To contain China or not to contain China?
That is the question on the mind of Singapore’s foreign minister, K Shanmugam, as he winds up a week-long visit to Washington, his first in his current job.
His answer is a clear no. Or, at least — and this is my interpretation of the minister’s remarks — a no, please don’t call what you do containment.
“Containment does not work, will not work,” Shanmugam said during a visit to The Post on Tuesday. “Once you get into Cold War rhetoric, then you get everyone else into a Cold War framework, and it takes on a logic of its own.”
What Southeast Asian neighbors want, the foreign minister said, is for China and the United States to develop a symbiotic relationship, with each seeing the benefit of peaceful development, and smaller countries not having to choose between them.
But what if China, as its power grows, does not continue on that peaceful path? After all, its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea already have alarmed Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.
A “fair question,” the minister agreed. But he said he sees “no reason to disbelieve them when they say that, as long as their red lines are not crossed, there can be peaceful development.” While they talk about Tibet and Taiwan as “red lines,” he said, regarding the South China Sea, “they have not indicated that every aspect of their claim is part of their core interest.”
Shanmugam said he welcomes deeper U.S. engagement in the region, not only military but economic and diplomatic as well. He did not object to recent U.S. actions that have been widely interpreted as a response to rising Chinese power and neighbors’ anxiety about that: the Obama administration’s ballyhooed “pivot” to Asia, its agreement to station Marines in Australia, its even more recent agreement to reestablish a naval presence in the Philippines.
Those are all subject to more than one interpretation, the minister said. They can be explained to China and the world as fully consistent with the United States’s role as a global power and its “legitimate interest in keeping sea lanes open,” a strategic goal of long standing.
Just don’t call it containment.