Why war ‘by design’ over Taiwan is unlikely: Bilahari Kausikan

Why war ‘by design’ over Taiwan is unlikely: Bilahari Kausikan

Nuclear deterrence is likely to keep the peace between China and the United States in this region, former Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan told ST’s Asian Insider Podcast.

The Taiwan issue does pose the greatest risk of an accidental conflict, but a war by design between the two superpowers is highly unlikely, he added.

“While the Chinese will never forswear the military option, I don’t think that is their preferred option. It’s just too big a gamble,” he said.

Mr Kausikan, the former Permanent Secretary and former Ambassador-at-Large at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is now the chairman of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.

He was invited to the podcast by ST’s host Nirmal Ghosh to discuss the dynamics between China, the US and South-east Asia.

Mr Kausikan noted that as the US deepens and expands what the White House’s Indo-Pacific strategy terms a latticework of strong and mutually reinforcing coalitions, China has fewer geopolitical friends and allies.

China has also done little to assuage countries’ concerns over what is seen as its hegemonic tendencies, despite Beijing’s professions to the contrary, he added.

Separately, surveys show that views of China in the region are mixed, with Beijing seen as a valuable partner, and yet not trusted.

For instance the most recent ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute survey of 10 Asean countries found that South-east Asia’s elites see China as the most influential country in the region, ahead of the US, India, South Korea and Japan.

But Japan emerged as the most trusted country, followed by the United States and the European Union bloc, with China in fourth place.

Because of anxieties about China’s behaviour, there is a better appreciation that the US, regardless of who occupies the White House, must be present as a strategic balancer, Mr Kausikan remarked.

Yet, the US’ support of Israel’s actions in Gaza has not gone down well with countries in the region which have either Muslim majorities, or significant Muslim minorities, he noted.

In the last 10 years or so, anxiety about China has been accentuated by its behaviour in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and the Himalayas, and by its dam-building activities in the upper reaches of the Mekong.

Mr Kausikan added that China, by virtue of its proximity, size, and economic weight, is always going to have significant influence in South-east Asia. But for precisely those same reasons, it is always going to arouse anxieties.

“This is true of not just China, but of all big countries and the surrounding smaller countries,” he said.

“I think there is no South-east Asian country, with maybe some exceptions... that is without some anxieties about Chinese behaviour.

“These anxieties are not often articulated. It’s not a South-east Asian thing. We don’t often, for example, criticise the US or India or any other country.”

But he observed that South-east Asian countries also appreciate that without the US, there is no strategic balance in the region, and that these nations will find ways to deal with whoever is in the White House.

On the Taiwan issue, no Chinese leader could afford to bungle an operation against the island of Taiwan and remain in office. As Mr Kausikan emphasised: “Even the roots of Communist Party rule may be shaken, and that is the most vital of all China’s vital interests – to maintain party rule.”

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Produced by: Nirmal Ghosh ([email protected]) and Fa’izah Sani

Edited by: Fa’izah Sani

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