US-Sino Relations: Complex and Uncertain – Kausikan

Mr Bilahari Kausikan spoke at length about how US-China relations today affect the current global and regional political order on 20 March 2019 at his fourth FASS90 Political Science Lecture on the Practice of Foreign Affairs.

He was keen to emphasise that despite some similarities, Sino-American relations today are fundamentally different from those between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. “The post-Cold War (world) is complex, not binary,” he stated.

Mr. Kausikan (right) responding to questions with Assoc Prof Bilveer Singh (left) from the Department of Political Science

“US-China Relations are Inextricably Entangled in a Way US-Soviet Relations Never Were”

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War-era of international political structure that had persisted for more than four decades abruptly came to an end. “Despite its many dangers, the Cold War international order was clear and simple; essentially binary in structure,” said Mr Kausikan.

“You were either on one side or the other. Even if you tried to be or pretended to be non-aligned, you essentially defined your interests in relation to this binary structure. This entrenched a mode of thought: a binary view of the world that is still a powerful albeit usually unconscious, but certainly inappropriate influence on how we understand the trope of China’s rise.”

The biggest difference in today’s US-China relations compared to US-Soviet relations during the Cold War was how interlinked America was with each at the time. The Soviet Union “largely contained itself by pursuing autarky,” Kausikan said. “The US and the Soviet Union interacted only tangentially; their relationship was structured primarily by the need to avoid mutual destruction.”

This is unlike China today, which is inseparably inter-connected with the American economy and that of the world. “Unlike the Soviet Union, China is an irreplaceable node in the global economy, as vital as the American economy,” he stated. “US-China relations are simultaneously inter-dependent in a way that is historically unique between major powers, and simultaneously infused with a deep strategic distrust.” Yet despite this distrust, Kausikan was adamant that Sino-American rivalry was not a zero-sum game as some claim. “China’s rise is not necessarily America’s decline, except in relative terms,” he said, dismissing it as another relic of an outdated Cold War-era mentality.

Bilahari Kausikan discussing US-Sino relations.

America: “Spreading the Burden of Leadership”

Mr Kausikan also noted that despite their vast differences, “both Obama and Trump are iterations of the post-Cold War metamorphosis of American values.” Both have attempted to spread the burden of leadership, particularly defence costs, onto America’s allies; Obama merely did so in a more tactful manner than his successor.

In fact, Kausikan was of the opinion President Trump and his tough stance toward China was not a passing phase but a permanent shift in American policy. “Trump is not an aberration that will pass with the next administration,” he stated. “Key elements of his foreign policy, in particular the tougher approach to China as a strategic competitor enjoy strong bipartisan support across many policy domains.”

“Trump’s successor may speak more prudently and act more predictably, but the probability is that whoever succeeds Trump will represent the same political phenomenon and pursue much the same policies, at least towards China.”

China: Globalisation’s Biggest Winner, Protectionism’s Biggest Loser

This new hostile American stance to both China and globalisation will have serious implications for China, particularly for its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. “China was the main beneficiary of the American-led post-Cold War globalisation. China may well be the main loser if that order should further fray because the US now embraces a narrower concept of leadership,” Mr Kausikan noted.

“Can the Belt and Road Initiative succeed if the world turns protectionist as a result of the trade war? I don’t think so. More to the point, I don’t think the Chinese think so either.”

And despite its undeniable position as an economic superpower, Kausikan was not optimistic that China could be a substitute for American leadership in the global economy. “An open global order cannot be led on the basis of a still-largely closed and mercantilist Chinese model,” he remarked, especially when “Chinese growth rests on that open international order.” As such, he feels that some sort of temporary truce will be called on the ongoing trade war, although it would likely be “a very bad deal, and both sides will have the incentive to get out of it as soon as possible.”

Engagement Still the Main Tone of US-China Relationships

Nevertheless, Mr Kausikan emphasised that despite the rancour of the trade war, the central theme of US-China bilateral ties was that of engagement and communication. “War is highly improbable, nuclear deterrence impels caution, engagement will not cease and the US and China will still cooperate when their interests coincide,” he stated. Given how closely the two countries are tied to each other and the rest of the world economically, a continued policy of engagement would bode well for all sides.

Watch the lecture here.


About the Speaker
Bilahari Kausikan is Chairman of the Middle East Institute, NUS. From 2001 to 2013, he was first the second Permanent Secretary and then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). He was subsequently Ambassador-at-Large until May 2018, having previously served in various MFA appointments, including as the Deputy Secretary for Southeast Asia, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York and as Ambassador to the Russian Federation.

FASS90 Political Science Lecture Series on the Practice of Foreign Affairs
This five part lecture series is organised by the NUS Political Science Society with support from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and the Department of Political Science. Established in 1929, FASS, one of the earliest and largest faculties is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. Whilst witnessing numerous changes, we remain steadfast to our vision to strive forward as a premier faculty of excellence in humanities and social sciences that nurtures tomorrow’s engaged, thoughtful and creative global citizens. To mark this occasion, the Faculty is organising a series of events showcasing the strength and breadth of the Faculty’s research as well as kick start future initiatives that would benefit the generations of students who will come through our halls.

Joint Book Launch – Citizens in Motion: Emigration, Immigration, and Re-migration Across China’s Borders & Marrying for a Future: Transnational Sri Lankan Tamil Marriages in the Shadow of War

A joint book launch celebrating the release of Citizens in Motion: Emigration, Immigration, and Re-migration Across China’s Borders by Associate Professor Elaine Ho (NUS Department of Geography and FASS Research Division) and Marrying for a Future: Transnational Sri Lankan Tamil Marriages in the Shadow of War by Assistant Professor Sidharthan Maunaguru (NUS Department of South Asian Studies and NUS Department of Sociology) will be held at the Pod, NLB on Tuesday, 7th May 2019.
In Citizens in Motion, A/P Ho examines the migration patterns and multifaceted national affiliations of both elaine hoChinese migrants overseas and foreign migrants in China. Through interviews and ethnographic observations conducted in China, Canada, Singapore, and the China-Myanmar border, A/P Ho captures the rich diversity of contemporary Chinese migration processes. By bringing together these various experiences and national contexts, A/P Ho offers an insightful analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing nation-building and cultural diversity management mediated by the influences of migration processes.
marrying for a futureAsst Prof Maunaguru focuses on Sri Lanka in Marrying for a Future, where he argues that the social institution of marriage sidharthan maunaguruserves as a critical means of reuniting dispersed segments of Tamil communities who fled Sri Lanka during the almost 26 year civil war. This is because key agents and elements of marriage such as marriage brokers and transit places help foster connections between these fragmented communities. Importantly, the book offers an interesting take on migration issues by situating transnational marriage within the larger scholarship of forced displacement and refugees.
Together, A/P Ho and Asst Prof Maunaguru contribute unique approaches to studying migration and opens up possibilities for future scholarship to build on these alternative perspectives. If you are interested to hear more from the authors themselves, please RSVP to reserve your seat. The event details are as follows:
Date: Tuesday, 7th May 2019
Time: 6.00–8.30pm
Venue: The Pod, National Library Building
Organizers: Singapore Research Nexus and FASS Migration Cluster, FASS Research Division
Click here for additional details.

FASS Bookshare – Thursday, 11 October 2018

FASS Bookshare celebrates and showcases books authored by faculty members who have dedicated years of research into their publications.

In previous years Bookshare has highlighted single-authored books in a range of disciplines and topics, such as Development, Migration, and Protest in Asia, Southeast Asian Cosmopolitanism, Urbanism, and Tourism, and Religion, Diaspora, and Travel.

This edition of Bookshare focuses on Southeast Asian Art, Culture, and Colonial History. Professor Maurizio Peleggi will be speaking about his latest book, Monastery, Monument, Museum: Sites and Artifacts of Thai Cultural Memory. Assistant Professor Gerard Sasges will talk about his new book Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina.
  Associate Professor David Teh will present on his recent book, Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary.



Date and Time: Thursday, 11 October, 12-1:45pm

Venue:  FASS Research Division Seminar Room, Level 6, Room 42, AS7 Shaw Foundation Building, 5 Arts Link, 117570

Attendance: If you would like to attend Bookshare, RSVP with your full name and email at the Eventbrite page. Seating is limited, so do RSVP early and if your plans change, please cancel the reservation.


12:00pm-12:15pm Registration and Refreshments
12:15-12:20pm Introduction by Chair, Associate Professor Itty Abraham
12:20-12:35pm Monastery, Monument, Museum: Sites and Artifacts of Thai Cultural Memory by Professor Maurizio Peleggi
12:35-12:50pm Imperial Intoxication: Alcohol and the Making of Colonial Indochina by Assistant Professor Gerard Sasges
12:50-1:05pm Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary by Associate Professor David Teh
1:05-1:20pm Q & A Session
1:20-1:45pm Refreshments

FASS Bookshare – 2 March (Thursday), Noon, at the RD Seminar Room on L6, AS 7

FASS Bookshare is back for 2017! Check out the Bookshare catalogue here and reserve your seats here.


11:45am-12pm: Registration and Refreshments

12-12:05pm: Lionel Wee introduces the authors and books

12:05-12:20: Khairudin Aljunied presents Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Southeast Asian Islam in Comparative Perspective

12:20-12:35: Tim Bunnell presents From World City to the World in One City: Liverpool Through Malay Lives

12:35-12:50: Jamie Gillen presents Entrepreneurialism and Tourism in Contemporary Vietnam

12:50-1:05: Q & A session

1:05: Light Bites


Department of Chinese Studies Sets Up New Wan Boo Sow Research Centre for Chinese Culture

Prof Wang Gungwu, Mr Sam Tan, Prof Kenneth Dean, and A/P Lee Cheuk Yin

On 2 December 2016, the Department of Chinese Studies, FASS, NUS, celebrated the opening of the Wan Boo Sow Centre for Chinese Culture. The Centre was set up to actively promote in-depth cultural research by both local and overseas scholars, and to raise research efforts and output in Chinese culture to a higher level in order for NUS to establish itself as a leading institution in the field in Asia and beyond. Through visiting fellowships, it seeks to attract renowned scholars to Singapore to conduct interdisciplinary research with academics both in and outside the Department of Chinese Studies.

GOH, Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office & Ministry of Manpower, is an alum of the Department of Chinese Studies

In his speech during the opening ceremony, Guest-of-Honour, Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State, Prime Minister’s Office & Ministry of Manpower, said he hopes that the setting up of this new research centre for Chinese culture will strengthen the bilateral cooperation between Singapore and other countries, in addition to encouraging exchanges between academics and non-academics. He added that NUS’ facilities, and bilingual and bicultural advantage will enable it to become an international centre for Chinese cultural studies.

The Centre is named in honour of the late Mr Wan Boo Sow (1918-1992), a pharmacist in the 20th century. Born and bred in Singapore, Mr Wan obtained a Diploma in Pharmacy from the then-King Edward VII College of Medicine, before starting his own pharmacy along High Street. Mr Wan recognised the importance of education and his children—upholding their late father’s view—contributed generously to the set-up of this Centre.

To mark its official opening, the Centre organised an inaugural conference on the 2 and 3 December 2016. The conference had six panels reflecting the current research focus of the six research clusters in the Department of Chinese Studies. Professor Benjamin Elman of Princeton University and Professor Ge Zhaoguang of Fudan University were the keynote speakers for the conference. More than 20 preeminent scholars from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Peking University, Xiamen University, University of London, University of Manitoba etc., presented their research outcomes in the field of Chinese history, literature, culture and linguistics.