- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 3, 2005

China’s economic explosion is transforming Asia’s political landscape, posing problems and opportunities for its neighbors and for the United States, Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo said in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Yeo, at a luncheon with editors and reporters at The Washington Times, said recent jockeying for influence between Beijing and its neighbors had helped “push things to the brink” in the dispute over the Republic of China (Taiwan), with the major players just now rushing to cool tensions.

The emergence of China and, to a lesser extent, India, “changes the global polarity,” said Mr. Yeo, predicting it will shape everything from Latin America’s development to Middle East politics to the evolution of Islam in the 21st century.

Countries such as South Korea and Japan are already having to adjust their policies as China passes the United States as their leading trading partner.

Singapore, which in 2003 became the first Asian country to sign a free-trade deal with the United States, has consciously pursued what Mr. Yeo called a “promiscuous” trade policy, to avoid becoming too reliant on a single market such as China.

“If we in Singapore position ourselves right, then I think we will ride a huge wave into the future,” he said. “But if we get it wrong, we will be engulfed and will be history ourselves.”

Mr. Yeo said the sharp rise in tensions over Taiwan reflected domestic politics in both Beijing and Taipei as well as a struggle for regional influence involving China, Japan and the United States. But he said the escalating rhetoric had paradoxically led to a recent decrease in tension, as all sides began to pull back.

“All the parties are much more aware of the calculus and thus much more reluctant to take risks. It has created more stability, in an almost ironic way,” he said.

The minister said China was using its economic clout to secure energy and natural resources, targeting suppliers that U.S. producers shun.

“Wherever you leave a lacuna, [the Chinese] are moving in, whether it’s Venezuela or whether it’s Iran,” he said.

Mr. Yeo, who was Singapore’s trade minister from 1999 to 2004, predicted Beijing would woo Latin American countries heavily, especially if Congress rejects a pending free-trade deal with Central America.

Despite China’s gains, Mr. Yeo said the United States enjoys a potent political weapon in the attractiveness of American culture and American values to Asians.

“It’s not about the government or President Bush, but there is an affection for the United States in the abstract, as an idea, that you can see all over Asia, even in China,” he said. “It’s amazing how deep it is.”

He said the images of U.S. soldiers mobilizing to aid victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami had reinforced popular images of American power and generosity.

Mr. Yeo urged the United States to make a concerted effort to engage Indonesia, the vast Muslim archipelago nation he called key to development in the region.

In the wake of the tsunami relief effort, U.S. officials have talked of improving ties with new reformist Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, but suspicions remain about corruption and the role of the military.

“Yes, there are many skeletons in their cupboard that must be cleaned up; yes, they should behave better. But you can only do this if you are engaged,” Mr. Yeo said.

Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party has held power since 1959, and the State Department and private human rights groups have criticized the government for curbs on democratic freedoms and a paternalistic system that once made it illegal to chew gum in public.

But Mr. Yeo said democracy in Asia will reflect cultural traditions different from those in the United States and Western Europe.

He welcomed Mr. Bush’s second inaugural address and other recent speeches putting the global promotion of democracy and freedom at the heart of U.S. foreign policy.

“I ask myself: Yes, you should set long-term goals, but are you rigid in the implementation? I don’t believe [Mr. Bush] is,” Mr. Yeo said.

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