Singapore is well placed to be the capital of the Asian Century, but it also faces the challenge of navigating between the United States and China if the rivalry between the two powers hots up.
The future thus holds both promise and peril for the Republic, said Professor Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, during the question-and-answer session of The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum yesterday.
The former permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was responding to a question from Straits Times foreign editor Ravi Velloor on whether Singapore can adapt to China's rise and the geopolitical changes that this will continue to bring.
Prof Mahbubani said Singapore stands to do well because it is a "natural capital" for the so-called "Asian Century", or the current century dominated by the rise of Asian countries. This is because Singapore is the one global city in Asia where the four major civilisations in the region - Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western - interact. "Name me any other global city in Asia that sits comfortably with the four civilisations," he said. "The answer is none."
As such, Singapore will be well placed to service the Asian Century, the way that London did the European Century in the 1800s and New York, the American Century, in the last 100 years.
But there is a potential pitfall for Singapore as well. The likely rise in US-China rivalry will bring about difficult challenges for Singapore's leaders, he noted.
Prof Mahbubani sees the current healthy ties between the US and China as "freakish" and feels that competition between the two major powers is certain to increase in the future. When that happens, the most badly affected country will be Singapore, because of its need to straddle the interests of both the US and China.
The Singapore Government will have to be very sensitive to the views of its people because three-quarters of its population is Chinese, he noted.
Yet Singapore's "most important defence relationship by far" is that with the US. "Maintaining a balance between the US and China will be a very tough job for any Singapore policymaker in the next 10 to 20 years," he said.
This article was first published on Nov 22, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.