China Believes Its 'Time Has Come' to Return to Power, Singapore PM Says

It will be hard for the United States and China to coexist in a world where the rivalry between the two powers is defined by morals, the prime minister of Singapore said on Wednesday.

Speaking at this year's Bloomberg New Economy Forum, Lee Hsien Loong said Monday's summit between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping was a "necessary beginning" as Washington and Beijing try to manage their differences, which he said are "many and deep."

Singapore's longtime leader predicted no quick solution to a tense U.S.-China relationship that continues to be mired in fundamentally divergent world views. "They are not going to be resolved or reconciled in one meeting or one deal," said Lee, whose country has managed to find common ground with both the mighty military mainstay of the Asia-Pacific and the region's foremost rising power.

Lee argued that the two nations were now contending with seemingly incompatible perceptions of one another. While Americans have developed a consensus view of China as both "a challenger and a serious problem," Beijing feels "China's time has come" to take its rightful place in the world, he said.

The prime minister sympathized with the Chinese view, but said its challenge as a big player would be how to "[leave] space for many not quite so big players."

"There is a strong sense that the East is rising and the West is declining. In particular, that America is a declining power. I think it is wrong," Lee said in reference to the popular international relations theory proposed by none other than Xi himself, who was echoing Mao Zedong.

"I can see what makes them think like that. Other people sometimes think like that. But if you take a long view, you really have to bet on America recovering from whatever things it does to itself at the moment," Lee said.

Despite Biden's insistence that the U.S. wants "straightforward competition" with China, Singapore's leader believes the "moral dimension" to U.S.-China ties will make coexistence hard to achieve. "I am democracy, you are not; I am human rights, you are not. If you define issues like this, it becomes very difficult to coexist," he added.

Amid the U.S.'s latest realignment to the security-focused Indo-Pacific, Lee said Biden's priority for regional engagement should be an effective trade policy that could ensure continued American presence after 2024.

On Taiwan, perhaps the most prominent bilateral issue in recent years, Lee warned of the lingering risks of an accidental conflict. "I think we should be concerned. I do not think it is going to war overnight, but it is a situation where you can have a mishap or a miscalculation and be in a very delicate situation," he said.

According to Lee's analysis, Biden, Xi and Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen were all saying the right things—a general call to maintain the status quo—yet the dynamic across the Taiwan Strait is anything but static.

"The U.S. has significantly increased the visibility, the level and the intensity of diplomatic and even military engagements with Taiwan," said Lee. Meanwhile, China continues to test Taiwan's air defenses, while the democratic island grows in confidence about its own role on the global stage.

"All these moves raise suspicions, tensions and anxieties, and make it more likely that a mishap or miscalculation can happen," he said, adding that all parties needed to "chill" and "think how much you would regret losing this if you tried the alternative which came."

Singapore's Lee Hsien Loong Chats U.S.-China Relations
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images