Fireside Chat with SM Teo Chee Hean at the Soufan Centre's Global Security Forum 2023

SM Teo Chee Hean | 14 March 2023

Fireside chat with Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean at the Soufan Centre’s Global Security Forum 2023 on 14 March 2023. The fireside chat was moderated by Mr Bobby Ghosh, Bloomberg Opinion columnist. This transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.


Mr Bobby Ghosh (Moderator): Hello and welcome to this firechat with Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean. Regular attendants to the Global Security Forum will remember the terrific conversation we have had a few years ago with Minister and I’m delighted to be able to pick up from where we left off. The world has changed a great deal in these past two years. Minister, as you did the last time, would you start by giving us your overview on where things stand and then I’ll jump in with some questions.

SM Teo Chee Hean: Bobby, good to see you again. I last spoke at this forum in October 2021, and I spoke about how the world seems to be lurching from one crisis to another, and how we could work together to deal with global issues in a more comprehensive way. Today, one and a half years later, we face a very different world and are grappling with new crises but in many ways the challenges we face are the same.

Russia and Ukraine remain at war, after more than one year. The prospects for an end to hostilities seem distant. Now, the talk is mainly about how to fight the war, rather than how to end the hostilities. The conflict in the meantime has disrupted energy and food supplies, causing energy and food prices to increase in many countries around the world. US–China tensions have intensified. The lack of trust between them has increased in all spheres, including geopolitics, investments, and technology, and this is very worrying.

After President Biden and President Xi met at the G20 Summit in Bali last November, the world had hoped that relations would not continue in a downward spiral. However, four months later now, tensions have grown further, with the two countries now embroiled in a chip war and a face off over balloons. Most importantly, tensions have intensified over Taiwan. China reacted to former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year with live-fire drills encircling Taiwan. These military activities are continuing, though on a reduced scale. More troubling is that all three p¬¬¬arties - China, US and Taiwan have been taking steps that change the long-standing status quo that has maintained a delicate peace, while each claiming that their positions have not changed.

The world is emerging from the throes of COVID-19. Most countries in the world, including China, have reopened and are trying to live with the virus, though the scarring effect will be with us for many years to come. Weather extremes, fires and floods, deluge and drought, affect us more frequently and with greater severity. At COP26 in Glasgow, countries pledged to act against climate change, but countries struggled to stay the course at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh.

When I spoke in 2021, I highlighted three guideposts that should guide us to build a more secure world: (i) multilateralism, (ii) resilience, and (iii) sustainability. These guideposts remain relevant today, if not more than ever.

First, upholding multilateralism. The international multilateral system helped provide security and stability, development, and a better life for countless millions in the post WWII and post-Cold War era. But we seem to have lost our way.

Our international system is not perfect, but we should not ignore or discard it. We should work together to improve it, to keep pace with new circumstances and new challenges. But for this to happen, we need a multilateral framework that recognises current needs and realities, based on principles, rules and standards, and balances the needs of all countries. There is scope for us to collaborate much more together – to re-envision, rebuild, and strengthen our multilateral institutions to deal with the challenges not just of today, but to anticipate those of tomorrow.

There are pressing global challenges that require global leadership and collective action, in particular future pandemics and climate change, but also nuclear proliferation, violent extremism and cybersecurity. It is understandable, and we should expect, that countries act in their own self-interest. But one can take a narrow view of self-interest and engage in zero sum jostling, or we can take a broader view of enlightened self-interest by working together, to create a bigger pie and a better outcome for everyone. The world will be better for this.

Second, building resilience. The past decade of crises and shocks, pandemics, financial meltdowns and natural disasters has shown us that we need to build capacity locally and globally – to swiftly and decisively act and provide our people with stability, safety and recovery. This is the most basic form of human security. As the pandemic has shown, we can't do it alone in a major crisis. We need to work together with other countries because no one is safe until everyone is safe. Multilateralism and resilience are not mutually exclusive, but mutually reinforcing. By expanding our networks, building global partnerships, and diversifying supply chains, we can strengthen our resilience and capacity to help us better tackle current and future challenges.

Third, sustainable development. Climate change is a good illustration of the points I've made about strengthening multilateral cooperation, global and local resilience. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report warns that after 2030, it will become increasingly difficult to limit warming to 2°C, and we will face heightened and more complex climate risks. This will have a disproportionate impact on low-lying and small island states in the tropics like Singapore. We need to redouble our efforts, driven by the latest climate science and technology. No country can solve the climate change challenge on its own. As we rebuild, we all have an opportunity to rethink the future and adopt more sustainable practices. If we fail to build a more collaborative and resilient world, this will have a direct impact on basic human security. This will spill over into conflicts over water and food security, mass migration of populations and add fuel to the threat from violent extremism.

We can choose to focus on the issues which we have to address together as a world. Build confidence and trust from this and progress to widen this into more areas of cooperation. Or we could be drawn into expending our energies on the differences we have, allowing these to widen and spill over into areas where we have already been working together. Like-minded countries, even small ones, can make a difference. We can combine our voices and focus our energies on how we can work more closely together, to help build a more peaceful and prosperous world and avoid moving towards a more perilous and impoverished one. Thank you, Bobby.

Mr Ghosh: Thank you, Minister. That was a comprehensive and very useful tour of the horizon, of all the challenges and problems that the world faces right now. You began by citing the war in Ukraine. This is a global security forum. The war in Ukraine is the elephant in the room. So, let me start by asking, connecting the dots between the three pillars you talked about and the conflict in Ukraine, would it be fair to say that multilateralism has not had its finest hour in this conflict? Rather than unite for peace, the world seems to be dividing into three different distinct camps. You have one camp that wants Ukraine to win this war. You have one camp that wants Russia to win this war, or at least achieve the goals that President Putin wants. And then you have a very large, primarily Global South, that wants this war to end but seems incapable of getting the two sides together. Would it be fair to say multilateralism is failing us at this very crucial moment?

SM Teo: I like the approach that you take Bobby, because a lot of the talk now is about how to fight the war - about tanks, about the missiles, about HIMARS and so forth. But I think the approach that you have taken is correct – to ask ourselves, where do we want Europe to be, where do we want the world to be after all this, because it has to end at some point. If we are clear where we want the world to be, and have a realistic appreciation of that, then we can start moving in that direction. Otherwise, where we are now - being overly focused on how to fight a war - is very tactical. It is a very immediate issue, I can understand that, because the war is a very immediate thing. But, to find a longer term solution, we must think about where we want to be, and then take steps together.

Mr Ghosh: And what institutions can take us there? The United Nations does not seem able to do it; the veto often gets in the way. Is there another mechanism, or should we be thinking of new mechanisms because of this challenge? I mean, war is not a new challenge. War is as old as mankind itself. COVID was a relatively new and unexpected challenge, but our international institutions don't seem to be capable of dealing with these kinds of challenges.

SM Teo: International institutions do require the participants in these institutions to abide by the norms and rules, and the agreements in these international institutions. That's one of the fundamentals, because states are sovereign, they enter into agreements, and they agree to abide by those rules. If they don't, there is a limited set of actions that can be taken against them. To resolve the issue of the war between Russia and Ukraine, the most important thing is for there to be the will on the part of the various parties to want to end the war. I don't see that will there today.

But if I can come to a more important question, and one which is relevant to our part of the world here in Asia, it is how did we end up with a war in the first place? Did we not see the precursors that were leading to the war? You talk about these institutions. Europe, I think, has probably the most institutions anywhere in the world – it's got NATO, it’s got the EU, it's got the OSCE. People are in conference all the time and talking to each other. I attended the Munich Security Conference successively for almost a decade, and I saw some of these events unfold. Could we not have seen this? Is there not a way of avoiding this? This is the most important lesson for our part of the world – to avoid conflict.

Mr Ghosh: Can a conflict like this be resolved through a multinational, multilateral mechanism when so many of the countries are adopting a position of neutrality? So many of the larger countries in the world are adopting a position of neutrality, which can be interpreted by the belligerents in very different ways. Depending on how you want to look at it, the Russians might look at neutrality as a sign of support for what they're doing. Ukrainians and the West can see neutrality as a sign of weakness. Why is the Global South adopting this position of neutrality, you think? And will that lead us to a solution?

SM Teo: I'm not sure that they adopt a position of neutrality. I think the position that they're adopting is that they don't want to see the conflict continue. That's not quite the same as neutrality. They want to see the conflict end, because much of the Global South, especially in the most disadvantaged countries, are bearing a very heavy brunt from this battle – energy prices, food inflation, the disruption of international trade and investment. They say, all of you – the most developed countries in the world – are so clever, don't tell me you can't find a way to end this war. Why is it continuing? And why did it start in the first place? It had nothing to do with the Global South. I think that's the approach and attitude that the Global South takes to this. This war has visited upon us much misery, please end it.

Ghosh: What are the lessons of the war? Not just the kinetic aspects of the war, although there are many lessons to be drawn from that – the use of new technologies, for instance. But what are the other bigger lessons that the wider world is learning from the war, in terms of the possibilities of diplomacy or the limitations of diplomacy, and the impact that a localised war can have on everybody, the food we can put on the table, the gas that we can afford to buy, the lives that we can aspire to?[/section]

SM Teo: I think the major lesson that can be learned from the Russia-Ukraine war is that wars are a lot easier to start than they are to end. If there’s any lesson that we can learn from all the wars that have been fought over the last three, four decades – whether it's in the Middle East, in North Africa, in Afghanistan, where multiple parties should have learned this lesson, but we seem not to have done so – is that we should put a lot more effort into trying to make sure that we don't end up in the situation of war. Not only are wars more difficult to end than they are to start, but the end of the war does not necessarily conform to what the expectations and objectives were when the war commenced in the first place. I think those are very important and salutary lessons, which all countries should learn.

Mr Ghosh: You talked about the other pillars – resilience, sustainability. Are you concerned about the amount of effort – and I don’t just mean the military effort or even the money that’s being spent – and the diplomatic oxygen that’s being consumed by the war? Are you concerned that it’s getting in the way of our dealing with other bigger problems in the world that need global focus, that need all of us to get our act together on? Climate change is the most obvious example, but there are other crises that we need to be addressing ourselves. Can we do that while the West is so occupied by this war, and Russia is as well?

SM Teo: I think the divide as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war has crept into practically every discourse in every international gathering, whether it's the G20 ’or the UN, or whether you're discussing climate change or trade. That division has crept into all these discussions and has absorbed a lot of energy. Where we do want to make progress on the substantive issues at hand, we spend a lot of time trying to untangle the divisions over Russia and Ukraine.

That has been detrimental to the overall effort to solve real global problems. The resources that are needed to tackle these problems have now been diverted to this very unfortunate war and for many years more, because there will be a lot of rebuilding to do in Ukraine. On the climate change side, there are positives and negatives. In the short term, it has resulted in many countries going back to fossil fuels and coal. Europe, for example, is using more coal now, and has gone around the world shopping for more coal to replace natural gas from Russia. So that's more emissions in the short term. But it's also shown countries that it is possible to make a transition. I am happy to see that Europe has made the resolution that they will make this transition in spite of the difficulties that they’re facing with energy during this period. So there are positives and negatives.

Mr Ghosh: If it wasn't for the war, one of the big crises we will be talking about in this forum would be the growing friction between the two great powers of the world - the United States and China. Having the war distract attention from that crisis obviously isn't helping. From the vantage point of Singapore, tell me what you make of this growing antagonism. Is it inevitable? Is this how the world operates when a new power emerges - it creates friction, it's just an organic process? Or is this something that can be ameliorated, prevented by smart diplomacy by both parties and by the intervention of other parties that have an interest? Because after all, the global economy is involved, the security of the world is involved, never mind issues of individual crises, potential crises. What does the view look like from Singapore?

SM Teo: For countries in our part of the world, we have benefited from the presence and the investments of the US, and we have benefited from the growth and development of China. This is something which we want to continue to see. That's why in our part of the world, we have over the last couple of decades assiduously built the structures that can help to enable this to continue. What we foresaw would happen was economic competition between the US and China, and we wanted to develop some kind of framework where they will be able to compete in a constructive way with a set of rules which both would accept. So, this was a very important aspect of the community building in our part of the world; call it whatever you want – Asia-Pacific, Indo-Pacific, Trans-Pacific; the most important thing is that it is “pacific”. It doesn't matter what the prefix is, and that should be the intent of each of these constructs.

That's the way countries in our part of the world see things. We know that the competition is going to make things difficult because it's going to impact trade, investments, technology transfers and so on. And if a war breaks out, it is going to be catastrophic. It will be terrible. Now, you ask whether it is inevitable. I don't think it is inevitable, but man can make it look inevitable by going down a particular path. My old professor from Harvard Kennedy School, Graham Allison, wrote about the Thucydides Trap. But he wrote about it to say that it can be avoided if we have enough wisdom and if we learn from the lessons of history. I think that Graham is right. We need the wisdom.

Mr Ghosh: I couldn't agree with you more, but we seem as a species incapable of learning these lessons, or at least we seem to remember them imperfectly which prevents our learning the lessons appropriately. You were talking about these constructs to try and prevent the aggravation and antagonism on both sides. What if I were to put it to you that the constructs are not working? Only a couple of months ago, there was some talk of improved relations between the United States and China, and then that honeymoon period lasted maybe a few days, not even weeks. We're now back at each other where we're pointing, jabbing fingers at each other and accusing each other of bad faith. Time for a new construct?

SM Teo: You are looking at construct, Bobby. You're a very structural person. I look at it in a slightly different way. I think that what has happened is that there have been areas of cooperation and of course areas of competition. We can work on those areas of cooperation to build trust and mutual confidence. Trade was one example. Trade is not an issue which countries need to go to war over. There have been differences in trade between countries for millennia and even in recent memory. There have been trade frictions between any number of countries - between Europe and the US, between the US and Japan. But these do not need to lead to war. These can be negotiated, to have a good win-win outcome for everyone. When you deal with these issues in a constructive way, you build trust and mutual confidence, and you can expand that trust and mutual confidence into other areas which may be more contentious.

There are important areas that we need to work on - climate change, pandemics – but you see that there is a lack of trust. The breakdown of trust now filters into areas where cooperation was already taking place. China would not be exporting as much to the US, nor the US exporting as many Boeings, beans and beef to China, if not for trade. This was clearly a win-win situation, but the areas of contention have spilled over into areas of cooperation and eaten into them. All parties involved need to stop, think, re-evaluate, and see where is it that we are going. I think it's a very dangerous world if we say that war is inevitable. If we come to that conclusion, either consciously or subconsciously, and say - war is going to take place, it's only a matter of when, sooner or later, and which has more advantages for whom. If we get into that mindset, then we enter into a very, very dangerous trap. And we should avoid that.

Mr Ghosh: We're down to the last three or four minutes Minister, I'm going to ask you the question that I'm sure everybody in the room will be thinking of, and you are in a unique position to comment on this and help people navigate through the complexities of this issue. The conflict in Ukraine has raised questions about whether that same sequence of events might be repeated in Taiwan. And there's been a lot of loose talk about this. How should the West view the prospects of conflict in China? What, in your view, are the prospects of conflict over Taiwan and how best to avoid it, and how best to behave in a way that diffuses rather than makes the situation worse?

SM Teo: First of all, one must understand the history and the structure of the Ukraine and Taiwan issues. Ukraine is a member of the UN. It's an independent country. It's been a member of the UN since 1945. As for Taiwan, the government sitting in Taipei used to occupy the China seat in the UN, initially when its seat of government was in Beijing. After it retreated to Taiwan in the course of the civil war in 1949, it continued to retain the China seat in the UN, claiming the whole of China, claiming to represent the whole of China. In 1971, the UN decided that the government in Beijing, the People's Republic of China, was the sole representative of the whole of China. And most countries agree that Taiwan is a part of China. So the structure of the issue is quite different between Ukraine and Taiwan. One has to understand the history. Specifically, between the US and China, there are the three Joint Communiques signed in 1972, 1979 and 1982, which provide the foundation for the relations between the US and China, and which also deals with the issue of Taiwan. One has to understand the background and the history in order to see where things are going.

As I said earlier, I think all three parties - China, Taiwan, the US - all claim that they have not changed their position, but in fact they have all shifted their position. I do agree with (US Director of National Intelligence) Dr Avril Haines who recently testified before Congress that she does not believe that the People's Republic of China wants to go to war over Taiwan. I agree with that. But I think they will not forgo that option if, in fact, they do see Taiwan becoming independent. They have said so very clearly, and I believe them too. I believe Dr Avril Haines, but I also believe the Chinese when they say that they will not allow Taiwan to become independent because Taiwan is part of China. We have to find a path between these two to see how we can take things forward. [section section_speaker_id="2" section_short_name="0"]We've come to the end of our time. I wish we had a lot more time because I felt like particularly on China and Taiwan, we could do a whole separate hour-long conference. That would be very illuminating for the audience here. I want to thank you for your time and thank you for sharing your thoughts with the Global Security Forum. Hopefully the next time, we can do this in person. Minister, thank you very much.

SM Teo: Thank you very much, Bobby. Great to be with you again.

(This transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.)