Chan Heng Chee, the former Singaporean ambassador to the United States, discussed Russia’s war in Ukraine and Southeast Asian politics at an event hosted by the Belfer Center on Thursday.
Speaking to a full room at the Kennedy School, Chan discussed a wide range of issues, including the politics of sanctions against Russia, China-Taiwan relations, and India’s growing global influence.
Chan called for global condemnation of Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, saying “it cannot just be the West condemning nukes.”
“It’s got to be a global message,” she said at the event.
The discussion was moderated by Paula J. Dobriansky, a former State Department official who serves as a senior fellow at the Belfer Center’s Future of Diplomacy Initiative, which co-hosted the event.
Chan discussed Singapore’s response to the war compared to other Southeast Asian nations, noting that it was the only country in the region to vote in favor of a UN resolution to sanction Russia.
“Singapore took a very strong position because we believe the UN charter cannot be violated,” Chan said. “Big countries cannot invade small countries. We are a small country. We’ve taken a strong stance in every instance when a big country invaded a small country.”
She also discussed Russia’s influence in Southeast Asia.
“You will find that countries in Southeast Asia are very cautious about what is happening,” she said.
“Every Southeast Asian country except Singapore imports the majority of their weapons from Russia,” she said, adding that this trend occurs largely because countries want to show they are neutral in the U.S.-China relationship.
Chan said many people in Southeast Asia defend Russia by saying the country was responding to unnecessary NATO expansion.
“In Singapore, I have to explain why we were right,” Chan said of the UN sanctions.
Chan was also asked about China’s rise as a global power during the event. She said she does not “think China deserves to be demonized.”
“It shocks me how angry people are toward China,” she added.
She speculated that Chinese President Xi Jinping likely knew little about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before it took place.
“If they had known, would they have left some 6,000 Chinese?” she said, referring to the number of Chinese citizens who were in Ukraine at the time of the invasion. “I don’t think they really knew it would go this far.”
China, the biggest trading partner of both Russia and Ukraine, has not condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, blaming the conflict instead on the United States and NATO.
Chan also discussed the war’s impact on China-Taiwan relations, saying that “Ukraine carries lessons for China.”
“China must have, first, noticed that the Russian military didn’t do so well,” she said. “[China] must have been shocked by the immediate unity of the West and the U.S.”
“China is on its own timetable,” Chan added in reference to a potential escalation in Taiwan.
Ultimately, Chan said Russia’s war in Ukraine is unlikely to end any time soon.
“People will not stop unless they have lost enough lives, bled enough … before they come to their senses,” she said.
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