Singapore’s Wong says China needs to grow influence ‘carefully’

Lawrence Wong, Singapore's deputy prime minister and finance minister, speaks at the Nikkei Forum Future of Asia in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, May 25, 2023.
Lawrence Wong, Singapore's deputy prime minister and finance minister, speaks at the Nikkei Forum Future of Asia in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, May 25, 2023. (Bloomberg)

By Philip J. Heijmans and Chester Yung

(Bloomberg) — China’s attempt to grow its influence shouldn’t come at the expense of other countries feeling pressured or it risks a backlash, according to Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

The superpower knows it has to “play its cards carefully,” Wong said during a dialogue session at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on Friday. A pushback will not be in China’s interests so it “will have to learn how to moderate and adjust” as it develops its ambitions, he said.

The Chinese “feel that their time has come, they need to take their rightful place in the world, and they ought to be more assertive with regards to their interests abroad,” Wong said. “Then China has to grow its influence without making other countries feel pressured, coerced or squeezed.”

Tensions have risen in recent months and years between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors over claims in the South China Sea. China has been building up several unoccupied land features in the disputed waters, a key route for around $3 trillion worth of traded goods. The sides have been working on a code of conduct meant to resolve confrontations, though talks have dragged on for two decades.

Asian nations have also struggled to navigate an increasingly tricky geopolitical picture as the rivalry between the US and China complicates everything from trade to climate issues. Countries such as Singapore have for years refrained from choosing sides, instead embracing a collective non-alignment that has become harder to maintain as pressures build over maritime claims as well as Taiwan.

“We value the friendship we have with the US,” said Wong, as he wrapped up an 11-day trip to the US where he met top officials to discuss how to bolster already strong ties between the two nations. “China now is also a good friend with all the countries in Southeast Asia. And we would like to stay friends with both.”

To be sure, ties between the US and China have shown signs of warming. President Xi Jinping this month held his first meeting with US congressional leaders in eight years.

China’s fragile economic recovery has been in focus as new data shows the country returning to the brink of deflation. International Monetary Fund economists warned that China’s real estate sector downturn could erode growth prospects in the Asia Pacific region.

Wong said the Chinese economy is “going through a challenging sort of situation now” amid high youth unemployment.

“They have decided to prick the real estate bubble, and there will be painful consequences from doing so,” he said. As real estate accounts for about 20-30% of China’s economy, “once you prick the bubble, there are all sorts of consequences, knock-on effects cascading throughout the entire economy, which they will have to manage,” he said.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.