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China should not be perceived as an expansionist threat, says Kishore Mahbubani

Conversations | By Clement Tan Ching Loong, ASEAN Forum Director (NUSPA)



For Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the prospect of a major geopolitical contest between the United States and China was obvious to him years ago. As one of Foreign Policy magazine’s Top Global Thinkers (2010 and 2011) and “the muse of the Asian Century”, his intuitive insights on the contest were deeply anticipated by statesmen and thinkers around the world.


Know Thy Enemy, Know Thy Self


Professor Mahbubani’s latest book, Has China Won, shines his insights on the US-China contest, and is bound to provoke many Americans who cannot wait to declare China the villain or loser. The prolific author, who has already published seven books, boldly outlines the strategic mistakes of the United States, the biggest of which is contesting a 4000-year civilization without a comprehensive, long term strategy.


According to the former President of the United Nations Security Council, the United States is making the mistake of assuming that it will always win, backed by more than a hundred years of triumph – from winning the two World Wars to defeating the Soviet Union.


Americans should “know thy enemy, know thyself”, he posits, quoting the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, whose treatise on the Art of War has become a foundation of strategy around the world.


As such, he warns the Americans not to underestimate China’s strengths, and points out how Chinese leaders have always had a strategic, long-term horizon.


After all, China has rapidly developed into the world’s second-largest economy, has become a world leader in many advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, and is fielding an increasingly powerful military force that is challenging the US presence in East Asia and the South China Sea.


The recent COVID-19 outbreak also shines light on China’s strengths and America’s weaknesses.


“Even though the Anglo-Saxon media has been very critical of China in handling COVID-19, most other countries in the world recognise that China has done a good job. It has sent out more assistance in terms of masks, PPE, medical equipment than the US has to the rest of the world,” says Professor Mahbubani, adding that this has grown China’s global influence relative to the US.


By contrast, the United States under the Trump administration has done a poor job managing the outbreak, leading to high infection and death rates.


However, Professor Mahbubani notes that the United States can still emerge the winner in this aspect of their rivalry as the pandemic is far from over.


Despite his criticism of the United States, the current Distinguished Fellow of the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore sees his book as a “gift to his American friends,” by pointing out America’s mistakes. Indeed, like many of his American friends, Financial Times’ chief economics commentator Martin Wolf has also praised his book for helping to “wake up America.”


Zoom interview session with Professor Kishore Mahbubani. Photo: The Convergence.

Is China Expansionist?


When asked by The Convergence whether China aspires to be an expansionist global power, Professor Mahbubani thinks that China should not be perceived as an expansionist threat.


He argues that China benefits the most from the 1945 rules-based order that the West gifted to the world. The country leveraged on the order to become the world’s greatest trading power. In addition, China has a greater interest in the freedom of navigation than the United States does as they consume more imported goods than the US.


Of course, as the veteran diplomat notes, China will eventually shape its regional environment and flex its muscles as it becomes more powerful.


“No great power is benevolent. Every great power has its own interests first,” he notes, emphasising the outcome as an inherent trait of great powers.


However, he compares the current state of China with the US around 1900, which the former is on the same point as the latter in terms of its emergence as a great power.


“Americans enjoy lecturing China to be more like us. Perhaps they should be more careful of what they wish for,” he quotes Graham Allison, whom has also written a book on the US-China contest.


Under then US President Theodore Roosevelt, the US as an emerging great power attacked and expelled Spain from the Western Hemisphere, acquired Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and supported an insurrection in Columbia to separate Panama from it (so as to construct the Panama Canal).


Even with modern international institutions and legal frameworks, however, the US is not restrained. The country has fought the Iraq War illegally against the UN Security Council’s decision, Professor Mahbubani reminds.


China, by contrast, has not fought a major war in forty years (while the Americans have fought a war each year for the past thirty years), which is in fact unusual for an emerging power.


“If China wants to take over all the islands in the South China Sea – Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam – they can do it immediately in twenty-four hours,” he notes, illustrating China’s tremendous military restraint.


Professor Mahbubani explains how Chinese military action is less restrained by international norms or institutions than its strategic culture of “winning a war without fighting” – an indication of strategic mastery as outlined by Sun Tzu – as well as its goals, which are centred around the rejuvenation of the Chinese civilization.


He also highlights how western fears of China are not the result of rational calculations, but emotional, deep seated racism, and urges Americans to examine themselves honestly.


“If the West was driven by pure reason, they would see that China is not actually shaking up the World Order, and is not sending armies to conquer other territories,” he explains.


He illustrates his point by referencing the COVID-19 episode. “China did the world a favour after its initial mistake---it stopped COVID-19 from exploding around the world. Instead of receiving a thank-you note, China was attacked ferociously, with phrases like ‘kung-flu’.”


ASEAN’s Response to the Contest


If China is not an expansionist threat, how should ASEAN respond to the superpower contest?


“There is a real danger that ASEAN could be split apart by this rivalry because some members of ASEAN like Vietnam are very pro-US, while other members of ASEAN like Cambodia are very pro-China,” Professor Mahbubani warns. In fact, he has mentioned this in his previous book, The ASEAN Miracle back in 2017.


However, he is confident that all the ASEAN countries have agreed that they should not be forced to choose sides between US and China.


On this, Professor Mahbubani commends Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for his courage in expressing this point in his speech at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue and in his recent article (July 2020) in Foreign Affairs, titled The Endangered Asian Century. In these, Prime Minister Lee also outlined the important, respective roles that the two powers play in the region and the world.


“[The Prime Minister] made it very clearly that we want to have good relations with the US as well as China. I suspect that PM Lee is speaking on behalf of all the ASEAN countries as well,” he adds.


ASEAN should continue to use negotiation and diplomacy to manage issues with the United States and China. “The diplomacy has been working”, he notes, pointing to the absence of any military encounters with China, especially on the South China Sea territorial disputes, which involved a few ASEAN states as claimants.


Furthermore, there is no concern of a military conflict with the US, which has been a security partner with most ASEAN countries, and a traditional enforcer of stability in the region.


As elaborated earlier, he points out that “we in ASEAN are very fortunate that we are not in Central America, because the United States uses force liberally in Central America.”


In short, China’s preference for minimum force and America’s restraint in using force in the Southeast Asian region are both conducive for ASEAN’s diplomacy with the two powers.


A Positive Sum Game with ASEAN


Professor Mahbubani is also optimistic about China’s growing influence on ASEAN.


To him, ASEAN’s increasing reliance on China for trade is not necessarily a bad outcome. It is in China’s interest for ASEAN’s economy to grow, as ASEAN is one of the biggest markets for Chinese products. Thus, China will not use its growing economic leverage over ASEAN to jeopardise ASEAN’s economy, but instead promote mutual growth, as long as ASEAN maintains positive relations with it.


Even if American and Japanese companies shift their production bases away from China to Southeast Asia, as a result of the pandemic or geopolitical contest, there will be no reason for China to perceive ASEAN as a threat.


“If the Japanese and Americans invest in ASEAN and boost ASEAN’s economic growth, they are also indirectly helping to boost China’s economic growth. The thing about supply chains is that it is not a zero-sum game, it is a positive sum game,” Professor Mahbubani explains.


Strategic Wisdom


Ultimately, Professor Mahbubani believes that whether China’s emergence is peaceful or not depends on the practice of strategic wisdom by other countries. He urges neighboring countries to adjust and adapt to China’s emergence, instead of simply resisting it. More importantly, he urges the US to recognise the potential for cooperation with China, and leverage on it to solve critical issues like global warming, instead of engaging in an unproductive zero-sum game while the “forest around them is burning.”



This interview was conducted on Zoom, as part of the ASEAN Forum 2020, organised by the NUS Students' Political Association.


Check out the video below to hear Prof Mahbubani’s views on whether China is an expansionist threat.





About the Interviewee:


Kishore Mahbubani is an accomplished academic and former diplomat. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS), and the Founding Dean of the LKY School of Public Policy, NUS. His distinguished diplomatic career saw him as the former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Ministry (1993 to 1998), former Singapore's Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1971 to 2004) and former President of the United Nations Security Council (January 2001 to May 2002). He was also the founding Director of the Civil Service College.


As an academic, he is the first Singaporean to publish articles in globally renowned journals and newspapers like Foreign Affairs, and co-authored articles with distinguished global thought leaders like Kofi Annan and Larry Summers. He was listed as one of the Foreign Policy magazine’s Top Global Thinkers in 2010 and 2011. In 2011, he was described as “the muse of the Asian century”.


He has also been a prolific author, having published seven books: “Can Asians Think?”, “Beyond The Age Of Innocence”, “The New Asian Hemisphere”, “The Great Convergence”, “Can Singapore Survive”, “The ASEAN Miracle” (co-authored with Jeffery Sng) and “Has the West Lost It?”.


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