A new cold war?

A new cold war?

The annual Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore at the end of May saw sharp exchanges pitting delegates from the United States and Japan against those from China over the rival claims of Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Vietnamese, Philippine and American participants also criticised China's extensive claims in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, European representatives clashed with Russian delegates on the impact of Russia's annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for breakaway groups in eastern Ukraine.

The mood was confrontational, especially in smaller informal discussions. The atmosphere reminded me of debates on regional and global issues in the early 1980s, when I served as a Singapore diplomat at the United Nations.

The rhetoric was that of the Cold War and raised the question whether the world was headed for a new cold war, or even the outbreak of hostilities.

Singapore is not a party to any of the territorial claims, and has sought to expand its ties with all the key states.

Nevertheless, our role as a hub of globalisation with trading and economic interests globally necessitates that Singapore remains alert to these developments.

Like most people around the world, Singaporeans presume that policymakers can manage conflicts and will avoid going beyond the brink when confrontations occur.

But there may be a misplaced sense that the global institutions established since World War II can handle these conflicts. Singapore may be the victim of over-confidence. Could Asia in 2014 be facing a challenge similar to Europe in 1914?

In 1914, most governments in Europe thought that the conflict in the Balkans could be managed and that the peace among the major powers that had lasted since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 would continue.

It was an age of globalisation, with rapid economic growth transforming the lives of many in Europe and America. Instant telegraph communications, efficient rail and sea links and more open economies resulted in greater interdependence.

Many observers felt that the spectre of war had been banished as the peoples of Europe were increasingly mobile and interconnected.

Even when war did break out after the assassination of the crown prince of Austria-Hungary in Sarajevo, governments expected a short, swift war.

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