Singapore institute looks for solutions in Asian conflict hotspots

NUS centre starts work with China-India relations, before turning to Sino-Japanese ties

July 16, 2020
Source: National University of Singapore
Kishore Mahbubani

Just as geopolitical tensions are rising in Asia, a new Asian Peace Programme (APP) has been launched by the National University of Singapore.

Kishore Mahbubani, a former UN Security Council president who is spearheading APP, told Times Higher Education that the initiative’s goal was to promote regional stability by drawing on the wisdom of academics.

“What’s happening in Asia so far is very surprising. The past 30 years have been remarkably peaceful. But we should be careful,” he said. “We cannot be complacent and take that for granted. That is a key reason we started APP. We want to pre-emptively deal with problems.”

Mr Mahbubani drew on his personal experience of war, in 1974 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. “The city was shelled every day. One afternoon, there were two bombs at a nearby palace, and the glass windows in my house shattered,” he remembered.

The APP, launched this month, is a new and relatively small academic programme. However, its expert recommendations could have an outsized impact on regional ties. Mr Mahbubani compared its work to acupuncture. “A small needle in the right place can relieve a lot of pain,” he said.

One good example is APP’s first policy paper, a quick response to clashes on the China-India border in June, which descended into bloody hand-to-hand combat. Author Kanti Bajpai, director of NUS’ Centre on Asia and Globalisation, calls for better diplomacy and offers a practical suggestion that could save lives: virtual patrolling of the border via sensors, cameras, drones and satellites.

“Why did Chinese and Indian soldiers lose their lives?” Mr Mahbubani asked. “Because of face-to-face patrolling. This simple solution could reduce misunderstandings.”

The next policy paper, due out later this month, will be on China-Japan relations. APP’s recommendations will be communicated via various networks and email blasts to influential figures around the world.

Mr Mahbubani, who spent 33 years in diplomacy and 15 years in academia, said that he had more liberty in this latter role to speak on politics.

“As a diplomat, you speak on behalf of your country,” he said. “As an academic, you are completely free to comment on any subject. You can be open and bolder.”

When asked about academic freedom, which varies widely across Asia, he responded that “if you’re trying to pursue a political agenda, you may run into trouble. But you’re trying to be an objective analyst.”

The one piece of advice he gives authors is: please don’t be judgemental. “We are not there to name and shame. We want to be part of the solution,” he said.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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