Kishore Mahbubani: China and ASEAN Countries Sending a “Powerful Jolt to the Whole World”

I have to give a lot of credit to China for recognising early on that the development of ASEAN was in China’s long-term interest.


Editor’s Note: China’s development has been one of the greatest phenomena in the world. In 70 years, the once poverty-ridden country has risen to become the second largest economy in the world, developing, modernizing and opening-up at a rate that took other countries hundreds of years to achieve.

Greater exposure has enabled the international community to know, understand and get closer to China, but as with any dramatic change, reservations and misgivings can transpire. In an effort to bridge this gap and comprehend what “New China” means for the international community, China Focus attended the Fourth Understanding China Conference in Guangzhou and spoke to a number of former world leaders, academics and business professionals regarding their thoughts on China’s development.

Kishore Mahbubani a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS) and a former diplomat who served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations during between 1984 and 2004, as well as President of the United Nations Security Council between 2001 and 2002.

In this exclusive interview with China Focus, Mr. Mahbubani shares his view on China’s accomplishments over the past 70 years, why concerns over China’s rise is normal given the longevity of western leadership and how China and ASEAN countries are sending a strong message to western nations that free trade is not to be messed with.

China Focus: This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC. What has been the biggest change in China over the past 70 years in your opinion? How has the world benefited from China’s development?

Kishore Mahbubani: When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, before then, China experienced probably over 100 years of hell—foreign invasions, civil wars, famines—the Chinese people suffered a great deal. What is significant over the past 70 years is that, especially the last forty years, have probably been the best forty years that China has experienced in its 4,000 years of history. And it is quite remarkable, that this period of exceptional success came after a period of exceptional distress in China. That’s why these past 70 years will be seen by future historians to be very significant years because China once again, as a civilisation which fell down and picked itself up, has become stronger again. Most civilisations when they crash, they burn, they disappear. But China is one of those civilisations that crashed, it suffered and then stood up again. And the past 70 years will be remembered as a period when China stood up, probably with the greatest vigour that it ever has in its 4000 years of history.

China Focus: China and Singapore have been maintaining good relations for decades. The upgraded version of the China-Singapore bilateral free trade agreement came into effect on October 16. What do you make of the current state of relations between China and Singapore?

Kishore Mahbubani: Well, I think China and Singapore fortunately have enjoyed good relations for a long time. Singapore and China have always traded a great deal and I think the free trade agreement will certainly enable trade to grow, but Singapore has always seen its relationship with China to be multi-dimensional. Singapore has participated in many model development projects in places like Suzhou, Tianjin and in places like Chongqing, so it is an important, multifaceted dimension of the China-Singapore relationship.

China Focus: There are still some countries that have misgivings regarding China and its recent rise into a global power, with some claiming it to be a threat. What do you think of China’s role in global governance and China’s contribution to world development? 

Kishore Mahbubani: Well I think it is quite natural for there to be concerns about China’s rise. Just imagine, you go to bed at night and you are sleeping next to a small cat. Then, the next morning you wake up and the cat has become a tiger. So, you think whoops, I’m not sharing a room with a tiger! In the same way, since China’s economy has exploded – in 1980, the purchasing power parity (PPP) of China’s economy was only 10 percent of the United States. Today, it is bigger in PPP. So, when you grow so fast, so quickly, and your neighbours haven’t grown as fast, quite naturally there would be concerns about China’s rise. It is important for China to realise and understand where these concerns are coming from but the good thing about China is it is trying to address them, and China is sharing its prosperity with its neighbours. That is why the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a truly brilliant initiative because it leads to other countries now sharing in the prosperity of China.

China Focus: Why do some western people regard China’s rise as a threat?

Kishore Mahbubani: I would say that it is important to bear in mind the longer historical perspective. China is emerging after 200 years of western domination of world history. The West, both Europe and America, has gotten used to being the dominant powers. They haven’t shared power with non-western powers for 200 years. So clearly, when China bounces back, the western powers are going to be concerned and are going to be upset. This is something that China’s got to manage because there will be geopolitical difficulties, there will be geopolitical challenges but I am confident that China can handle them with its current leadership and its current policies.

China Focus: Cooperation between China and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has been praised widely in the international community. How have China and ASEAN been able to realize such a sound relationship?

Kishore Mahbubani: I have to give a lot of credit to China for recognising early on that the development of ASEAN was in China’s long-term interest. ASEAN is in many ways an asset for China because if you look at Europe, it is very worried about instability in north Africa. If you look at the United States of America, it is very concerned about instability in central America – (US President) Donald Trump is now trying to build a wall there. Now the good thing about China is that instead of trying to build a wall between China and the ASEAN countries, China is actually engaging amazingly strongly with the ASEAN countries in common development plans. And in fact, the shocking thing  is that even though ASEAN had development closer economic relations with the United States, with Japan, with Europe, with Australia, the first country that proposed a free trade agreement to the ASEAN countries was China, and the first country to conclude their agreement, was China. That shows how far sighted China was in understanding the importance of ASEAN to China’s development.

China Focus: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP) is currently under intense negotiations, and plans to complete the signing of this agreement are scheduled for this year. What is the significance of the RCEP for the entire Asia-Pacific region?

Kishore Mahbubani: The RCEP is very significant because if it had been launched 30 years ago, it would have been no big deal because the whole world was in favour of free trade agreements. The United States was in favour of free trade agreements, Europe was in favour of free trade agreements. But today, in many western developed countries it has become harder and harder to support free trade agreements, which is why president trump walked away from the Trans Pacific Partnership, and in the same way, Brexit has happened. By contrast, in the developing world, in east Asia, the largest free trade agreement ever is going to be signed, with ASEAN at its core. This is a very powerful signal to the world and although the negotiations have been difficult, if it is signed later this year or early next year, it’s a very big deal and we should celebrate it.

China Focus: What kind of message would the RCEP talks send to those western countries, especially whichever rejecting free trade?

Kishore Mahbubani: The clear message that the RCEP sends to the western countries is that it is a mistake for you to go back towards protectionism, it’s a mistake for the United States to start raising tariffs. Tariffs never work. Tariffs only hurt the countries that raise them and tariffs hurt the global economy. So, if the RCEP, which represents 16 countries with a combined population of more than half the world’s population come together, then that’s a very powerful jolt to the whole world.