Apple’s profits warning – its first since 2002 – sent global markets into a tailspin when they reopened at the start of the year, as fear grew over slowing demand in China and widening impact of the ongoing Sino-US trade battle.
On Thursday, China’s dramatic landing of a probe on the far side of the moon alerted the world to the country’s growing technological and economic prowess.
Concerns about China were reflected by new acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan. In one of his first statements since taking the job, Shanahan said that among all the strategic challenges around the world, US defence policymakers’ top priority was “China, China, China”.
This made plain that the shift to a mode of “strategic competition” with China first mentioned in a US defence paper last January is very much part of a growing Washington consensus.
The latest issue of US-based Foreign Affairs magazine reflects this with a cover story headlined “Who will run the world?” that laments the Trump administration’s opposition to a liberal global order that American leaders have sought to foster for decades.
“Trumpianism is about winning, which is something you do to others. The [liberal world] order requires leading, which is something you do with others,” notes editor Gideon Rose.
Many who dismiss the sunny internationalist outlook as a “fairy tale”, believe “its day is done”, he adds.
“Americans don’t want it. The world does not want it. US power is declining; China’s is rising. A return to great-power conflict is inevitable; the only question is how far things will go.”
Just how far things go in the months to come matters greatly to many countries, not least Singapore, which have thrived on the open, rules-based international trading order, and are loath to see the rise of a new great power rivalry that will force an awkward “with-me-or-against-me’ taking of sides.
A new Cold War, between the US and China, appears likely if not inevitable. Yet, most commentators agree that this is a blind alley no one wants to go down, so the question that arises is whether leaders – and their voters – will have the wisdom to avoid doing so.
Perhaps the wise words of US President Franklin Roosevelt, who helped shaped the post World War II global order, as quoted by Rose in his essay, might help focus minds.
“We have learned that we cannot live alone, at peace; that our own well-being is dependent on the well-being of other nations far away. We have learned that we must live as men, not ostriches, nor as dogs in a manger. We have learnt to be citizens of the world, members of the world community. We have learned the simple truth, as Emerson said, that ‘The only way to have a friend is to be one.’”
2. Malaysia-Singapore: have we not learnt?
Those words ring true on matters closer to home, where regional tensions flared up in the dying days of last year.
Disputes over airspace and maritime boundaries, food supplies and water prices, and talk of crooked bridges, have a deja-vu ring about them. Sadly, they smack of zero-sum thinking, and of a desire to be “winning rather than leading” the way forward to better lives for the peoples of both countries.
3. Brexit creates a ‘new Singapore’?
Even as the clock ticks down to March 29, when the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, its Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt – touted as a man who might replace PM Theresa May – was in Singapore, drawing parallels with how Britain might “plug into the international economic grid”, just as Singapore had done, and thrived, contrary to what many predicted in the 1960s.
While the remarks might be flattering, few Singaporeans would crave them, given that the economic implications of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal are grave. That would leave the UK adrift, and at odds with itself, at a time when the world could do with some phlegmatic British sense and sensibility.
4. Elections: expect the unexpected
All of the above will play out against the backdrop of major elections around the world, from Indonesia to India, Thailand to Australia. These, and other events, will throw up their share of surprises. Politicians focused on the short-term need to secure their own futures will be less inclined to take the long-term measures needed to grapple with the technological disruptions shaking industries and societies everywhere.
So, fasten your seatbelts, everyone, as the turbulence ahead looks likely to make for a bit of a bumpy ride.
Warren Fernandez is editor-in-chief
of the Straits Times. The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.