Biden’s ‘weak’ leadership will trigger US-China conflict, Singapore ex-minister George Yeo says

  • By constantly ‘poking the panda’ over Taiwan, the US will cause a conflict ‘which will explode in our faces’, the former foreign minister says
  • But while deteriorating US-China ties are leaving Singapore ‘caught between a rock and a hard place’, Yeo says it is not the city state’s place to help counter Beijing

While a confrontation between China and the United States over Taiwan appears inevitable, both are said to be arranging a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in November, according to Singapore’s former foreign minister George Yeo.

Describing the Taiwan situation as “dangerous” and “troubling”, Yeo said Washington was “poking the panda” over an issue “so sensitive, it’d react neuralgically”.

Constant provocation by the US will lead to “a bomb which will explode in our faces”, said Yeo, who is now a visiting scholar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

A video screenshot shows a missile launched by Chinese military targeting designated maritime areas to the east of the Taiwan island on August 4, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

US-China tensions have risen significantly since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan earlier this month, prompting the Chinese military to conduct its largest military drills near the island. The situation heated up when another US congressional delegation travelled to Taipei less than two weeks later, while a US lawmaker on the Senate Commerce and Armed Services committees arrived in Taiwan on Thursday, defying pressure from Beijing to halt the trips.

To prevent the relationship from deteriorating further, the White House has emphasised that the US Congress is an independent branch of government and that there is no change to Washington’s one-China policy.

Yeo said the US-China meeting at the G20 summit in Indonesia would force Washington to coordinate the policy positions of different government departments. But he noted: “China wants to lower the temperature, while the key concern of the US is the midterm elections.”

Speaking in a wide-ranging interview ahead of the launch of the first of his three-part book series, Musings, which is based on interviews with media veteran Woon Tai Ho, the former official added that the US decision-making process looked fractured due to Biden’s “weak” presidency.

“If there is a strong US presidency, I don’t think we would be in danger, but because he is weak and many people are playing different games, we wouldn’t really know.

“There are people in the US who wouldn’t be averse to baiting China to make a wrong move, and then (Washington) will hit back and give China a bloody nose, or think they can,” Yeo said. “People will believe that war with China is inevitable and if it’s inevitable, the earlier you have the encounter the better, because with each year, China gets stronger.”

With about three months to go before the start of the G20 meeting, leaders of the grouping, including China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, have confirmed they will attend the event in Bali, according to Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

The White House has not formally announced Biden’s travel to Asia for the summit, but officials say he is expected to attend.

Singapore’s Yeo noted that communication between the US and China had changed since the time of former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who had played a pivotal role in re-establishing US-China ties in the early 1970s. Talks formed the basis of the relationship, Yeo said, with the US returning to negotiations time and again with former Chinese leader Mao Zedong and premier Zhou Enlai.

“Again and again they went back, this was the basis,” Yeo said. “This was not a card, (once) you had this basis, the whole structure could be built. Turn it into a card, and the whole structure is in peril.”

Earlier this month, Singapore’s prime minister-in-waiting Lawrence Wong warned that the US and China could “sleepwalk into conflict” if they did not engage with each other and de-escalate rising tensions over Taiwan.

Wong said the relationship between the world’s biggest economies was on a “very worrying” trajectory in the wake of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Singapore has been one of the most vocal countries in calling for the US and China to avoid a clash that could quickly escalate and affect smaller countries in the region.

The city state counts China as its top trading partner but also supports a strong US presence in Asia by allowing American troops to access its military facilities.

Amid reports of pro-China messaging being disseminated through social media channels such as WeChat, Singapore has cautioned its citizens to guard against foreign influence efforts.

Although he did not name any countries, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised a warning during the Mandarin section of his annual policy address, in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Singapore had condemned in February.

When asked about Lee’s comments, Yeo said China had put a lot of the money into their media outlets and that the city state was being “influenced left, right and centre”.

“I think that’s to be expected,” said Yeo, adding that “the plurality of views is a good thing if you know the biases and views that you are accessing”.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen speaks during a meeting with US Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb in Taipei on August 22, 2022. Photo: Taiwan Presidential Office via AP

Yeo said before China began its dramatic rise, Singapore had “latched its wagon” to the US and continued maintaining close ties with Washington even as it later began engaging Beijing.

“The US is now finding fault with China, so therefore we are finding ourselves increasingly caught between a rock and a hard place,” Yeo said, adding that in terms of keeping sea lanes open, US presence in Asia was necessary.

It was not Singapore’s place to counter China, he said. “That is not our game. It’s the US game; it’s Japan’s game, but we’re not part of this.”

Author: Maria Siow, SCMP

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