(March 6): Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said growing defence spending, including by China and across Asia, is evidence a "peace dividend" after World War II that fuelled global economic growth is largely over.
“The last seven, eight decades of the peace dividend after the Second World War is over, and you’re going to see increased defence expenditure literally all over the world,” he said on Monday (March 6) in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Haslinda Amin. “Certainly, in the case of Europe, America still spends more than anyone else, several times more than even China.”
Southeast Asia has grown more vocal over the prospect of a conflict in Asia amid fierce competition between the US and China, as Russia’s war in Ukraine further sours ties between global powers. The region’s concerns lie in the brewing tensions over Taiwan, and China’s military assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea.
China said on Sunday defence spending this year would grow by the fastest pace since 2019 at 7.2%, suggesting a ramp-up amid growing rivalry with the US. Beijing also kept its language regarding Taiwan largely intact in an annual report, implying that Chinese President Xi Jinping is maintaining a policy of “peaceful reunification” with the self-governing island.
“I expect to see greater expenditure all around, including within Asia,” Balakrishnan said. The spending boost in China and other countries doesn’t necessary imply there’s an arms race that would curb the region’s ability to invest in infrastructure and education for instance, he added.
“My point is to recognise the reasons behind this. The rules-based world order, the focus on economic integration, liberal economics and free trade, all that was a formula for peace and prosperity, and now the faith in those pillars has been shaken. It’s a flight to safety in a way,” he said.
While the region has largely refrained from choosing sides between the US and China, that’s becoming more difficult for some. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr reacted to a record number of Chinese incursions in waters it claims by granting the US greater military access, while Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has said welcoming military forces is the wrong approach to de-escalating tensions.
Singapore has meanwhile rebuffed any attempts by countries to pick a side, with Balakrishnan telling Parliament last month that “we will not be a proxy or a stalking horse for any superpower”.
The city state is not a claimant to the South China Sea, but Balakrishnan said in the interview the territorial disputes “may take generations to resolve”.
“This is an area where China can afford to be and should be more generous to the smaller, weaker states in Southeast Asia,” he said.
In the meantime, Balakrishnan said the US and China should focus on developing economic ties with Southeast Asia. “I’m not trying to trivialise the the tensions in the South China Sea, but what I’m saying is that if everyone can keep calm, less drama, and focus, follow the money, I think that’ll be helpful.”