Singapore 11 March 2023China is not the former Soviet Union but we should not overstate the rise of China, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister said today at the 2023 Wharton Global Forum in Singapore. 

In his 15-page speech, he compared the ongoing China-US decoupling with the Cold War from 1947 till 1991 when the former USSR dissolved. 

“People say history doesn’t repeat itself, which is true, but it often rhymes… we don’t want to go down that same path again,” said Wong, who also heads the city republic’s Ministry of Finance.

Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong speaks at Wharton Global Forum 2023 in Singapore Photo: Lawrance Wong’s Facebook post

“We hope that events will not follow the script of the first Cold War. During that period, the world experienced a nuclear arms race, a terrifying mix of brinkmanship and near catastrophic misses, as well as bloody proxy wars that killed millions of people,” he said. 

China is not the USSR – it is much bigger and is more integrated into the global economy. Supply chains today are much more widely distributed around the world than they were 30 years ago. So for now, it is very hard to imagine a complete reversal of globalization, he said.

But he also said globalization will clearly be reshaped by this strategic competition between the big powers. The patterns of trade will change. Supply chains will be reconfigured because security considerations are now moving to the forefront of commercial decisions. And left unchecked, if this trend continues, we will see a more fragmented and dangerous global order, he said.

It is good that the leaders of both the US and China have met recently and affirmed their intent to engage one another. Both countries say they do not want a new Cold War, and that they want to establish guardrails to ensure competition does not escalate into full-blown conflict, he said.

But there remains much to be done. Because while both sides wish to avoid conflict, neither side can afford to be seen as weak. And at the root of this rivalry, lies a lack of strategic trust between the two countries. This is rooted in incompatible worldviews, and aggravated by their respective domestic political pressures, he said.

“One narrative you sometimes hear is that the US and the West are in decline, and China and the East is rising… But we should not overstate the case,” he said, explaining that people have been predicting the decline of the US for decades, and the US still is one of the most advanced and vibrant economies of the world. 

“Just look at biotech and Artificial Intelligence, for example, two cutting-edge industries which will revolutionize the modern economy and our way of life. America remains at the forefront of both of them.”

Wong said America’s strongest advantage is its ability to draw the best students, researchers, and professors from around the world, and create in the US, an environment of open inquiry and experimentation, conducive to, and indeed essential for, cutting-edge research and major breakthroughs to happen. 

“If history is to be any guide, we must expect the coming decades to be defined by this evolving US-China relationship,” he said.