COLUMNIST TOM PLATE WRITES – Geopolitical commentary can be invaluable, but not all analyses return good payback for your time and attention. The ‘quick-on-the draw’ stuff can lack perspective and flip and flop in the wind; even those drawn from deeper wells can take too long to surface. Then there’s a brand that says it knows what it thinks without knowing much at all. Rare indeed is the public intellectual who is able to be quick and deep and sharp, but that, exactly, is George Yeo from Singapore, the island-nation’s foreign minister from 2004 to 2011. ‘Musings’, his second volume of policy thoughts and personal recollections (World Scientific, Asia), is now gracing bookstores in Asia and elsewhere. Among his very many banquet memories are geopolitical commentaries of high caliber.
Intellectually, Mr Yeo hails from an exceptional generation of Singapore practitioner-thinkers. Under the mantle of successive prime ministers starting from modern founder PM Lee Kuan Yew, the country also raised to prominence, among others, Chan Heng Chee, Tommy Koh and Kishore Mahbubani – academically-deep diplomats widely respected across a global range of geopolitics and ideologies. Western journalists with the desire to want to know what Asians think would learn more from this quartet than from the usual sources. Certainly, I did.
Yeo, educated at Cambridge and Harvard, stitches his wide-ranging ‘Musings’ into a rich tapestry of conversational observations about people, places and policies that certainly gives lie to the slapdash stereotype of little Singapore as some state asylum of mental provincials. His many pages reflect almost everything under the sun with which his Singapore was involved during his career, which, as it turns out, was just about everything out there worth reflection.
This included unpublicized forays to North Korea. Singaporean foreign policy is almost insanely internationalist, the island having managed to get on well by riding economic globalization as far out as possible on the yield curve of pragmatism. Human rights lectures are less its thing than free-trade agreements, successfully negotiated. Its aim is to get along with any nation that will help it get along. This includes having to execute tight maneuvers with Beijing, with whom it must carefully play cards, and with Washington, the only power equipped to stand up to the great Re-Rising One (a challenge the US is all too over-eager to take on).
The calibration of China’s own game comes across especially well in Yeo’s musings about the Korea Peninsula, which he pointedly visited – South as well as North. He begins by stating China’s default view – “no war, no instability, no nuclear weapons.” One implied question: so why aren’t PRC and USA working more as a team if their core goals overlap that much? After all, China, a Security Council permanent member, has voted for some (though not all) UN sanctions on nuclear-equipped Pyongyang, openly supported the Trump/Kim talks in Singapore and Hanoi, and of course – going back – hosted in Beijing the initially promising Six Party Talks. Just a year ago, Yeo adds, Seoul and Beijing conspired for China’s President Xi Jinping to be almost first on the diplomatic phone to tender election-congratulations to the new South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, the latter – quips Yeo — “supposedly pro-US.”
There’s no future for South Korea, not to mention North Korea, in taking the anti-China line any more than for Canada, say, becoming noxiously anti-American. Asian nations must live with China as a gigantic neighbor that cannot be trifled with. Indeed, as with Singapore and others, the PRC, when not foolishly wolf-warrior growling, will value diplomacy that aims to somehow stretch across both sides of the street — without weakening a long-held emphasis on avoiding betrayal, as in blithely trading in old friends for new ones: fittingly, the PRC ambassador to Pyongyang is always ranked by Beijing a notch above the one in Seoul.
Think missile-range capabilities only: As ICBMs fly, Beijing is closer than Washington to Pyongyang. Pyongyang is closer to Wuhan than Chicago. Announced U.S. policy for decades has aimed flatly at peninsula denuclearization but has not delivered the goods. On the contrary, Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program continues to proceed, and no one – not even a pair of so-called superpowers – can seem to stop it. North Korea is now fully established as one of the world’s nine or so nuclear-warfare-capable states. South Korea is infinitely further along (its GDP ranked around, and sometimes above, Russia’s), yet it still hovers under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. And that has surfaced again as a big issue.
Asian memories do not always go quietly into the night. South Korea cannot completely forget Jimmy Carter’s failed effort, as president in the late seventies, to have US forces stationed in the ROK taken out and brought home. What’s to stop a future president from trying again? In Seoul now, you hear serious chatter about the need for a South Korea to fashion its own nuclear option. Yes, the idea is outrageous – just what the world needs, another nuclear power, so now Korean Peninsula both south and north will have this monstrous capability. This would make for a bleak future, but as I follow George Yeo’s suave sherpa passage across Asia, I see a peninsula disarmament process only beginning if Beijing and Washington, despite their screaming cat fights, astonish the world (not to mention themselves) with a transcendent joint commitment to take the steam out of this insanity. Who else for the job? That’s my view, not explicitly Yeo’s – but I might not have come to it without the former foreign minister ‘Musings.’ Deep thinking is vital.
Tom Plate, Pacific Century Institute vice president, is the distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University and the author, among a dozen other books, of ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’ in the Giants of Asia series. The original version of this column appeared earlier this week in the South China Morning Post, to which distinguished newspaper Mr Plate is a regular opinion contributor.