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In lectures, television appearances, and books like The Great Convergence, Kishore Mahbubani has attempted to explain the rise of Asia, and the new challenges and opportunities it affords. He has also described what he views as the decline of America, a country that has lost its way and cast off many of its own ideals. He is both a scholar and practitioner of world affairs. Beginning in the 1970s, he served in Singapore’s foreign ministry and then as the nation’s representative to the United Nations. He was also, between 2004 and 2017, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. And this month, he has a new book out called, Has China Won? What follows is a lightly edited interview.

Kishore Mahbubani
Kishore Mahbubani
Illustration by Lauren Crow

Q: Let’s start with why you decided to write this book. What prompted you to write Has China Won?

A: I consider myself a friend of America and a friend of China. And I see these two countries rushing towards a complete head-on collision from which both will suffer. I believe that if the United States could put the well-being of 330 million people in America as the number one priority; and if China puts the well-being of 1.4 billion people in China as the number one priority; then both America and China can achieve the goal of improving the well-being of their people by working together, rather than working against each other.

But what is driving them towards a conflict is that the decision makers have their minds set in the 18th or 19th century. As you know, the 18th and 19th century competition between the great powers was always seen as a zero sum game — either you are number one, or I’m number one. We should be beyond that. We now live in a small, interdependent world where, apart from taking care of our own people, our number one priority should be protecting our planet, which is in peril. At the end of my book, I phrase it like this, which I hope is vivid enough: ‘The human species considers itself the most intelligent species on planet Earth. And yet, if they continue fighting now when we have global challenges like Covid-19 and global warming, future historians will see them as behaving like two tribes of apes who were fighting each other while the forests around them were burning.’ 

If ever there was a time for humanity to prove that they’re the most intelligent species on planet earth, this is the time to do so. The U.S. and China should basically press the pause button on their strategic conflict. 

Let’s talk about the last three to five years. Things have really changed under Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. How did we get here? Did something happen prior to President Trump’s election, or the emergence of Xi? What led to this break?

As a student of geopolitics for only 50 years, I like to believe that personalities matter. But at the end of the day, I think that deeper historical, or what I call structural impulses, are at play here. Trump and Xi, of course, affect the tone and tenor of the competition, but even if there was no Xi Jinping and even if there was no Donald Trump, this geopolitical contest was going to break out anyway. Unfortunately, this is the way that nation states have been programmed to behave. I know some of the policymakers in Washington, D.C. What they essentially see is a zero sum game: either America is number one, or America is number two.

Of course, if any politician in America stood up and said, ‘Hey, hang on a second, being number two is not bad’ — they would be toast in Washington. There’s no way that any American politician or policy maker can rationally get away with saying, ‘We might even be better off because we don’t have to take care of the world’s problems. We can let China take care of the Middle East; let China take care of Africa. We just take care of the people in Minnesota and Missouri and we’ll be fine.’’’ So, it shows you how the old mindset is deeply ingrained. You know, America has wasted, not billions, but trillions of dollars fighting unnecessary wars. I always say that I’m a friend of America because I’m trying to tell Americans, ‘You’d be much better off if you did a major strategic U-turn in Asia.’ A democratic society is supposed to be open, flexible and responsive. But, paradoxically, America has become very rigid and very dogmatic in its ways, and it’s determined to pursue a course of action, which at the end of the day, will sadly hurt the American people. 

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Why does there have to be a competition of who’s number one and number two?

I think the Chinese would be very happy at this stage to be number two. But they are trying to do something different, which is to improve the well-being of the Chinese people. And to improve the well-being of the Chinese people, they have to grow the economy, which they’re building successfully. And if China keeps growing at 7.5 percent and the U.S. keeps growing at 2.5 percent; and the Chinese have 1.4 billion people, and America has 330 million people, the laws of mathematics are pushing China towards becoming number one. So, the Chinese are stuck. They are obviously not going to stop growing the economy. The ‘century of humiliation’ hit the Chinese people deeply. They just want to make sure that they are never humiliated again. 

So, their goal is towards growing an economy that will lead to China having a standard of living, as they say, of a moderately developed society. America’s per capita income is almost $63,000, but if the Chinese hit $30,000 — which is credible — then they will have an economy twice the size of America. That’s all mathematics. I give one simple indicator, the indicator that the Soviet Union used in the Cold War. As you know, Kennedy and Nixon decided to dramatically increase the number of nuclear weapons that the U.S. had. And the Soviet Union said, ‘Okay, you increase your nuclear weapons, I increase my nuclear weapons.’ So, the Soviet Union genuinely thought that it was in a race against America. Today, the U.S. has over 6,000 nuclear weapons. China has 300. It’s crazy. I mean, what’s wrong with the Chinese? Can’t they count? Why can’t they see that 300 nuclear weapons is not enough? But it is enough to destroy America. Right? Why go for more? Because they don’t get stuck in this zero sum game. Of course, they will make sure that America can no longer threaten China. That they will ensure.

Do you think that’s one of their primary goals, ensuring that they are not threatened?

Absolutely. In my book, I talk about how in 1996, when there was a crisis across the Taiwan Straits, the Clinton administration wanted to send a message to the Chinese to be careful. So the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers to the Taiwan Straits. Now, this is 24 years later. If there’s a crisis across the Taiwan Straits, the United States would hesitate to send aircraft carriers because they’ll be sitting ducks. The Harvard professor [Timothy J.] Colton told me the Chinese have developed hypersonic missiles. Hence, they will be sitting ducks. Clearly the strategic balance between China and the U.S. has changed significantly. 

The other point is that the United States must get used to the idea that the extraordinary domination it had over the world starting from World War II is gone. From about 1945, the U.S. accounted for more than 50 percent of the world’s GNP. When 5 percent of the world’s population has more than 50 percent of the world’s GNP, that’s abnormal. It takes a lot of underperformance from the remaining 95 percent of the world. But the Asians who have been underperforming for 200 years have just begun performing normally. You know, I grew up in Singapore. I grew up in a poor family. I was put on a special feeding program when I was six years old as I was undernourished. I had no flush toilet either. I lived in Third World conditions. But today, I’m living in a country where the per capita income (with a majority Chinese population) is as high as the United States. So what Singapore has accomplished, surely China can accomplish. So, it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game. And it can mean a huge market for American products too.

You said it’s inevitable that China will have the world’s largest economy and that America should take care of what 330 million Americans need. What would the world look like if China is the dominant power, not just the world’s largest economy? Let’s say it reshapes the world with its Belt and Road project and becomes as influential as the U.S. has become. What kind of world will that be? Does it concern you that this is a nation with an authoritarian government and one party rule that censors dissenting opinions and locks up human rights activists? 

The first assumption of your question is that when the world is led by a democratic, liberal power, the world is naturally better off. And curiously, I was just reading a book by one of America’s greatest political scientists [John J. Mearsheimer] who belongs to the realist school, called The Great Delusion (2018). One of the strongest points he makes is that what makes a liberal regime so dangerous is that liberals believe they’re morally superior. Anything they do is morally right. So, when they drop bombs on countries, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, of course it is a morally right thing to do because we’re liberal. And we are superior. And he’s an American! 

That’s why I have a chapter in my book called “The Assumption of Virtue.” I say the greatest single obstacle to America coming to terms with the world is the assumption of virtue. Now, America is not a bad country. It’s not an evil country. It’s just a normal country. So it does good things, and it does bad things. And so for Americans to assume that they’re naturally virtuous and superior to the rest of the world is something that the rest of the world finds harder and harder to accept, especially after you elected President Donald Trump. (chuckles)

We are living in one of the greatest transitions ever in human history. It’s important to bear that in mind. American policymakers are stuck with, as I said earlier, assumptions from the 19th and 20th centuries. They are handicapped trying to understand the new world that is coming. So, that’s part one of my answer. 

Part two is this: How China will be in the next 50 years will depend on how we treat China in the next 20 years. That’s why I think my book is urgent. I quote Henry Kissinger’s comment about how America has no China strategy. The other person I quote is George Kennan, who formulated America’s Cold War strategy in terms of how to manage the Soviet Union, which, by the way, is a far less formidable competitor than China. China’s GNP is something the Soviet Union could never have achieved. So, America now has to deal with a far more formidable competitor, and it is ignoring Kennan’s four pieces of advice. 

Mahbubani with Kofi Annan
Mahbubani with Kofi Annan
Credit: Courtesy of Kishore Mahbubani

First, he said, how successful you are depends at the end of the day on our domestic spiritual vitality. It’s about how strong you are as a country. It’s not about your aircraft carriers; it’s not about the military troops. It’s the strength of the society. That’s how the United States defeated the Soviet Union. But today, America is the only major developed society where the average income of the bottom 50 percent has gone down over a 30-year period. By contrast, in the past 40 years the Chinese people have experienced a greater improvement in their standard of living than they have experienced in 4,000 years. So, in terms of domestic spiritual vitality, America is lacking it. China has it. 

Point two, he said, is to cultivate friends and allies. And I think it’s fair to say that the Trump administration has done a pretty good job of alienating America’s friends and allies. And I would say that China has done a better job through its Belt and Road Initiative of getting countries to cooperate. They aren’t allies of China. (By the way, China doesn’t want allies.) And point number three, he said, is don’t insult. And the level of insults that Americans are throwing at China is off the charts. The Chinese are reasonably proud people, and so it’s very painful. How China behaves in the next 50 years depends on how much you insult them. The more you insult them, the more you get an angry dragon. The less you insult them, the more you get a cooperative partner. And the fourth point that George Kennan made, which I think was the most important point was: be humble. If you want to win friends over, don’t say: ‘I’m better than you.’ 

After the end of the Cold War in 1991, which the United States won without firing a shot, the whole Western world was swept up by a flood of arrogance and hubris, and it hasn’t gone away yet. Frankly, only 12 percent of the world lives in the West. The other 88 percent are getting tired of being talked to in such a condescending fashion. It’s a different world, and all you have to do is treat the rest of the world humbly and with respect and you win them over.

Many people have written about the decline of America and the rise of China. And your critique of Donald Trump is pretty strong. But what do you see as the most challenging aspects of China’s rise over the next decade? It has a different perspective on how to manage affairs around the world. And it’s become more nationalistic under Xi. What, if anything, is China doing wrong? Is the U.S. alone to blame, or were there mistakes made in China, or by China? In your book you pointed out that China made some strategic mistakes with regards to dealing with U.S. businesses.

Yes, I say that the alienation of the American business community was a big mistake on the part of the Chinese. In the 1990s, and even in the 2000s, whenever any American administration would try to take a harder line against China, the big companies would help mitigate. For instance, Boeing’s biggest market was China. General Motors was making more money in China than in the U.S. So there were a lot of corporate interests saying, ‘Stop. Stop. Stop. You are going to spoil my biggest market.’ But after Trump launched the trade war, the American business community kept absolutely silent. And the silence showed how much China had alienated the American business community. I see that as a major strategic mistake. They essentially lost their main pillar of support in the United States. 

But the second part is that for some reason the Chinese became quite arrogant after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. They thought, ‘Hah America is on its knees. We are strong. America needs our help.’ The U.S. Treasury sent a team to China saying, ‘Please don’t stop buying Treasury bills. It’d be bad for us.’ The Chinese thought, ‘Great. We have control of America. Finally!’ The question is: Why did China become arrogant? 

Well, here’s what happened. Xi Jinping’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, was obviously a good human being, not corrupt. But during his reign, he wasn’t strong enough. And the Chinese Communist Party developed two big problems. One was corruption, which went up in China during the Hu Jintao period. And second, factionalism went up. And that’s why Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang could even consider having a coup d’etat and taking over the Chinese Communist Party. So, Xi Jinping had a very difficult job handling two monsters that had grown in China. And I would say he’s actually been much more careful and less assertive than what happened during this earlier period. 

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The South China Sea is a concrete example. There were far more headlines about the South China Sea before Xi Jinping came on than after he came on. In one of my chapters — “Is China expansionist?” — I begin by saying that everyone in the Anglo Saxon world, especially those who read the Anglo Saxon media, are convinced by the story that Xi told Obama that he would demilitarize the South China Sea. And then, of course, the South China Sea was militarized. And everyone said, ‘There goes Xi Jinping! He’s a big liar.’ I quote a former American ambassador to China, Stapleton Roy, who told me, ‘Kishore, when Xi Jinping made an offer to demilitarize the South China Sea, America should have grabbed that offer and agreed to stop all our military activities in the South China Sea. That would have pushed the Chinese out.’ Of course, the Americans would be out too. But the South China Sea is much more important to China than it is to America. If America steps out, the Chinese military steps out. And that’s a win for America, right? Instead, the U.S. Navy responded by sending naval vessels. So Xi said, ‘Okay. You reject my offer. So be it.’

So, there are wasted opportunities. And when you talk about China’s challenges and China’s weaknesses, I think the Chinese are aware of this too. But China’s biggest long term challenge is that China will do very well when it has a good, strong ruler, like Xi. Americans think Xi is doing a bad job, but he’s incredibly popular in China and the Chinese think he is doing a good job. But when you have a system that depends on a benevolent ruler like Xi, what happens when he goes? The succession question is the number one challenge for China. 

How have they dealt with that challenge? It seems like there is no succession…

No, no, no. I’m sure there is a succession process. They would never talk about it. But I have no doubt that they’re thinking about it. And it’s always unwise to have a successor in place too soon. This goes back 2,000 years to the days of Julius Caesar.

You said the U.S. has this assumption that it’s a moral power. I recently interviewed Senator Marco Rubio, and he talked about China’s human rights issues. Can you address how to think about what has happened in Xinjiang, where there are these massive camps holding Uighurs? Do you take any positions on Xinjiang, religious issues, or free speech? 

Those are very good questions. I would say that I would like to invite Senator Rubio to go to any country in the world — South Africa, India, Indonesia, or Nigeria, say — and then give a speech about how America is such a moral country and China is such an evil country. Then get ready for the questions he’s gonna get. It will be a very chastening experience for Senator Rubio. The danger of the conversation that is happening within America is that it is a self-referential dialogue among 330 million people who have locked themselves up in a bubble called moral superiority. Senator Rubio sees himself as a moral hero, a moral champion. The rest of the world sees him as a Don Quixote tilting at windmills. I mean that quite seriously. I suspect that even if he goes to the UK, the British will look upon him as a ridiculous figure. And I want to emphasize that, because people like Senator Rubio have no idea what’s going on in the rest of the world.

The danger of the conversation that is happening within America is that it is a self-referential dialogue among 330 million people who have locked themselves up in a bubble called moral superiority.

Now to address the question of Xinjiang. There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world. I would say the Muslim countries are struggling. But, at the end of the day, if you ask me to express an opinion about what is happening to Muslims in the world, should I listen to a Senator from Florida, or 1.3 billion Muslims? The United States and a group of Western countries wrote a letter expressing concern about the situation of the Muslims and Xinjiang — and by the way, many of the concerns are absolutely valid. But what is strange is that even though the West has got so many friends in the Islamic world, and many of them depend on the West for their protection, not one Islamic country signed that letter. It was only signed by the Western countries. [In July 2019, 22 nations, mostly from Europe, rebuked China on its repression in Xinjiang. The U.S. did not sign the letter, according to this report in The New York Times.]

Suppose those countries felt intimidated by China, that if they sign that letter…

But even allies of the United States, like Saudi Arabia …

Does that mean it’s wrong?

I’m talking about something very important. We are now moving into a multi-civilizational world, where one civilization, the Western civilization, no longer has a monopoly, either in terms of intelligence, knowledge or in terms of moral superiority. It’s a very, very different world. And as I said earlier, we are making a great transition.There are 50 Muslim countries and you cannot persuade one. Come on? What does that show? And, by the way, it’s important to emphasize the fact that several Muslim countries joined China. 

But what do you say about what is happening there? Are you arguing that since the U.S. was unable to persuade those Muslim countries that the U.S. should keep quiet? Is your position: Mind your own business?

I’m very happy to inform you that I devote four pages to Xinjiang. And yeah, this is what I say. Basically, the Islamic world is having great difficulties modernizing and growing economically. And part of their troubles are exported to the rest of the world. So the United States experiences 9/11, which is, of course, terrible. The whole world rallied and supported the United States, by the way. It’s interesting to compare what the United States did in response to its 9/11 and what China did in response to its 9/11. The United States decided to go out and invade Afghanistan, to invade Iraq — Muslim countries. I’m sorry to say this very bluntly, but if you asked me to say purely empirically, which country has killed more innocent Muslims? I would say the United States has killed more innocent Muslims. In just one year, Obama’s last year, the U.S. dropped 26,000 bombs on seven countries. It’s hard to convince me that no innocent Muslims were killed when you dropped 26,000 bombs. And the Chinese, by contrast, in Xinjiang? I’m sure some innocent Muslims have been killed. But that process of deradicalization that they’re going through, the reeducation camps, is a different method. So, my answer to you is let’s wait 10 years and see the results of what China is trying to do in terms of its deradicalization program. Because there was a problem. There was a radicalization.

So these camps are like an educational program…?

Re-education camps are what all Communist societies do. The Soviet Union did it. But let’s wait and see what happens. Whenever any country is hit by terrorist attacks, it reacts very strongly. The United States reacted strongly. China reacted strongly. And so it is not as though what China did was off the charts. This is what happened during World War II. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, what did the United States do? It bombed the Japanese. So how is this Chinese reaction — trying to de-radicalize Muslims — dissimilar to what the United States did in World War II with the internment camps for the Japanese? This is what happens when countries feel under threat. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m just saying this is what happens.

So, what should the U.S. do now? How does it fix its approach, with regard to China? And what should China do? If you were to write a letter to President Trump or the next U.S. president, and to Xi Jinping, what would you say in light of how ugly things have become?

Mahbubani with Ronald Reagan.
Mahbubani with Ronald Reagan.
Credit: Courtesy of Kishore Mahbubani

I talk about the five non-contradictions between the United States and China. I’ll give you three examples. The first non-contradiction is that the primary goal of the next president of America is to improve the well-being of the American people. And if China’s primary goal is to improve the well-being of its 1.4 billion people, there is no contradiction there. Number two, if the primary long term challenge that all of humanity, including the U.S. and China, face is to deal with challenges like global warming, overfishing, and global pandemics like Covid-19, then the U.S. and China should be working together. Number three, there is no clash of civilizations between the United States and China. It is very strange for a 250-year-old country like the United States to believe that a 4,000-year-old civilization would change its character to become more like it. It ain’t gonna happen. China will evolve in its own way. And, by the way, China will become a democracy. But it will do it in its own way. This 250-year-old country shouldn’t decide it knows better than this 4,000-year-old civilization. There is a non-contradiction there. 

I go on with two other general non-contradictions of the sensitive subjects, like this American fear of the yellow peril. And you know why? It really worries me how emotional Americans have become over China. I think about the emotions coming out as something that has deeply burdened the Western psyche: the fear of the yellow man. I think it’s important to surface all these subconscious goals that are haunting the American mind and remove them, and then work out rationally how America can create a better world for its people. A more rational, calm, strategic America would win so many friends.


David Barboza

David Barboza is the co-founder and a staff writer at The Wire. Previously, he was a longtime business reporter and foreign correspondent at The New York Times@DavidBarboza2