The Straits Times
The question is whether the transition to a multi-polar world can be managed peacefully, Dr Balakrishnan told an audience at the Asia Society Policy Institute, in a discussion with the institute's president and former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, on the theme "New realities for South-east Asia".
Dr Balakrishnan identified three new realities: the digital revolution, protectionism, and major power competition.
Stressing the levels of US and Chinese investment in South-east Asia, Dr Balakrishnan said the hope in the region is that "cool heads prevail" between the two countries.
"We hope there will be enlightened self-interest and a long-term perspective," he said.
"If there is, we can move into another phase characterised by new technologies, new world orders, new architectures which hopefully will still be open, fair (and) transparent, (and) will give opportunities to people all over the world who are willing to learn new things, work very hard and create a sustainable world along the way."
America had been part of South-east Asia's success story for 70 years, he emphasised, because in its own enlightened self-interest, it had underwritten that order.
And Americans are welcome in South-east Asia, he told the audience. "They are liked, they are popular," he said. "Don't take your eye off the ball, don't retreat, don't give up."
South-east Asia hopes America and China have an "adult relationship", he said - competing but also acting in enlightened long-term self-interest, while accepting Asean unity and centrality.
Rather than the alternative of Asean becoming a "bunch of proxy states", the hope is that a united Asean would be seen as valuable and a major trading partner for both the US and China.
"We hope all powers in our area will also operate by multilateral rules and we will continue to have access to multilateral institutions and ways of resolving disputes," he added.
Quoting a speech by President Donald Trump the previous day at the United Nations General Assembly, Dr Balakrishnan said: "Everyone is a patriot; everyone has to look to their own self-interest.
"But we believe in long-term enlightened self-interest."
He said this meant both competing and cooperating with neighbours, particularly on existential challenges including climate change, the digital revolution and the next pandemic.
"All these big challenges require multilateralism, cross-border cooperation, a set of rules by which we can all operate," he said.
Citing loss of public support for free trade between 2015 and late 2016 in America, and the apparent erosion of global consensus, Dr Balakrishnan said: "The real issue is technology, but it is very easy, it is very Twitter-worthy, to blame foreigners, to blame competition (and) free trade, for stagnation of wages and potential loss of jobs."
On the digital revolution, he said: "South-east Asia can't assume that we can just stay on the old path.
"We need to train our people for new jobs rather than trying to compete for old jobs, because if you compete for old jobs, that's the route to middle class stagnation, middle class angst, and increasing unemployment, especially when people lose their jobs in their 40s and 50s."
He added that there was a larger political message: "Whenever the middle class feels stressed and people feel unable to cope with change, you always see reactionary right or left wing extremes, whether it is fascism or communism."
Dr Balakrishnan also noted the necessity of understanding the age and preparing people and societies to get ahead of this change, rather than pander to fears and pretend that erecting walls and insulating people from competition will be the answer.
"We need to focus on research and development and collaboration, and creating new ways of value extraction from data, and to use the new tools - and artificial intelligence is an example. That's where the future is, that's where the future wealth is. We need to transform our societies to be able to harvest that wealth."