The historical basis of the Silk Road was fair exchange and mutual benefit, and China’s intentions for its New Silk Road vision are no different, said Singapore’s former Foreign Minister George Yeo yesterday (June 3) at a public forum.

China does not intend to subordinate the economic strategies of other countries to its own and is misunderstood by others, said Mr Yeo at the forum on Asia and the middle-income trap organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Mr Yeo, who is now chairman and executive director of Kerry Logistics Network, was responding to a question on what China intends to communicate through its New Silk Road at the forum, which was attended by over 150 members of the business and diplomatic community, as well as policy makers and academics. He was in Kazakhstan – through which the New Silk Road cuts – a fortnight ago for a forum and to look at logistics opportunities.

China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua last month published a map showing its visions of a New Silk Road and New Maritime Silk Road that eventually met in Venice in Italy.

Mr Yeo said the historical basis of the Silk Road, the trade and cultural network that linked China, the Indian continent, Persia and parts of Europe that lasted until the 15th century, was “not on the basis that we must be the same, or that my values become yours or your values become mine”. Instead, it was “on the basis that we protect trade and property and there’s a fair exchange, value is added, there’s a positive sum, we all benefit in the process”.

Mr Yeo, who gave a speech about the New Silk Road and its ramifications on the global economy, also took questions on China’s actions in the South China Sea, parts of which are being claimed by other countries including the Philippines and Vietnam.

All parties are better off trading and focusing on the benefits of exchange, he said, noting that the disputed waters have historically not been a barrier separating Southeast Asia from China.

“Let’s hope that good sense will prevail that the greater sense will be on all the benefits of exchange. And if you can recreate the prosperity brought about by the Maritime Silk road, I think all these things will be set in perspective,” he said.

While he is unsure of how things will turn out, he felt it unwise for some countries to call for China to define its nine-dash line that lay claim to parts of the South China Sea. “If they are dash lines, there’s room for negotiation… Sometimes, ambiguity has its advantages,” he said.

While worries about a growing China were inevitable, China’s foreign policy differs from the United States’ “missionary zeal”, instead adopting an approach of “influence by osmosis”, he said. This has led it to be accused by the West of being opportunistic and amoral in its engagement with the Middle East or Africa, he added.

But the differences in foreign policies of the US and China also mean they are not necessarily in conflict, he said.

“It’s not a bad thing because it increases our chances for peace in the world. If there’s conflict between the two, all of us will be torn apart, every family, every company, every city in East Asia. Everyone wants America as a friend, no one wants China as an enemy,” he said.

In his speech, Mr Yeo said the New Silk Road offers huge opportunity. Connectivity is one trend among others that is changing global economic patterns and countries would do well to be part of the flow, and to have a sense of the environment and trends. Entrepreneurship, as well as facilitation and maintenance of social cohesion by governments, are also key for countries to avoid the middle-income trap, he said.

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