Davos highlights: Singapore’s prime minister urges US and China to defuse tensions


The World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of political and business leaders, which usually takes place in Davos, is a virtual event this year due to the pandemic. The FT brings you highlights from the final day.

Singapore’s prime minister has called on Beijing and Washington to defuse tensions and urged newly appointed US president Joe Biden to deem this bilateral relationship a “key strategic priority”.

Lee Hsien Loong on Friday cautioned that failing to resolve this dispute would plunge the US, China as well as other countries into prolonged strife.

“Given the enormous stakes, difficult as it will be, it cannot possibly be too late for the US and China to reset the tone of their interactions and avert a clash between them, which will become a generational twilight struggle,” Mr Lee said, quoting former US president John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in 1961, at the height of the cold war.

Seeing China as a threat would create long-term conflict given it is “not going to collapse like the Soviet Union did”, he added.

The Biden administration “is an opportunity to steer the relationship towards safer waters”, while China must take on greater responsibilities in providing global public goods to match its growing influence, Mr Lee said on Friday.

A city state of 5.7m with deep security and commercial ties to Washington and Beijing, Singapore is among those countries trying to balance relations between the two superpowers.

During the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asia-Pacific security forum, Mr Lee said it was “difficult” for smaller countries to remain neutral “when the lines start to get drawn [and] everybody asks ‘are you my friend or not my friend?’”. At that time, he added “to actively avoid taking sides actually also requires actively not being pressured to take sides”.

As the fight against Covid-19 continues, Mr Lee warned against reliving the “ferocious scramble” for personal protective equipment — when countries “intervened to hijack” supplies meant for other destinations — during today’s global vaccination drive.

The WEF has moved the physical gathering at its 2021 annual meeting from Davos in the Swiss Alps to Singapore in May, which has largely contained the virus, because of the persistent Covid-19 risk in Europe.

The theme of greater power competition was occupying the mind of the EU’s trade chief at Davos. Valdis Dombrovskis signalled on Friday the need for the union to take a more combative approach towards international commerce.

“We remain committed to multilateralism and free and fair trade but on [the other] hand, we are also strengthening our autonomous toolkit — our trade defence and enforcement toolkit,” he said. “We need to be ready to defend our interest, our rights in case some of the third countries are not playing by the global rules.”

The former Latvian prime minister added that the investment treaty agreed with China in late December aimed to address “asymmetries” between the EU and Asia’s largest economy in terms of market access.

But he went on to say he was looking forward to working with the US under President Biden to address the “many issues” the bloc has with China.

Elsewhere, Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga insisted that the Tokyo Olympics would go ahead in 2021, despite reports that the postponed games will be cancelled because of the continued prevalence of coronavirus.

“Regarding the Tokyo Games, this is going to be the testimony of humankind prevailing over Covid-19,” he said. “So we are resolved to conduct the games in a safe and secure manner.”

Additional reporting by Robin Harding


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