09:28 AM Ms Pulara Somachandra (Trainee Research Associate, SMU Centre for Commercial Law in Asia)

    Freeze, Talk and Trade: 3 Principles of Inter-State Dispute Resolution


    On 6 September 2021, the Singapore Management University’s Centre for Commercial Law in Asia, in collaboration with Harry Elias Partnership LLP and the Singapore Mediation Centre, held the Singapore Mediation Lecture. The lecture was organised in hybrid format, with around 100 attendees in-person and over 200 viewing it online. The Singapore Mediation Lecture was a main highlight event of the Singapore Convention Week 2021.

    Entitled “Freeze, Talk and Trade: 3 Principles of Inter-State Dispute Resolution”, the lecture was delivered by Professor Kishore Mahbubani, Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore (NUS).

    Professor Mahbubani was with the Singapore Foreign Service for 33 years. He held postings across the world such as in Cambodia, Malaysia, Washington, DC and New York, where he was twice Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) and also served as President of the UN Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002. He was Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Ministry from 1993 to 1998. In recognition of his contributions during his diplomatic career, Professor Mahbubani was conferred the Public Administration Medal (Gold) by the Singapore Government in 1998.

    Professor Mahbubani joined academia in 2004, when he was appointed the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS. He was Dean until 2017. In 2019, he was elected an honorary international member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which has honoured distinguished thinkers, including several of America’s founding fathers, since 1780.

    Professor Mahbubani began his lecture by pointing out that inter-state conflict resolution was a pressing necessity in Asia, highlighting that many people were unaware that the most dangerous inter-state disputes were presently occurring in Asia. Examples of wars that could be fought in Asia were between China and the US over Taiwan; China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea; and China and India at their Himalayan border. These examples were usefully elaborated on by Professor Mahbubani throughout his lecture to illustrate three key principles – freeze, talk and trade – that in his view promoted understanding between conflicting parties.

    On the first principle ‘freeze’, Professor Mahbubani explained that, whilst it might sound counterintuitive, many disputes around the world had become more dangerous because they were not frozen, but had had their parameters shifted by the disputants. He believed that if there were broader acceptance of the principle of freezing, the danger of escalation and actual conflicts could be lessened.

    The second principle ‘talk’ was about the importance of disputing parties communicating with each other. Emphasising that diplomacy was invented to create the right environment for communication among both friendly and enemy states, Professor Mahbubani observed that the most essential dimension of diplomacy was the concept of diplomatic immunity, which allowed diplomats to transmit messages between states without the fear of mortal danger.

    The third principle ‘trade’ that Professor Mahbubani broached was that disputing countries should seek to conduct greater trade with each other. In his view, the power of money a dependable factor between states to promote peace. Using the contemporary example of China and Vietnam who trade heavily with each other and have a relatively low incidence of military encounters, Professor Mahbubani elaborated that greater trade interdependence creates an economic incentive to avoid wars and skirmishes. Put simply, the economic cost of conflict becomes higher. Trade also results in greater face-to-face interaction, which often leads to better mutual understanding.

    In his conclusion, Professor Mahbubani suggested that the principles of Freeze, Talk and Trade could make a substantial difference in inter-state disputes, and he therefore encouraged their widespread application to inter-state conflicts around the world. Professor Mahbubani closed by expressing his hope for peace in Asia and how, like Europe, it could eventually become a region with zero prospect of war.

    A distinguished panel was thereafter convened to discuss the important issues and questions arising from Professor Mahbubani’s lecture. Moderated by Mr Francis Goh (Partner, Harry Elias Partnership LLP), the panel comprised Professor Mahbubani, Ms Sharon Ong (Director-General (International and Advisory), Ministry of Law), Mr Ban Jiun Ean (Executive Director, Singapore Mediation Centre) and Assistant Professor Dorcas Quek Anderson (Associate Dean (Student, Staff & Alumni Affairs), SMU Yong Pung How School of Law). A lively and constructive conversation was struck up between the panellists, who also addressed the many interesting and incisive questions posed by the audience. The event concluded with Mr Philip Fong (Managing Partner, Harry Elias Partnership LLP) presenting a token of appreciation to Professor Mahbubani.

    * The assistance of Chloe Lee and Leow Chun Yang (1st Year LLB Students; SMU Mediation and Negotiation Club) is gratefully acknowledged.

    ** A PDF version of this entry may be downloaded here

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