Kishore Mahbubani Photo: Li Hao/GT
Relations between China and the US have clearly gone downhill in the past few years. What are the root causes of deteriorating ties? Can the US overcome its stereotyped views about China's rise and its political system? Are the world's two biggest powers doomed to be enemies? Kishore Mahbubani (Mahbubani), distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and a veteran diplomat, shared his insights with Global Times (GT) reporter Yu Jincui.
Mahbubani: Definitely US-China relations will get worse in any election year, but that's perfectly normal. Because in every election, most American presidential candidates think they can get votes by beating up China. So for example, way back in 1992, which is now 27 years ago, when Bill Clinton was running against George H. W. Bush, he used a very negative expression for the leaders of China. But then one year later, I was personally present in Blake Island for the first APEC summit meeting when Bill Clinton was so nice to president Jiang Zemin. That's a perfect example of how, in the election year, things can be very bad and one year later, things can be very good.
But this time it is different, because a major geopolitical contest has broken out between the US and China. This is what I document in my forthcoming book, which will be released in New York in April 2020. It is called Has China won? This geopolitical contest is being driven by many factors like economics, politics, military and culture. So while traditionally relations will get better after election year, I'm not so sure that's going to happen in 2021. We should be psychologically prepared for more difficult relations between the US and China in the coming decade.
GT: You said you were shocked to find how frightened the US is of China. Where do you think such American fear comes from? Is a rising China inevitably a threat to the US?
Mahbubani: The US has been the strongest power in the world for over 100 years. And the US, we must understand, has so far been the most potent military power ever seen in human history. Even the Roman Empire was not as powerful as the US. But then now China comes along. And especially after the end of the Cold War, the US got used to living in a unipolar world. As it's no longer a unipolar world, it's natural in some ways for the US to feel threatened by the rise of China. So even if China is very peaceful, even if China does everything correctly, the US still feels threatened.
GT: Does that mean China and the US are doomed to confrontation?
Mahbubani: I would not necessarily use the word confrontation, because that word implies a kind of collision. That's why I use the word contest. Confrontation is similar to two bulls locking horns; contest could be like two horses running the same race. So there will be kind of contest between the US and China. And the US will try to preserve its No.1 position as long as possible. We should be psychologically ready for that.
But what would be good is for the US to work out a more thoughtful, long-term comprehensive strategy for managing the rise of China. And the key point I make is that the US has got to decide its fundamental core interests. Is the fundamental core interest of the US to improve the wellbeing of 330 million American people? If the fundamental goal is to improve the wellbeing of 330 million American people, then America should be working with China to improve the livelihood of its own people. But if the national interest of the US is to maintain its primacy, to maintain its No.1 position, then of course it feels threatened by the rise of China. So I think it's up to the US to think very hard and very deep about what its core interest is.
A major geopolitical contest between the US and China is both inevitable and avoidable. So my goal is to try to avoid this major contest. While there will be some competition and some competition may not necessarily be bad between the US and China, the competition should not become a zero-sum game. And I hope that the US and China will find ways and means of living together in peace.
GT: Some argue that a new cold war between China and the US is looming or has begun. Are you worried about such a new cold war?
Mahbubani: I am confident that we will not see a repeat of the old Cold War. And I think the phrase Cold War is misleading. I went to Moscow several times in 1976 and 1990 at the height of the Cold War, and there was almost no connection between American society and Soviet society. There was no trade between the US and the Soviet Union. But today the US and China are two of the largest trading partners in the world. There were no Soviet Union students going to study in American universities. But there are over 300,000 Chinese students studying in American universities. So it's not a Cold War in a sense of two societies that are completely separate. But nonetheless some elements of the Cold War are going to come back.
So for example, the US could ask countries to choose. Australia has been the No.1 ally of the US for so many years. So it may force Australia to choose and Australia will have a very hard time choosing because Australia's defense and political ties are completely with the US but the economic ties are stronger with China. That's the kind of difficulties that may arise. So if countries are forced to choose, then we will see a Cold War. But if countries are not forced to choose, then we will not see a Cold War.
GT: At this year's Munk Debates in Canada, you were on the side saying China is not a threat to the international liberal order. You also said the biggest threat to the world comes from the US. Do you think your views can be accepted by more Western audiences?
Mahbubani: I think that's the reason I participated in the debate with Henry Wang against General H. R. McMaster, former national security advisor, and Professor Michael Pillsbury. The main message I was trying to convey is that the US has not been thinking deeply enough about what its core interest is. Unfortunately, the US has been unwise, especially under President Donald Trump's administration, especially when John Bolton was in the US government, in believing that American interests were best served by cutting down or weakening multilateral institutions. And of course when you cut down or weaken multilateral institutions, that's a threat to the liberal international order.
By contrast, as far as I know, China wants to strengthen the UN, the WTO and other international organizations. So in that sense, China is not a threat. China is actually supportive of the rules-based international order.
It's very wise of China to follow these policies. I hope, after some time, the US will realize that it is also in American interest to support the liberal international rules-based order. At the end of the day, the Americans mustn't forget that the current international liberal rules-based order is a gift from the US and Europe to the world after WWII. So these are not Chinese institutions that they are wrecking. These are American and European institutions that the US is wrecking. And that's very unwise of the US to do this.
GT: From the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to its disabling a key WTO body for settling trade disputes, what should we do with the damage the US has caused to international multilateral institutions? Will there be a kind of multilateralism without the US?
Mahbubani: There are many different areas in which the US is retreating from multilateralism. One is in the fight against climate change; the other is in weakening the WTO. And the critical question to ask is: What does the rest of the world think? Because remember, in this world, there're 7.7 billion people. About 1.4 billion live in China, and 330 million live in the United States of America. You add that up: that's 1.7 billion people. That still leaves 6 billion people outside the US and China. So what do these 6 billion people want? And it is very clear that the 6 billion people outside the US and China don't want to weaken multilateral institutions. They want to strengthen multilateral institutions. So they are actually quite unhappy when the US blocks the appointment of appellate judges at the WTO, and they're very unhappy that the US has walked away from the climate change agreement. And among the 6 billion are America's strongest allies, including countries in the European Union, Japan and South Korea. So these countries actually want the US to go back to where it used to be. So I hope that in this coming contest between the US and China, the 6 billion people will help to push the US back toward multilateralism.
GT: The West refuses to recognize Chinese-style democracy. You argued in your article that the West must rethink its prejudiced views for China's political system. But can they really overcome their stereotyped perceptions about China?
Mahbubani: American minds misunderstand the nature of the contest between the US and China, because they see this as a contest between a dynamic vibrant democracy in the US and a Communist party system in China. They think the Communist party system in China is like the one in the Soviet Union. But actually, the US today is gone from being a democracy toward becoming a plutocracy in which the rich control the decisions of the country; and China has become a meritocracy where the best people are selected to serve in government. So if the contest is between the meritocracy in China and plutocracy in US, meritocracy can win. Because meritocracy means the best people are chosen to work in the government for the society, while in the US, it's the rich deciding everything. That will handicap the country. So when you analyze the two different political systems, you must go below the surface and see what's happening underneath.
GT: Singaporean leaders on many occasions have talked about Hong Kong and warned the country against slipping into a situation that Hong Kong is mired in. How do you view the problems Hong Kong faces? What could Singapore do to avoid a Hong Kong-like situation?
Mahbubani: Singapore is a very lucky country because it has clearly been one of the best governed in the world since independence in 1965. And many of the things that Singapore did right, Hong Kong did wrong. I give you some examples. Singapore became independent because the leaders fought for independence. We have politicians who could handle politics. The British ran Hong Kong for 150 years and they'd locked up a box called politics. But on the day the British left, they opened the box of politics. But they opened it without preparing politicians. So Singapore has gotten very good politicians. Hong Kong had zero politicians.
The second difference is that the Singaporean government decided long ago that we must take care of the interests of people at the bottom. So you must build public housing for them. So Singapore has the best public housing program in the world. In the case of Hong Kong, when Tung Chee-hwa was chief executive in 1997, he wanted to build 85,000 units of public housing per year for the people at the bottom, but he was blocked by some tycoons in Hong Kong. So no public housing was built. So if Tung had succeeded in 1997, there would have been 1.7 million units of public housing in Hong Kong in 20 years. So the problems Hong Kong is encountering today are not the results of decisions made yesterday but the result of decisions made 20 or 30 years ago. It is a deep structural problem, but at the same time, it can be fixed. So for example, the first thing the Hong Kong government should do is to launch a massive public housing program, do it right away. And it should seek the help of the mainland government. When these things are done and when the interests of the people at the bottom are taken care of, Hong Kong can be stabilized.
There will always be Western interference. There was Western interference in Singapore as well. So Singapore in the 1980s expelled American diplomats for interfering in its domestic affairs. But Western interference is not the cause of Hong Kong's problems, which are a result of structural factors. But there's an expression - adding spice to make your pain worse or rubbing salt into wounds. So Western interference is the case of rubbing salt into wounds. But the wounds are open, and we must close them.
The education system of Hong Kong has failed. The big mistake that the authorities in Hong Kong made in 1997 is not starting a process of educating the youngsters and telling them that they are part of China and their future is with China. And unfortunately, many of the teachers in the Hong Kong system nurtured the illusion that Hong Kong could go back to where it was. And it cannot, because it's important for the people of Hong Kong to understand the Opium War and how Hong Kong was seized from China. Because if they don't understand that history, they will not understand the strong feelings of the Chinese people. And it's interesting that people outside Hong Kong can see that very clearly. So what you need is a process by senior members of Hong Kong society to create a curriculum that prepares Hong Kong youngsters for the real world of tomorrow.