On October 18, 2021, CCG hosted a dialogue between CCG President Huiyao Wang and Kishore Mahbubani, Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
On October 18, 2021, CCG hosted a dialogue between CCG President Huiyao Wang and Kishore Mahbubani, Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.
In many ways, Kishore is the ideal discussant to conclude this section on great power relations and this book as a whole. His diverse experience and distinguished career have given him a unique perspective and special insights into the evolving China–US relationship. He is in the rare position of being extremely well informed about both countries but also being a neutral third-party observer, so he is well-placed to help clear the thick fog of misunderstanding that has enshrouded ties between the world’s two largest economies.
For over three decades, Kishore Mahbubani served as a diplomat for Singapore, a country with deep ties to both China and the US. In addition to postings around the world, he was twice Singapore’s Ambassador to the UN and served as President of the UN Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002. Since then, Mahbubani has gone on to forge a distinguished career in academia, becoming one of Asia’s leading public intellectuals and one of the most insightful and eloquent Asian voices on the big issues of our times.
I have known Kishore for over a decade and had the honor and pleasure of discussing and sharing ideas with him in many arenas over the years, most memorably in May 2019, when we debated side by side in one of the “Munk Debates,” a mainstage public debate held in Toronto. CCG was also proud to translate one of Kishore’s most recent books into Chinese, Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, published in China by CITIC Press. This dialogue also served as a launch event for the Chinese edition of this book, which has attracted considerable attention both in China and abroad. Aside from key topics Kishore covers in that book, our conversation also covers prospects for cooperation on climate change and other shared challenges, China’s new drive to achieve “Common Prosperity,” economic integration in Asia, and the continuing importance of the UN and other multilateral organizations.
Huiyao Wang: You have played the role of an astute international observer for many years, building bridges between East and West. The Chinese translation of Has China won? The Chinese challenge to American primacy was recently published by CITIC Press Group. The book offers a comprehensive and sober analysis of China–US relations and provides suggestions for both countries from your view as a third-party observer. Could you please tell us a bit about what sparked your interest in writing this book and about your views on China–US relations?
Kishore Mahbubani: The reason I wrote the book is that if you can imagine two trains coming down the same track, gaining momentum, and heading toward a collision, what do you do? Do you say, “carry on, have a collision” or do you say “stop, and think twice about whether you really want this collision?”.
Unfortunately, the US has launched a geopolitical contest against China. As a result, the US and China are racing toward a collision like two trains. My goal is to try and stop the worst-case scenario of an all-out collision between these two trains. I tried to analyze the reasons why this is happening in my book. They are primarily structural reasons; it is not due to personalities. Many people think that the US–China contest started because of Donald Trump. But you will notice in the first paragraph of my book, I say that while the US–China contest was launched by Donald Trump, it will outlast him. It doesn’t matter who the US president is. Sure enough, after Joe Biden became president, he couldn’t change anything. The contest will still continue, and even though Biden said in his election campaign that Trump's tariffs are hurting the American people and workers, he cannot remove them, because the geopolitical contest is driven by structural forces. That is the main reason why I wrote this book, to try to explain the structural forces that are driving this contest. Let me quickly outline the reasons.
One is of course the fact that whenever the world’s number one emerging power, which today is China, is about to overtake the world’s number one power, the US, the world’s number one power will always try to push down the world’s number one emerging power. So, when the US is trying to prevent China from succeeding, that’s normal behavior. That’s what all great powers do.
But the second structural reason, that nobody talks about, is that there is also a fear of the “yellow peril” in the Western imagination. This is something that is politically incorrect to discuss in many Western circles, but it’s a fact in Western history. In the late nineteenth century, the US Congress passed a bill called the US Chinese Exclusion Act to keep out Chinese immigrants. That reflects the fear of the “yellow peril” that exists in the American psyche, as well the Western psyche.
There's also a third structural factor. That was a bipartisan consensus in the US, among both Republicans and Democrats, that after the US engaged China and opened up to China economically, China would also open up politically, become a liberal democracy, and then the liberal democracy of China and the liberal democracy of US would live happily ever after. As you know, that’s a fairy tale, but that's what Americans believed. Because of that, they are very disappointed that China is not creating a political system that Americans like. This is another reason why the US–China geopolitical contest is gaining momentum. So, there are structural reasons why this is happening, and it’s not due to personalities. I hope my book could make a contribution to help people understand why all this is happening.
Huiyao Wang: Thank you. I think that's a great rationale for writing this book and to highlight the structural problems, what Graham Allison calls the Thucydides Trap, and as you mentioned, the fear of the “yellow peril,” and the misguided bipartisan consensus that China would converge with the US.
Historically, Chinese people have been relatively peace-loving and have generally not colonized other places. As mentioned in your book, Zheng He in the Ming Dynasty actually traveled as far as Africa, but never occupied any colony. That was 100 years before Columbus discovered America.
Looking ahead, how do you think China–US relations will unfold? As Martin Wolf and I discussed, we need to manage the geopolitical risks of China–US frictions. The structural problems will not go away in the next five to ten years. But as Joseph S. Nye Jr. and I discussed, maybe by around the year 2035 we can hope to see some degree of normalization.
What do you think of this time horizon? How long are we going to have this kind of friction, and will we be able to keep it to a manageable level so that we don't get into a “hot war” over the issue of Taiwan or anything related to the South China Sea?
Kishore Mahbubani: These are very good questions. I have a chapter of the book devoted to the question, “is China expansionist?” Of course, I cite the example of Admiral Zheng He, who traveled all the way from China to Africa. He could have conquered many territories and many countries, but he never did. So, this idea that the West has that China is expansionist is not true. If the Chinese were expansionists, then Australia would be a Chinese colony and not a British colony, because Australia is much closer to China than it is to Great Britain.
At the same time, I’m glad that you mentioned Martin Wolf and Joseph S. Nye Jr., and how they said that we’ve got to find the ways and means to manage the US–China geopolitical contest. I agree with them and that is the conclusion of my book—I say that the paradox about the US–China geopolitical contest is that it is both inevitable and avoidable. It is avoidable, because at the end of the day, if the goal of the US is to improve the well-being of its people, and if the goal of China is to improve the well-being of its people, they should be working together rather than working against each other. That’s why I wrote my book, so I agree with your argument.
At the same time, I have been in the US now for eight days and the mood in the US is very anti-China. I have met many Americans who say to me directly and openly that China is the enemy. I was quite shocked, as even though I have written a book about US–China relations, since I did the research for my book, there has been a tremendous shift against China in the American body politic, which I think is very sad.
I actually believe that there is no reason why the US should regard China as its enemy. China is not trying to conquer the US. China is not sending naval vessels to California. China is not sending armies to the Mexican border or the Canadian border to invade the US. Yet so many American people in the US believe that China is the enemy. The people you have interviewed [in this dialogue series]—like Joseph S. Nye Jr., Martin Wolf, and Tom Friedman—I know they all want to achieve a reasonable outcome. But at the end of the day, it’s the politicians who have to make the decision.
As I said, even though Biden himself said that Trump's tariffs and sanctions have hurt the American people, he still cannot remove them. And [US Trade Representative] Katherine Tai, I was hoping in her [recent] speech that she would say that [the US] would lift some of the tariffs and sanctions because they hurt the American people, but she can’t do it. The mood in the US today is so anti-China that I'm personally very frightened by it. I had no idea how much the mood against China had become so negative in the US, and that’s why we need to have this dialogue, to prevent the worst-case outcome from happening between the US and China.
Huiyao Wang: In your book, you wrote that the ultimate concern is not whether America or China wins, but that humanity has to win. We are now facing the pandemic but have not really got our acts together to cooperate, which is a great concern. As you said, there is a growing consensus in the US that China is some kind of an “evil empire.” How can we correct that way of thinking?
Kishore Mahbubani: I think you are quite right that many Americans have already begun to see China as the “evil empire.” We must in one way or another challenge that perception, but that requires a lot of effort. Actually, I believe that the rest of Asia must speak out more strongly to the fact that the US–China geopolitical contest is not just damaging the US and China, but also the rest of the world.
COVID-19 and climate change are common challenges that we must work together on. You mentioned the last part of my book, where I say that this is not a question of whether China or the US has won, but it’s a question of whether humanity has won.
On the same page, I write that humanity thinks it is much smarter than apes living in the forest. But for apes who live in the forest, if the forest is burning, the stupidest thing they could do is continue fighting. They should come together to put out the fire in the forest. Global warming is basically teaching humanity and asking, are you really the most intelligent species on this planet? If global warming is going to kill human beings, regardless of whether you are in China or the US, Bangladesh or Brazil, Nigeria or Norway, it doesn't matter, as climate change is a common challenge and all of humanity should be coming together. Therefore, we should hit the pause button on this US–China geopolitical contest.
Huiyao Wang: Thank you, Kishore. Since the US–China relationship is the world’s most important bilateral relationship, we cannot let it deteriorate too much or enter a more dangerous phase. I think there are a few areas for potential cooperation that we could discuss further.
First, as you mentioned, is climate change. At COP 15 on biodiversity in Kunming [in October 2021,] President Xi pledged CNY 1.5 billion, which is over $230 million, to a biodiversity protection fund for developing countries. […] We know climate change is a huge problem, with extreme weather events becoming more frequent. How can we work together to address this common challenge?
Kishore Mahbubani: You're absolutely right and I'm very happy to hear that President Xi has decided to contribute CNY 1. 5 billion toward the biodiversity challenge. Here, I must say that the tragedy about China is that quite often, on global challenges, China contributes a lot, but is not very good at marketing its contributions. The world doesn't really know what China is doing, and I'll give you three or four concrete examples to prove my point.
Firstly, China is the first country in the world to speak about the concept of “ecological civilization,” which means that as you modernize and develop, you must also take care of your environment. [Few people outside of China] have heard of ecological civilization, and this is a tragedy.
Secondly, if you look at why climate change is happening now, it’s not just because of new greenhouse gas emissions from China, India, and the rest of Asia. It’s also because of the stock of greenhouse gas emissions that Western industrialized countries have emitted since the Industrial Revolution over one or two hundred years ago. Again, that's something most people around the world are not aware of.
Thirdly, China has done so much in terms of reforestation. It’s reforesting an area the size of Belgium or bigger [each year], which again, [few people] know about. There have also been other contributions, for example, President Xi Jinping ordered that shark fin cannot be served at official banquets, which saw a drop in the price of shark fin and likely saved a lot of sharks. China has taken many such concrete steps which few people are aware of.
This is why it's very important for China to make a bigger effort to try and explain to the rest of the world what it is doing. I think it's important to make sure this message is conveyed, not necessarily by spokespeople of China, but by friends of China around the world. They shouldn't just deploy Chinese propaganda. They should just tell the facts [about China’s contributions].
To cite another big example, if China had decided that it would produce the same number of gasoline cars as the US, that would have been terrible for climate change. But China is now the leader in producing electric cars, which will help save the global environment. China is also a leading supplier of solar power and wind turbines. Again, these facts are underappreciated. I think it's important for China to look for friends who can explain these facts—as I said, not propaganda—just let the facts speak for themselves. That's something that China has not been very good at doing so far, and its why there's so much negative coverage of China in the Anglo-Saxon media.
Huiyao Wang: You're right. These are good concrete examples of the communications challenges that China is facing. On the one hand, China is doing well on the KPIs [key performance indicators] regarding climate change. China has been the largest contributor to the world’s gain in green coverage over the last 20 years, accounting for at least 25 percent of the increase, though not many people know this. We need to craft a better narrative for that, but also as you said, also let other people talk about it too rather than just convey it through one channel. President Xi has said that China aims to peak carbon emissions before 2030 and to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. At the UN General Assembly [in September 2021] President Xi said that China would stop financing all coal power plants outside China. The 14th Five-Year Plan sets a target to reduce energy intensity by 13.5 percent and carbon emission intensity by 18 percent. But sometimes these concrete plans are not properly explained to the world.
Moving now to the global supply chain crisis, President Biden recently announced that ports in New York and Los Angeles would operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as the US tries to overcome goods shortages. Infrastructure is an area where China does comparatively well, for example, seven of the world’s ten largest ports are in China. As you mentioned, China is also a leading producer of new energy vehicles, wind power, solar power, and hydropower. So, is there scope for China and the US to work together on infrastructure, for example, tapping synergies between Biden’s B3W initiative and the Belt and Road? More generally, can both sides work together to benefit both countries and the rest of the world, rather than demonizing each other?
Kishore Mahbubani: That's a very noble objective, Henry. I think it can be done. But to achieve global cooperation, you first need to explain to people why global cooperation is important. I wrote a book on global governance called The Great Convergence, which was also published in China. In that book, I explain that globalization has shrunk the world, as a result of which, the world has changed fundamentally.
To explain how it has changed fundamentally, I have used what I call the boat analogy. In the past, [when we thought of] 7.8 billion people living in 193 separate countries, it was as though they lived in 193 separate boats. Each boat had a captain and crew to take care of it and the boats were separate. So, if one boat got COVID-19, the other boats would not get COVID-19, because they are different boats—[an infectious disease] could not go from one boat to another.
However, the world has shrunk. Now, although 7.8 billion people may live in 193 separate countries, [we see that] they are no longer on 193 separate boats—rather, they live in 193 separate cabins on the same boat. If we had any doubts about this, they have surely been dispelled by COVID-19. The virus began in one cabin, and it spread around the world, showing how we are all on the same boat.
If we share the same boat, we should take care of our common boat. We now know that if we destroy Planet Earth, we have no alternative. If we destroy the environment, the climate, or the atmosphere of Planet Earth, we cannot go and live on any other planet. We cannot transport 7.8 billion people to Mars or anywhere else. Mars is not inhabitable anyway, maybe except for Elon Musk—he can go and build a small colony for himself there, but the whole of humanity cannot go and live in those places. So, it's important for us to understand that we are now on the same boat and that we have a common destiny and we have common challenges, but this requires a complete change in mindset on the part of policymakers. And herein lies the problem.
For many policymakers, especially many Western policymakers, their concepts of geopolitics come from the nineteenth century. When I talk about the structural forces that explain why the US–China geopolitical contest is continuing, it is because policymakers are applying nineteenth-century geopolitical concepts to the twenty-first century. In the past, when you lived in separate countries, it was as though you were living in separate boats. Now, all of us live in the same boat, so our common interests and common challenges are much more important. Therefore, to achieve cooperation as suggested in your question, [the answer is that] we can all cooperate, but first of all, we must understand why we need to cooperate, and the reason why we need to cooperate is that we’re all in the same boat. That's the fundamental reason.
Huiyao Wang: I think that’s an excellent metaphor. We are all living on the same planet, in the same “global village,” on the same boat. We are now fighting a virus and have to get our collective act together.
One of the challenges that people cite for global cooperation is that [China and the West] have different values, different systems, and different development models, which as you write in your book, have not converged. This has led some people to feel that there is no “us,” but rather a “you” and “me” that are fundamentally different.
China has its own development model, which has proven quite successful. Francis Fukuyama has now recognized that [contrary to his earlier claim], we have not reached “the end of history.” Do you think the West will be able to accept China’s Asian development model, such that it doesn’t think that China is an “evil empire” if it doesn’t converge? Can we become a more multipolar, more diversified world in terms of our accepting different values and respecting others’ rights to find a way that works for them?
Kishore Mahbubani: Well, that's a very good question. Before I wrote the book Has China Won? I wrote a book called Has the West Lost It? And back in 1992, I wrote an essay called “The West and the Rest” in The National Interest.
One of the most arrogant assumptions that the West has had in looking at the world, and you mentioned Francis Fukuyama who wrote an essay called “The End of History” in which he sent a sophisticated message, but what all Westerners heard was that the West had succeeded, the West had achieved liberal democracy, and that all the rest of the world now had to copy the West. [According to this view,] the West doesn't have to adapt or change to other cultures or civilizations.
As I said in my book Has the West lost It? Francis Fukuyama’s essay did a lot of brain damage to the West, because he put the West to sleep precisely at a time when other Asian Civilizations were waking up, including the Chinese civilization, the Indian civilization, and Southeast Asian civilizations. I think it's important for the West to accept the notion that other civilizations will not become carbon copies of the West. That's the most fundamental thing that the West has got to learn to accept. And the strange thing is, even though the West preaches liberalism, liberalism means that you accept different points of view, alternative points of view, but ironically, the liberals in the West cannot accept a world of diverse civilizations and of civilizations that are not carbon copies of the West. China is certainly not going to become a carbon copy of the West, because Chinese civilization is as old or even older than Western civilization. So, China is going to be quite different.
In the case of China, Chinese leaders have to understand Chinese history, Chinese traditions, Chinese culture, and also Chinese strengths and weaknesses. Whenever the central government in China is weak, the Chinese people suffer. When the Chinese central government is strong, the Chinese people benefit, and that's why the last 30–40 years of Chinese history have been the best 30–40 years of Chinese history for the bottom 50 percent in China in 4000 years of Chinese history. That's a remarkable fact about China that many in the West are not aware of. Chinese civilization is now coming back again, after having gone to sleep for almost 200 years. But China has failed to explain the nature of Chinese civilization to the Western audience. They don't understand it at all. Instead, if there's anything negative that they can pick up in a story about China, they'll write about the negative stuff.
Recently, when China cracked down on big tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and DiDi, some people in the West said, “OK, China is going after big companies, China is going to destroy itself.” Really? Will China destroy itself? Or is China trying to create a society that is not a plutocracy? In my book, I give a whole chapter to the question of why America is weakening itself by becoming a plutocracy. If China decides not to become a plutocracy, that's a positive development for China. This is something again that China finds hard to explain to a Western audience. What China needs to do a better job of is to say, we respect the fact that you in the West want to have a certain kind of society that works better for America, for the West, where you emphasize individual rights more than individual responsibilities. But maybe China wants to have a society that emphasizes individual responsibilities more than individual rights. We have a diverse world, we have two different kinds of social models. Let each society choose its own social model, and let’s see which is the best, instead of saying that “the West is best” and “the rest must copy the West.” That's what the West has been saying, but [the Western model] may not necessarily be what is good for other societies. This is what China needs to explain in a very careful and nuanced fashion. But so far, it has not succeeded in explaining to the West that actually, China will never become a carbon copy of the West.
Huiyao Wang: I agree and you put it well. I think China tends to emphasize individual responsibilities more than individual rights. That’s the Chinese social model, and it has helped China contain COVID-19. We’ve had quarantine, lockdown, and people stayed at home, sacrificing some individual rights. But this allowed the whole of society to get free of the virus and return to normal. So, in a way, this pandemic has proven that the Chinese way of doing things may not necessarily be as bad as people thought in the West. But you're right, we have to explain better how China works.
Moving on. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CPC and also President Xi has announced that China has eliminated extreme poverty. The 800 million people that have escaped poverty in China account for 70 percent of the global reduction in poverty, helping to fulfil the UN 2030 agenda 10 years ahead of schedule. [Former USTR] Larry Summers once said at CCG that this is probably something comparable to the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, or even greater than that.
But China will not stop there and has now proposed another objective, “Common Prosperity.” After lifting 800 million people out of extreme poverty, attention turns to the working class, like DiDi drivers, delivery workers, and the 250 million migrant workers working in different parts of China. Premier Li has noted that around 600 million people earn CNY 1000 a month. So, now the government is focusing its efforts on those less wealthy and less affluent, exactly to avoid the problem that you mentioned in your book about the situation in the US, where the wealth of the top 1 percent is maybe equal to that of 50 percent of the general population, many of whom haven’t seen any real progress in the last several decades.
You also mentioned that the government is trying to address the monopolies of big companies and also trying to make things fairer. Recently, there has also been a crackdown on extreme after-school study activities, as this places too much burden on elementary or high school students.
I think there are a lot of ways the central Chinese government is trying to push for noble objectives. By 2035, China is going to be well on its path to basically achieving modernization, and by 2049 becoming a fully modernized and developed society. So, what do you think about this Common Prosperity goal that China has shifted to?
Kishore Mahbubani: In the West, there are two schools of thought on Common Prosperity and what China is trying to do with it. The Anglo-Saxon view is that China is shooting itself in the foot with Common Prosperity, because when China goes after the big tech companies like Alibaba, Tencent, DiDi, when China restricts the power and influence of big companies, China is only ensuring that American big tech firms will succeed and win. So, some people in the Anglo-Saxon world will celebrate the fact that China is going after all these big tech companies. That's one school of thought.
But the other school of thought, which is what I suppose is the view in China, is that these companies in some ways have become too powerful and are putting the interests of [themselves] ahead of the interests of society in many areas. For example, video games may be bad for the population at large and too much tuition may be bad for society at large. So, what China is trying to do is some kind of societal correction, which may actually help the Chinese people and help Chinese families and maybe may result in [increased fertility], if you create a more balanced society for people, especially at the bottom.
So, right now, there are two schools of thought on what Common Prosperity means. Only time will tell which school is right, but I think at the same time, it’s very courageous for the Chinese government to take on some of these big tech companies, because China may end up hurting itself in the process. So, it's got to be done very carefully and it's got to be handled in such a way that on the one hand, common prosperity spreads in China, but on the other hand, you have got to make sure that China's global economic growth doesn't slow down. These are contradictory objectives that have to be handled well.
Huiyao Wang: Yes, we need to strike a balance. On the one hand, we need to maintain economic vitality and entrepreneurship for market forces to be strong. On the other hand, we also need to raise the living standards of the working class in China and protect migrant workers. I think China has made a lot of progress in this area. For example, China now has 1 billion people with social security benefits and 1.3 billion people with some form of medical care protection—that's probably the largest such system in the world. To improve on this and expand the middle class is, as you said, a very bold initiative. But if it can be handled well, [Common Prosperity] could help to avoid the polarization in society that we see in some other countries, and help keep populism and nationalism at bay, so that it doesn’t disrupt the whole of society. That’s the progress China is making and that's my understanding of Common Prosperity.
Now, I'd like to shift to another area. At the end of last year, we saw a big shift with the change of US administration from Trump to Biden. During this time, RCEP has been concluded, and China is also in the process of ratifying a big agreement with the EU on investment. After President Xi mentioned that China is positively considering joining CPTPP last year, this year, the Chinese Minister of Commerce announced that China has officially applied to join CPTPP.
In this context, how do you see rising Asian prosperity? ASEAN has already China’s become the largest trading partner and we are seeing the rise of the region as a whole. You have written another book, The Asian 21st Century, which CCG is translating and will be published by CITIC. How do you see the rise of Asia, its implications, and the influence of East Asian culture in particular? And how will this impact these new trade schemes?
Kishore Mahbubani: It is quite surprising that in the past, the number one champion of free trade agreements by far used to be the US. I remember in 1985, I accompanied the then-Prime Minister of Singapore Mr. Lee Kuan Yew when he addressed a joint session of the US Congress. This was 36 years ago, and in that speech, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew mentioned how the US, by championing free trade and by spending the virtues of free trade, had helped to generate global prosperity. At that time, it was the US that wanted to sign free trade agreements with everybody. I think that in 1985, China had not signed a single free trade agreement. What's amazing is that today, the roles have reversed in a very profound way, such that today the US Congress is not willing to sign or ratify any free trade agreement.
You mentioned the CPTPP. It was President Obama who signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), but the US Congress and Senate did not ratify it, which was a tragedy. Now, it’s China that wants to join [the successor of the TPP, the] CPTPP. It shows how much the world has changed, so it’s very important that we in East Asia continue to promote free trade.
On the question of free trade, I'm glad you mentioned that the RCEP has been concluded. I see many Asian countries delayed the conclusion of the RCEP because they were very keen to get India to join. I must say I felt very sad that at the last minute India decided not to join the RCEP, because by not joining the RCEP, India is not participating in the great growth and success story of East Asia. But we in East Asia must continue to push for greater trade liberalization because the theory of comparative advantage that Ricardo devised is still valid and alive today.
Even though countries like the US or India and others have walked away from the virtues of free trade, we in East Asia must continue to push for it, because trade not only generates economic prosperity, it also generates peace. One of the things I have launched recently, which you can Google and find, is the Asian Peace Program (APP). If you go to our website, what we’re trying to do is to generate peace in East Asia, and we believe that one good way of generating peace in East Asia is through encouraging greater free trade and encouraging more free trade agreements. I have written about that in several different places, so I hope that we in East Asia should not just support the RCEP, but should also welcome China's application to join the CPTPP.
Huiyao Wang: I think that's great news. China is now actively pursuing CPTPP membership.
You are an expert on Asia and have been studying and researching this fast-growing continent for a long time. But the region also faces geopolitical risks with rivalry over the South China Sea and the issue of Taiwan. ASEAN has been caught in the middle of the US–China rivalry in the region. Japan, for example, is quite allied with the US. But I'm glad to see that recently Present Xi spoke to the Prime Minister of Singapore and also the new Prime Minister of Japan. So, what do you see as the solution to South China Sea issues with ASEAN countries, and the Taiwan issue? Also, what about ASEAN countries taking sides if there's serious geopolitical conflict? What's your advice for the region?
Kishore Mahbubani: You are right. There are many difficult issues in our region and the reason why my colleagues in the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore and I launched the Asian Peace Program is that there are many geopolitical flashpoints in East Asia, including the South China Sea, Taiwan, and others. What we must do is send a message that even though we continue to have differences over many of these issues like the South China Sea, we will not go to war over them. We try to negotiate peacefully to arrive at an understanding. For example, the ASEAN countries and China are trying to reach an agreement on a code of conduct [for the South China Sea]. This is [an area where] we should push harder and harder to get an agreement, to ensure that there's no conflict in the South China Sea.
I think we can avoid war in the South China Sea, but I'm not so optimistic that we can avoid war in Taiwan, because Taiwan is a much more sensitive issue for China. China believes that Taiwan has always been a part of China and should at one point in time reunify with China, and of course, all of us are hoping for a peaceful reunification between Taiwan and China. But for that to happen, it's important that no parties violate the One-China Policy that has been agreed upon by everybody. And this is what worries me about the Trump administration. Because in the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to walk away from the One-China Policy and that's very, very dangerous. Once you walk away from the One-China Policy, you may trigger a war across the Taiwan Strait, and a war across the Taiwan Strait—if the US gets involved—may lead to a nuclear war. Millions of people would die in a nuclear war, so people need to understand that the stakes on Taiwan are very high and it could lead to the very dangerous outcome of a nuclear war. The best way to avoid a nuclear war is not to change the status quo on Taiwan. We must all respect the One-China Policy and this is something that, for example, most Asian countries respect, and so we must all speak out and explain to Western countries why the One-China Policy is important, and why they should not go back on agreements that were negotiated very carefully between the US and China over the past 50 years since Henry Kissinger went to China in July 1971.
Huiyao Wang: I think the three communiqués are important cornerstones of the China–US relationship. We should maintain that and not change the status quo, in order to avoid military conflict, that's very important.
This year is the 50th anniversary of China resuming its seat in the UN, the 30th anniversary of China joining APEC, and the 20th anniversary of China joining the WTO. These milestones symbolize China's openness to the rest of the world. In your book, you mention that when the Bretton Woods system was established, there were only 2.5 billion people in the world, and today there are 7.8 billion people. Is global governance falling behind global practice? You worked at the UN for a long time—what can be done to enhance global governance and multilateralism, and how can China play a more responsive and larger role in this process?
Kishore Mahbubani: Thank you, a very good question. As you mentioned, I was an ambassador to the UN for over 10 years. [Through this experience,] I fell in love with the UN and think it is one of the most wonderful organizations in the world, and the UN Charter is one of the most beautiful documents in the world. We should work together to try to strengthen the UN.
One of the mistakes that the West has been making, and I documented this in my book, The Great Convergence, is that even though the West created all these multilateral institutions, including the United Nations and affiliated organizations like the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, over the past 30–40 years, the West has been trying to weaken these organizations. I keep emphasizing that this is against Western interests. The West represents a minority in the global village, and so it is wise for the West to strengthen institutions of global governance in a global village. So, I hope that China will do the exact opposite of what the West is doing when it comes to the United Nations and for a start, I think China should try to revive the United Nations General Assembly. Because the United Nations General Assembly, at the end of the day, represents what I call the parliament or the “National People's Congress” of humanity. China should do its best to go to the United Nations General Assembly and debate many of these global issues.
When the US invaded Iraq, [it] said they were doing something which is in accordance with international law. But all you had to do is to have a debate in the UN General Assembly and let all the countries speak out, and most of the countries would say this is not in accordance with international law. In fact, as Kofi Annan said, since the US’ invasion of Iraq was neither an act of self-defense nor endorsed by the UN Security Council, it was illegal under international law, and that’s something that the UN General Assembly can say.
So, I hope that China will do its very best to try and revive, strengthen, and support the United Nations. Because the United Nations may become, at the end of the day, a valuable soft line of defense for China, because any time the West attacks China, China can take the issue to the UN General Assembly and then ask the rest of the world, do you agree with the West or do you agree with China? Have a debate, and then the West will be surprised to discover that many in the world don't agree with many points the West is making on global governance issues, and so this provides a geopolitical opportunity for China to strengthen these institutions of global governance like the United Nations.
Huiyao Wang: Thank you for that sound advice. China should attach more importance to the UN, which I think they're already doing now. China has already become the second-largest donor to the United Nations and contributes the most troops to UN peacekeeping forces among the P5 [UN Security Council's five permanent] member countries.
Now we face new issues and challenges such as climate change and the digital economy. Maybe we need new institutions to address international data, carbon, or climate change. There is a need for new multilateral structures and I hope that China can be more actively involved in developing these. Half a century has passed with China in the UN system, which I think is still the cornerstone of world peace and prosperity. As you said, China should really be more active there and have debates in the UN “global parliament,” which is the right way to describe it.
We have had a very fascinating discussion. It’s quite late now in New York so thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. We have covered many issues, including China–US relations, which is one of the main themes of your book, as well as climate change, global governance, the United Nations, ASEAN, and Asia. So once again, I want to thank you very much and hope to see you at CCG next time you are in China.
Kishore Mahbubani: Let me also quickly just thank you very much for inviting me to this dialogue. I share your hope that we will have this dialogue once again. I hope next time we will do it in person together face-to-face rather than virtually. Let's hope that day will come very soon. Thank you very much.
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Wang, H., Mahbubani, K. (2022). China–US Relations in a Multipolar World. In: Wang, H., Miao, L. (eds) Understanding Globalization, Global Gaps, and Power Shifts in the 21st Century. Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-19-3846-7_11
Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore
Print ISBN: 978-981-19-3845-0
Online ISBN: 978-981-19-3846-7