Kishore Mahbubani: A Nuanced View of Asia & China's Rise — #15

Kishore Mahbubani is Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Steve Hsu: My guest today is Kishore Mahbubani. He is a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore. Kishore enjoyed two distinct careers in diplomacy from 1971 to 2004, and in academia from 2004 to 2019. He's a prolific writer and speaker on geopolitics and east-west relations.

He was twice Singapore's ambassador to the UN and served as president of the UN Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002.

Mr. Mahbubani joined academia in 2004 when he was appointed the founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. And he served as Dean from 2004 to 2017.

He's also been a prolific author and has published eight books. I think maybe it's even nine now. I want to focus on his first book: “Can Asians Think?” And two of his most recent books, one is entitled “Has China Won?” And the other one, which is free for download at Springer, is called “The Asian 21st Century.” I will put links in the show notes for all of these books.

Kishore, welcome to the podcast.

Kishore Mahbubani: My pleasure to join you, Steve.

Steve Hsu: So, you may not remember this, but you and I were together virtually at a meeting in 2021 at Ditchley, which is a U.K. think tank. The topic was China today and tomorrow, I believe.

Now from the many interviews and presentations of years I've watched, I know you are a polished diplomat. You are able to express disagreement in the most gracious, polite manner. But that night, I think it was late for you in Singapore, you briefly lost your temper in the face of what I would call western or Atlanticist condescension.

At that meeting, the other Asians were as often as the case, quite reserved in expressing themselves. But you and I were the ones who were willing to be a little bit blunt, to tell it like it is. And after that meeting and after that revealing display of yours, which was quite a contrast to many of the many interviews of yours that I had seen before, I got very interested in your biography.

So, I was interested in your background, your childhood in Singapore, and I learned that you came from a very modest background. In fact, I think once you revealed that you only got your first flush toilet at age 13 and that you personally witnessed the end of the colonial era in Asia in your own life.

So, I was hoping in this conversation, we could maybe try to access the full scope of what you witnessed in the development of Asia and how it's affected your own views and your own psychology. And we would love you maybe just to start by telling us a little bit about your childhood.

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I feel like I had a very privileged life because I experienced poverty. I know there's a paradox, but until, unless you experience poverty, you don't understand how blessed we are when we enter middle-class existence because when I was born and brought up in Singapore, Singapore was a typical, poor third-world developing country. My family was poor. So, on the first day that I went to school at the age of six, I was put in a special feeding program where I had to go to the principal's office and drink from a common pale with 12 or 13 other students with the same ladle milk every day.

So, and as you said, I didn't experience a flush toilet until I was 13 years old. And because Singapore was a typical third-world country, you had racial riots, you had poverty and all the conditions of poor development. But the advantage of having experienced all that, I can say that now that Singapore has succeeded, I would say that the most important thing, the biggest model imperative in the world is to eliminate poverty.

And here, one reason why I get very upset at the western condescension about China is that the one country that has done the most to eliminate poverty in human history is China. Because in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping began his reforms, there were 800 million people living in poverty in China. And today the number is down to zero.

And if a country can rescue 800 million people from poverty, the least you can do is acknowledge it and say, this is one of the greatest improvements in the human condition that we have ever seen in human history.

Steve Hsu: As you were growing up, were you confident that Asians would catch up, for example, during your lifetime? Or was it something that your views on changed over the course of your life?

Kishore Mahbubani: No, no. I think when I was a child, I was completely non-confident or unconfident that Asians could make it because, you know, Singapore was still a British colony until I became 15 years old. And when you live in a colony, it's not just that you're physically colonized by the British, you are also mentally colonized by the British. And you, you feel as an Asian, that you are a second-class citizen and you can be nowhere near as smart as a British, who are ruling your country.

And this mental colonization was very, very profound. So, when I was six years old, one day I was walking to school with a classmate of mine, whose name was Morgan. And I said, Morgan, where do you want to be when you grow up? And he said, when I grow up, I want to be in London. So, I said, why do you want to be in London? He says, in London, the streets are paved with gold.

So that's how we saw the British, that they led a super luxurious life. And we poor Asians, the best we could do was to migrate to the United Kingdom. Because if we didn't migrate, you wouldn't succeed. So, it's amazing that in my lifetime, I've gone from that mental colonization to living in a country whose per capita income now is higher than that of the British. And it's possible that there are some young British children now wishing that they could grow up and live in Singapore.

Steve Hsu: So, can you differentiate between when you yourself became confident that you could compete? Or speak on equal terms to westerners? And when you became confident that Asian societies could catch up and perhaps eventually surpass the west?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I don't think I can put a date to it because there was no specific date when this happened, Steve. Because it's a very, very gradual process of realizing that, actually, the Asians are just as smart as non-Asians or just as smart as westerners or anybody else. And it was a result of, you know, just studying hard and working hard. And then, when I began to write about the return of Asia starting in the early 1990s, about 30 years ago, that's when I began saying that, hey, we Asians can think as well as anybody else. And that's why the title of my first book, as you mentioned, is called “Can Asians Think,” because I was basically trying to tell the people in the west don't speak condescendingly towards Asians. The Asians can be as smart as you, and as you can see nowadays in many of the tests that are carried out, especially in school tests, Asian schools and Asian students outperform western schools and western students. But this is all, it's a gradual process that has become cumulative throughout my entire life.

Steve Hsu: I think in the nineties, you were ahead of the curve. So you probably received a lot of pushback when you forecast that Asian countries, Asian economies would catch up. Did the pushback ever give you pause? Did you think you might be wrong?

Kishore Mahbubani: Actually the pushback in many ways reinforced my conviction that we Asians were no, I'm not saying we Asians are smarter than anybody else. That we Asians are just as smart as anyone else. And in the mid-nineties, I spent one year in Harvard University as a fellow at the Center for International Affairs in 91- 92. And those years were critical because this was just immediately after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union. And there was a mood of triumphalism in the west that was captured in the way the west embraced the famous essay, the end of history, by Francis Fukuyama.

And as you know, the theme of the essay was that the rest of the world could only succeed by becoming carbon copies of the west and create western-style liberal democratic societies. And when I pushed back against the notion at Harvard University, I found to my surprise that the biggest resistance to my ideas came from the most liberal minds in Harvard. Because the more liberal you were, paradoxically, the more intolerant you were because you believe that there was only one correct point of view, the liberal point of view. And every other point of view was wrong.

And that's when I first encountered this massive western intellectual arrogance, especially of the liberals who could not see that other societies may want to choose different roots and that different roots may work for different societies.

But of course, that was 30 years ago. And now it's very difficult to believe that actually, great western minds believe that we have reached the end of history.

Steve Hsu: You know, I was actually on campus at Harvard at the same time in 91- 92. I was a research fellow in the physics department there. So, we were on campus at the same time. Although I guess our paths never crossed.

Kishore Mahbubani: Yes. I was at the Center for International Affairs on 1737 Cambridge Street.

Steve Hsu: Wow. So, you know, the thoughts you just expressed are very similar to something I was going to quote from your book, “Can Asians Think.” So you wrote that during the period of western triumphalism that followed the end of the cold war, a huge bubble of moral pretentiousness enveloped the western intellectual universe. And you go on to say, the world will be a much richer place when western minds stop assuming that western civilization represents the only universal civilization. The only way that the western mind can break out of its mental box is to first conceive of this possibility, that the western mind may also be limited in its own way.

Kishore Mahbubani: Yes. But at the same time, as you know, Steve, I also emphasize in almost all my books that Asians should send a thank you note to the west for having woken up Asian civilizations. Because one key reason why Asian societies have succeeded is that they have learned the best practices from the west.

And, you know, in my book, “The New Asian Hemisphere,” or even in “Has China Won,” I give the west a lot of credit for having stimulated the return of Asia. But having stimulated the return of Asia with the return of Asian societies, it is quite clear that the Western societies must rediscover an ancient western virtue, which was humility.

But humility is a quality that very few western intellectuals have because they're so used to pontificating and lecturing to the world that they have lost the art of listening or understanding different societies. And, and that's a major Western intellectual handicap. As we move from a mono-civilizational world to a multi-civilizational world where you will have different civilizations succeeding in their own way. And certainly, while they will borrow many western ideas, like the western idea of free-market economics, they will not become replicas of western societies. And it would be wiser for the west to accept and acknowledge that Asian societies and Asian civilizations will retain their Asian identities and will not become carbon copies of western civilization.

Steve Hsu: Yes. And I want to make clear that you're not in any way in these books, an Asian triumphalist. You're very balanced. In fact, the other quote that I wanted to throw out there from “Can Asians Think” is the following. You write this is addressed to Asians. Can you think? If you can, why have Asian societies lost a thousand years and slipped far behind the European societies that they were far ahead of at the turn of the last millennium? So, I think you're very balanced. And you don't pull any punches in that first book.

Kishore Mahbubani: Yes. In fact, I'm not anti-western at all and I believe that the world will be a much better place if Asians continue to learn from western societies. But what we need now is a two-way street of learning where western societies have also got to learn from Asian societies on how to create just and well-ordered societies.

Steve Hsu: You know, I think a few years ago, if you had asked me in traveling in Europe and meeting with European elites and knowing many American elites as well, I would have said there were plenty of people who were open-minded about, for example, learning from the rise of China. But in the past few years, things have really solidified I think, especially in the United States into a kind of cold war mentality. And I believe you were in the U.S. just recently, I'm curious what your impressions were about the state of mind of U.S. elites?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I mean, I feel very sad that the American liberals who should be at the forefront of explaining to their fellow Americans that China is an old and ancient civilization with its own culture, history, and traditions, and the Chinese society will not become a replica of American society. And in some ways, it's sort of absurd for American liberals to go around saying that they are disappointed that Chinese society hasn't become a replica of American society. Because that's a very arrogant assumption of American liberals in their belief that the young republic that is less than 250 years old, with one quarter the population of China is morally and politically superior to a 4,000-year-old civilization in China with four times the population of America.

And of course, China has got to find its own right balance in making its social, political, and economic decisions. And it's not at all clear that the American model is the one that's going to work in terms of holding China together as a society. And paradoxically, in some areas now, Chinese society is outperforming American society because if you read John Rawls, the Harvard philosopher, he says that the society you want to be born in is a society you want to be born in if you didn't know whether you'd be in the top 10% or bottom 10% of a society. Now, if you know you're going to be born in the top 10%, then of course you want to be born in America and not in China. But if you, if you, if you knew you're going to be born in the bottom 10%, then you want to be born in China and not in America because the bottom 10% in America lead a very harsh, nasty brutish life, where especially if you are Black, the chances of falling prey to drug addiction, the chances of going to jail, the chances of being killed are so much higher than if you're born in the bottom 10% in China.

So, the idea that actually Chinese may have actually developed social and political reforms that have worked to improve the conditions of the Chinese people, especially the bottom 50% better than the bottom 50% in America. It's an idea that is incomprehensible to many American minds. And here the fact that the incomprehensible shows that the west has forgotten that the most important thing you need to know to understand other societies is to apply the scientific method and rely on facts and not on beliefs or hidden biases in trying to understand China.

And, clearly, now many American intellectuals just don't understand what China has accomplished and don't understand that China is going to evolve in its own way. But even though China's going to evolve in its own way, China and America can live in peace with each other, with each side adopting a live and let live policy.

Steve Hsu: I don't think even Americans who are somewhat experts on China realize the extent of Xi Jinping's programs to, campaigns to eliminate poverty in China, which I think concluded officially, I guess just a year ago, is that, is that right?

Kishore Mahbubani: I think the programs to eliminate poverty are ongoing, but also, I think the one thing that Xi Jinping is trying to do, if you read chapter seven of my book, “Has China Won,” and this is an effort for me to help the United States. I would say the biggest danger that the United States faces is not from China. The biggest danger that the United States faces is that the United States has become a plutocracy. And a plutocracy, of course, is in many ways the opposite of democracy because decisions are not made to benefit a hundred percent of the population. Decisions are made to benefit a very tiny percentage of America's population.

And so I think Xi Jinping is trying to make sure that China doesn't become a plutocracy. And therefore, he's trying to reduce the power of the billionaires in China. But it's also possible that he may have gone too far in doing that. And now I suspect that he may have to perform, China may have to perform some cost corrections too, to ensure that the entrepreneurs and businessmen in China also feel confident that they can invest in the future. China is not a perfect society. Chinese make mistakes as much as Americans make mistakes, but all societies have to learn from their own mistakes and correct their mistakes.

And the thing about the United States is that it's very strange that there are very few voices, I mean, a few of course there are few voices that were influential, like [unclear], the current Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, or the Financial Times chief economic correspondent Martin Wolf. These are the few voices saying that the United States has become a plutocracy, but I think you need more voices saying that the United States has become a plutocracy to reform and strengthen America. Because the one strong point about America has been its middle class. And it's important that the middle class in America continues to grow and prosper.

Steve Hsu: Yes. I think you made the point that the bottom 50% in America have not advanced in the last, say, 30 years or maybe longer.

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, that's what the data says. That's not Kishore Mahbubani saying. And that's what the data says and that's correct. And so, I think the United States should pay attention to the data. But you know, there's also data that shows and these are two Princeton University political scientists, that I quote, I think their names are Miles and Page, in my book who show that when the U.S. Congress makes decisions, the decisions of the U.S. Congress always benefit the top 10%. And the interests of the bottom 80% are not factored in, in the decisions made by the U.S. Congress.

And, this is the scientific data and evidence that shows this. So, I think basically many in the American elite who think that China is the big threat to America are focused on the wrong challenge. The real challenge comes from inside America and not outside America because China is not mounting an army to invade or occupy the United States. China is not sending its naval vessels to 12 miles off American shores, and China's nuclear arsenal is less than 10% of that of the United States. So, it's sort of crazy that the Americans think China is a threat to the United States of America when China's main preoccupation is to try and improve the livelihood of its own people.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think it's fair to say that China will not be an existential threat to the United States for the foreseeable future, but the United States is exercised over the fact that it might just be a threat to U.S. hegemony in Asia.

Kishore Mahbubani: Hmm. Well, I think this is right. I'm not sure I would use the word hegemony. But certainly the U.S. global influence will be diminished when rival powers emerge. But, you know, the United States is making a mistake in trying to ensure that its economy remains number one in the world because you can't stop China's economy from becoming number one in the world. But the United States can remain the most admired society in the world.

So, when I spoke about the six-year-old Morgan aspiring to migrate to the United Kingdom in the 1950s. In the 2020s, the brightest young people can still dream of going to America even if America becomes the number two economy in the world. So, it's better. The United States should focus not on having the world's most powerful military, because you don't need the world's most powerful military. You shouldn't focus on having the world's most powerful economy. But you should focus on remaining the most admired society in the world. And that way America's spiritual and cultural and political influence in the world will remain predominant even after China becomes the number one economy in the world.

So, in a sense, the United States is engaged in the wrong race in trying to compete with China.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, it's very strange to think that a country which is four times the population of the United States would always remain a smaller economy that would require the GDP per capita to stay below one-quarter of the U.S. GDP per capita. And it doesn't seem like it's going to happen that way.

Kishore Mahbubani: And many Asian societies now have per capita GDP which is more than one quarter that of the United States, whether it's Japan, South Korea or the economies of Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore. So, it's inevitable that the per capita income of the Chinese people will definitely become larger than one-quarter of that of the United States. And when that happens just by the simple law of mathematics China's economy will become bigger.

But that should not be what should worry the American policymakers. What they should worry about is whether or not people will start migrating to China and say I want to grow and live in China. But I think that that is not likely to happen because unless you speak Chinese, you have no chance of succeeding in China.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think you've also commented on the lack of any kind of long-term coherent strategic plan on the part of the U.S. leadership. And I am curious how you think this reaction to the rise of China is going to play out in the United States. Are you a pessimist or an optimist?

Kishore Mahbubani: You know, I believe in intellectual copyright and the idea that the United States doesn't have a comprehensive strategy for managing the rise of China is not my idea, but the idea of Dr. Henry Kissinger, who gave me this insight at a one-on-one lunch I had with him in March 2018, over four years ago.

Till today, the United States still doesn't have a comprehensive strategy on how to manage the rise of China. Because if you want to have a strategy, the first thing you need to work out is what are your objectives, you know. So, what the United States has done is develop a negative attitude towards China without formulating what are the strategic objectives that the United States is trying to accomplish, vis-à-vis China, whereas vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, it had clear objectives, you know. Contain the Soviet Union and outperform the Soviet Union. And the United States succeeded in those objectives.

But today, if the United States tried to stop China's economy from not becoming number one, it will fail. If it tries to overthrow the Chinese communist party, it will fail. And if it tries to stop the rest of the world from trading with China, it will fail because more countries now trade with China than they do with the United States. So, in a sense, the United States hasn't formulated what exactly are its strategic objectives. It has developed a negative attitude towards China but hasn't formulated any clear strategic objectives. And I'm actually speaking as a friend of America saying, hey, why don't you step back and explain to the American people what would constitute an American victory over China.

So, I'm proposing a more realistic, American objective, which is for American society to remain the most admired society in the world, more admired than China, and stop trying to stop China's growth because that's a mission impossible.

Steve Hsu: Do you see a path though where America can arrive at a realistic strategy, according to your advice? I mean, I was kind of hopeful that when Biden became president, the relationship would improve, but it certainly hasn't.

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, you know, there was a senior official in the Obama administration, who was in charge of China policy. His name is Jeff Bader, and I was listening to a podcast conversation with him on [unclear]. And Jeff Bader said the tragedy is that the Biden administration has adopted a Trump-light policy towards China and actually hasn't changed any strategic directions. So even though President Joe Biden said in his election campaign, that American tariffs on China are hurting American workers, American consumers, and American competitiveness. What President Joe Biden said in 2019 was correct, but even he cannot lift the tariffs on China.

And when you mentioned that I was recently in the U.S., in October and December 2021, I was shocked to discover that China is no longer considered to be a competitor by thoughtful Americans. China is considered to be the enemy. But why China is the enemy has never been explained to me by anybody. Because China is not trying to conquer the United States of America. China is not trying to destroy the United States of America. So why is China the enemy of America? And the tragedy is that Washington D.C. has become captured by what I call strategic groupthink. And everyone, in a sense, when you stand up and speak in Washington D.C. or anywhere else, the first thing you got to do is condemn China and adopt an anti-China posture. And that's the kind of groupthink that is supposed to happen in, I guess, in totalitarian autocratic societies. In the United States, you have freedom of speech, but if anyone tries to give a reasonable speech on China, he'll be crucified and accused of being pro-China.

Steve Hsu: I think my perceptions are consistent with yours. And so, this makes me pessimistic. I don't see, at least in the short to medium term, any change in that environment.

Kishore Mahbubani: Yes. And I think, frankly, and this is where I keep saying that I'm a friend of the United States and I'm trying my best to persuade the United States to go back to the virtues of the enlightened, western enlightenment. And what the western enlightenment taught us is that you got to use reason, logic, and scientific evidence, in making your long-term policies. And reason, logic, and scientific evidence show that the current U.S. policies toward China are not intelligent, not thoughtful because they're based on a negative attitude without any kind of clear logic or reasoning to support the current American policies towards China. Which is why, if you adopt the, one of the virtues of the western enlightenment and learn to listen to evidence, if American policymakers travel, for example, through Southeast Asia, they'll find that the 680 million people in Southeast Asia want to be friends of the United States, but they also want to be friends of China. They don't want to be asked to choose between China and the United States.

And so, therefore, when American policy is trying to persuade countries who say, you're either on my side or you are on China's side, that's a very unwise policy because most countries don't want to be forced to choose between the United States and China.

Steve Hsu: I think I just read this morning that China's number one trading partner is now ASEAN and that China- ASEAN trade has now surpassed China- EU and China- U.S. trade.

Kishore Mahbubani: That's right. And it's quite amazing because in the year 2000, United States trade with ASEAN was about $135 billion dollars. More than three times China trade with ASEAN, which was only $40 billion dollars.

Now today, I think, China's trade with ASEAN is about $680 or $700 billion. And that's more than double the United States' trade with ASEAN. So, I mean, it's unwise of the United States to tell the countries of Southeast Asia, hey, you must do less with China because trade with China has enabled ASEAN's economy to grow and succeed and prosper. Just as ASEAN's trade with the United States has also helped ASEAN grow and prosper.

So let me give you another statistic. In the year 2000, Japan's economy was eight times the size of ASEAN. Today, Japan's economy is only 1.5 times larger than ASEAN's. It's gone from being eight times larger to only 1.5 times larger. And by 2030, ASEAN GNP will be bigger than Japan's. So, there is this magnificent explosion of the Southeast Asian economies, and the best thing the United States could do is to sign free trade agreements with the Southeast Asian countries, instead of trying to cut off Chinese trade with Southeast Asia.

So, this is why America's policies towards Asia are very, very unrealistic. Because America is walking away from trade agreements, like the Transpacific Partnership that was signed by Obama. And paradoxically, the wonderful trade agreement that the Obama administration negotiated, the Transpacific Partnership, that's the agreement that China wants to join now.

So, the game is trade. And, and so instead of sending aircraft carriers and jet fighters to east Asia, America should be signing free trade agreements. And I actually believe that, again, going back to the western values of enlightenment and using reason and logic, reason and logic tells us that free trade agreements are good for America. They're not bad for America. The American middle class will benefit and prosper if America signs more free trade agreements. But again, this shocking thing is that you cannot persuade the American congressmen and American senators to accept the lessons of Economics 101, which teach us that trade is good for all economies, including the American economy.

Steve Hsu: Yeah, I'm afraid the narrative here is that the Chinese stole the jobs from blue-collar Americans. And so, the reaction is obviously just to erect tariffs.

Kishore Mahbubani: But the scientific evidence shows that more jobs were lost to technology than lost to China. And, as you know, as Joseph Schumpeter the Austrian economist taught us, that when you have free markets and you have free-market competition, you're going to get creative destruction. But you can, with good policies, replace the lost jobs with new jobs.

Steve Hsu: Yes, I'm just afraid the political environment in the U.S. is not going to allow us to even invest in infrastructure, which is, I think, a kind of no-brainer. I think the Biden administration has even not succeeded in getting that through.

Kishore Mahbubani: Mm, well, you mentioned that you were in Harvard, and I was in Harvard. I was on a panel with some Harvard professors, and I asked them why doesn't America lift the tariffs on China? Because the evidence shows as President Joe Biden said that these tariffs are hurting American workers and American consumers. And the answer given by the Biden administration is that they're not going to remove the tariffs because they want to use the tariffs as a bargaining tool against China. But as one Harvard professor said, that's like telling China that if you don't listen to me, I will shoot myself in the foot again.

I mean, this is, it is actually crazy that, you know, the reason why east Asia is prospering is because east Asia learned Economics 101 from American universities. And it is bizarre that American universities have persuaded the east Asian economies to open up and sign free trade agreements, which have actually, as I indicated in my earlier statistics, ASEAN economy, which used to be one-eighth the size of Japan, is now only, you know, it has become two thirds the size of Japan. And that's only because we learned the lessons of Economics 101 from American universities.

So, why are American policymakers walking away from Economics 101 trade policies? And this is rather strange, you know. And it is amazing that Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Columbia can educate the Asian minds on the virtues of free-market economics. But these same great universities cannot educate American senators and American congressmen, which is rather strange.

Steve Hsu: Well, it's hard to put a finger on the actual cause of it, but in my mind, U.S. universities now are very prone to groupthink. And so, it's much, much harder to have dissenting views on our campuses than it was, say, 20 or 30 years ago. And I think on this particular point that you mentioned it's definitely hurting us.

Kishore Mahbubani: Hmm. Well, you're right, because I'm actually quite shocked that even when speaking about China on American campuses, some American professors who are friends of mine, who are scholars on China have told me that they have stopped speaking about American policies on China because if they say anything reasonable, that is not anti-China, they'll immediately be accused of being pro-China. And it's sad that a country that believes in free speech doesn't allow strong dissenting views on China to emerge in the American body politic. Because it will be healthier to have a robust debate on China. And this is why my book, “Has China Won,” was actually an effort to help the United States develop more sophisticated, more nuanced view of China.

Because, at the end of the day, the Americans had a very naive view that this young 250-year-old republic called the United States of America could single-handedly transform the world's oldest, continuous civilization, and make it a carbon copy of America. Now, future historians will be very unkind to current American policymakers because they will say the current American policymakers on China are basing their policies on grand delusions about China rather than a hardheaded realistic understanding of Chinese culture and civilization based on a deep understanding of Chinese history and culture.

Steve Hsu: Yes, I think I agree with you on that. As China rises again, there are certain civilizational aspects of the culture that are unlikely to be changeable through U.S. influence. And I think the U.S. has to accommodate itself to just a different character, of that civilization.

Kishore Mahbubani: Yeah. And this civilization may not be a threat to the United States of America and China is in no way asking the United States to become a replica of Chinese society. In fact, the Chinese don't believe that the Chinese civilization, Chinese society, and culture, is a model for other societies because they believe Chinese societal norms are good for Chinese and not necessarily good for other societies and cultures. They are happy to live in a diverse world of different models of development. And it's actually good for the United States to prove that it can still remain the most admired society in the world. Even if China's economy becomes bigger than American society.

Steve Hsu: Given the rise of ASEAN that you mentioned, and given that those countries would suffer among the most, if there were any kind of military conflict in Asia, do you think those countries and perhaps South Korea and Japan would actually restrain the United States if, if, the United States and China came close to war in the Pacific?

Kishore Mahbubani: I think it's very, very difficult to restrain the United States. And South Korea and Japan have got their own challenges. And, and Japan, of course, as you know, has had a terrible record, before World War II, in terms of what it did in China. So, I think that Japan has got its own reasons for staying close to the United States of America.

But I think at the end of the day, most east Asian societies would like China and the United States to work out a stable modus vivendi, rather than a zero-sum competition, which will hurt the United States, hurt China, and hurt Southeast Asia.

Steve Hsu: Do you see a role for any leaders in those countries to actually play a kind of shuttle diplomacy between the United States and China?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, unfortunately, the United States is too big a country. I think it'll be up to American public intellectuals, and American academics, and American professors to develop the courage to speak out more and express their dissent more clearly. And advocate wiser policies towards China than the ones that are being advocated today.

Steve Hsu: Well, that's, that's placing a pretty big responsibility on intellectuals in the United States.

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I mean, they believe that the noblest thing any western intellectual can do is to express the right to dissent. So, this is the time to show intellectual and moral courage and speak out, even though it's dangerous to do so.

Steve Hsu: Yes, I agree with that. I think you told me we should try to keep it around 45 minutes and we're, we're a little bit over that now.

I wanted to maybe ask you one more question. I believe I heard you say in another interview that you felt that Xi Jinping was perhaps among the top 5% or 10% of world leaders in terms of his capabilities or understanding of history. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I mean, there is, of course, as part of the demonization of China that is taking place in the western media, that's also the demonization of Xi Jinping that is taking place in the American media. But if you study his life and career, I think the first thing you should know about him is that he suffered a lot in his youth. Because I think he spent, he suffered during the cultural revolution. His father was banished, and he was banished to work in hard labor, in a village with peasants in, in China. So, he has gone through real suffering.

Secondly, even though his father was a major political figure and he's considered a princeling, he wasn't parachuted to the top. He had to climb the very difficult and hard political ladder of the Chinese communist party to reach to the top. So, in the process of political struggle, he's obviously become a very strong and capable leader.

And the third thing is that, if you read his speeches, they say, for example, the speech he gave in Davos in January 2017, he actually believes it's possible to create a world in which China is prosperous and other countries are also prosperous. And he believes there that the best kind of world is the world where we have a live and let live policies.

So, none of his policies are intended to in any way undermine or weaken America, but they are obviously designed to strengthen China. And because he's proven himself to be a capable leader, the likelihood is that during his tenure China will become stronger and stronger. So, it's better therefore to work with Xi Jinping and find ways and means creating a global order, which will enable the United States to remain the most influential, great power in the world by creating space for every other power in the world to also project its influence.

So, you can create a world order of live and let live. And I think that seems to be the aspiration of Xi Jinping.

Steve Hsu: Yes. You know, in my own dealings with Chinese business people and technologists, and I, and I guess some political leaders that I know, there's very seldom this kind of aspiration toward global hegemony. I think they just want to be prosperous and to be secure. They have actually relatively modest goals by American standards, I would say. And they generally don't have a zero-sum view of these interactions with other countries. They generally have a kind of, I mean, it's a cliche, but they actually do believe that most of the interactions are win-win.

Kishore Mahbubani: Yeah. I mean, there's no doubt that China's influence and power will grow, as China becomes more and more powerful. And we have to adjust to living with a more powerful China. But it doesn't have to be a powerful China that has to either conquer or invade other countries or dominate other countries, you know. And that's what we can avoid, by working out a rules-based order. And the amazing thing, and this is what I document in my book, “The Great Convergence,” is that most of the rules of the international order were written by American statesmen after World War II. And if you can persuade China to adopt the rules that were written by American statesmen after World War II, then we can have a win-win world order in which American values of a rules-based order are also accepted by China.

And the fact that China is willing to embrace the American rules-based order should be seen as a victory for the United States of America and not a defeat for the United States of America.

Steve Hsu: Yeah. I think a rational Martian who is looking at the Earth in 2022 would say, yes, this rising power, you may have to accommodate them. You may have to redesign some aspects of the order, but there's no reason that one of these entities has to be an existential enemy of the other. But I hope that the misunderstandings don't lead us into that outcome.

Kishore Mahbubani: Yeah, well, I think that's what I'm trying to do as a friend of the United States of America. I'm saying that America can adopt a much calmer, more thoughtful strategy towards China, which will at the end of the day, if America takes care of its plutocracy, result in American middle classes, American working classes being much better off, and the world also being much better off.

And so instead of engaging in a zero-sum game with China, you can have a positive-sum game, which will benefit the American workers and people. And that's what, that's the goal of my book, “Has China Won.”

Steve Hsu: You know, I, I think most people were surprised that Russia pulled the trigger and entered Ukraine. I'm wondering how likely you think it is that we will actually have a hot war someday between the United States and China?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I think if you have a hot war with the United States and China, you will not have a winner and a loser, you'll have a loser and a loser because in a nuclear war, both countries would lose.

And even if China loses 20 cities, America will lose 10 cities like New York, Washington, DC Chicago, San Francisco, LA. So, I think it'd be very unwise for the United States to engage in a nuclear war with China.

Steve Hsu: Yes. Well, I hope it doesn't come to that. But, you know, we sort of, typically have this kind of normal mental state that things will just continue the way they've been going. But, you know, you see examples where, for example, World War I and World War II, where things just spiraled out of control, and I'm afraid that at least for example in Ukraine, between Russia and the United States, we're closer to that possibility than we have been for a long time.

Kishore Mahbubani: Mm. Yeah. So, I think the lesson from Ukraine is to try and make sure that you don't allow your relations to deteriorate to such an extent that it [leads] to war. And so, avoiding wars should be the key goal of any policy maker today. And that's why America needs to work out a thoughtful, long-term strategy for managing the return of China.

Steve Hsu: Yes. So that's extremely good advice for Americans.

Creators and Guests

Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University.
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