By Fred Horne ‘18
This May, History Club invited two distinguished speakers to address us: Mr. Claude Smadja, former international journalist, and Brigadier-General Boon-Kim Tan, defense attaché at the Singapore Embassy.
Mr. Smadja spoke about his experiences as a journalist and about Asia in the 21st century. Over twenty years as a journalist for the Swiss Broadcasting Corp, he traveled across the world covering conflicts and conferences, warfare and diplomacy. In his first international deployment, he covered the Six Days’ War. He was one of two journalists in Dhaka when Indian forces captured the city in the Bangladeshi War of Independence—the day after he arrived in India. One year, he spent six months living in palace of the Shah of Persia in order to write a description of the Shah, finding him “a very lonely man.” The center of Mr. Smadja’s talk, however, was the importance of Asia. After the Soviet Union fell, he said, the West expected that China would be forced to adopt Western free-market capitalism or similarly fall. That has not happened. The United States currently has the largest economy, best technology, and most diplomatic ties in the world; in ten years, China will have the largest economy, at least equal technology, and economic inroads throughout the Third World with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The West must realize that the international balance of power is changing, and white men will not dominate the 21st century as they did the 20th.
Brigadier-General Boon-Kim Tan spoke about the United States’s role in East and Southeast Asia. From Singapore’s perspective, the US is a benign force, essential to maintaining international order. The size of the US’s military and economy make the nation uniquely suited for the role of international policeman, as the US can project power anywhere in the world. Accordingly, Singapore cooperates more closely with the US than any other nation in Southeast Asia, allowing US carriers to refuel in Singapore and training soldiers in the US—1200 people across 4 bases, the largest foreign military presence in the US. The most important bilateral relationship in the world, Mr. Tan argued, is between the US and China, making good relations between the two of paramount importance. A trade war or an isolationist US would destroy stability in Southeast Asia and imperil the US’s key role in the region. Pushing China on unresolvable issues, such as Taiwanese independence, could precipitate a meltdown. Mr. Tan proposed that bringing China further into the international community is key, as joining would show China the benefits of international cooperation. The US, too, must see those benefits: the US’s dominant international role comes because the US can and will use its powers benignly in concert with other nations, and when the US abdicates that role, it loses its international dominance.