An Interview with
ARI Distinguished Fellow and Former Diplomat
Catchline: In the US-China geopolitical contest, the former will naturally look for opportunities to embarrass the latter. This is natural superpower behaviour.
On June 30, Hong Kong reached a significant turning point on the 23rd anniversary of its return to China as a law on safeguarding national security came into force. The law, which took effect upon its promulgation by the HKSAR government in the Gazette, seeks to prevent, curb and punish crimes seriously endangering national security, namely secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. However, it has also attracted widespread criticism from around the world. The United States and China, the world’s two biggest powers, have increasingly turned hostile against each other on this issue. In order to find out answers to questions: “how Hong Kong affairs should be understood in the context of China-US rivalry?” and “should the US and other Western countries, which are in deep internal crisis right now, should reform their own political systems? Veteran diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, who is also a distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, and a veteran diplomat, shares his thoughts in the following interview.
Question: Does the recent deterioration in US-China relations go beyond your expectation? Will this trend continue after the US presidential election in November?
Answer: The recent deterioration of US-China relations is not a surprise. It could have been predicted. The US’ decision to launch a geopolitical contest against China was driven by a few major structural forces. Firstly, as Prof. Graham Allison observes, such a geopolitical contest inevitably breaks out when the No.2 power (today China) becomes stronger relative to the No.1 power (today US). Secondly, the US resents the growing international influence of China, through initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative and the AIIB. Thirdly, as former assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell has documented, Washington expected that US power and hegemony could readily mould China to its liking. In short, the US expected China to become like the US, a liberal democracy. The US is disappointed that the reality fell short of its expectation. In addition, the Western psyche has long had a fear of the ‘yellow peril’. As a result of such structural forces, there is bipartisan support in the US for the current US policy of launching a contest against China.
This geopolitical contest will continue after November, whosoever wins. Nonetheless, there is also no doubt that a Biden administration would be more courteous to China. Despite this, the US could also become a formidable competitor for China under Biden as his administration will be able to rally more effectively the friends and allies of the US, like the Europeans.
Question: China and the US have seen increasing competition and conflicts in terms of economy, technology, political systems and global leadership. In which areas do you think the conflicts can be prevented and in which areas are conflicts likely to intensify?
Answer: It is difficult to anticipate the future course of the US-China geopolitical contest because the former has not worked out a comprehensive and thoughtful long-term strategy for managing the latter. As a result of a lack of strategy, many of the actions taken by the United States against China, like the trade war, are also hurting the interests of the American people, especially amidst Covid-19.
The fundamental question that the US needs to answer before formulating a strategy on China is whether key strategic goal of the USA should be to protect its primacy in the global system or to enhance the well-being of the people.
So far, many in the Trump administration believe that the US should protect its primacy. Sadly, this impulse has also resulted in the US fighting unnecessary wars, wasting, for example US$ 5 trillion in unnecessary post-9/11 wars.
In short, if the US focuses its efforts on improving the wellbeing of its people and dealing with climate change, many areas of competition like the trade wars, can be avoided. However, if the US focuses on primacy, the competition with China will step up in many areas, resulting in many actions like blocking Huawei from selling its 5G technology and resisting Chinese initiatives, like the BRI.
We can only hope that the US will take the wiser course of enhancing the well-being of its people.
Question: Some scholars think that US-China relations have been at their worst point over the past four decades, and that it will take decades to overcome the estrangement. In this scenario, how will this confrontation influence world patterns in the coming decades? Will countries have to take sides?
Answer: There are 330 million people living in the United States, and 1.4 billion in China. Six billion people, approximately, live outside these two countries. It is clear that these six billion people are deeply troubled by the US-China geopolitical contest as they believe that both countries should come together to lead efforts to deal with pressing global challenges, like Covid-19 and global warming. Hence, only a few countries, if any, will take sides. The vast majority of humanity would be relieved and happy if both US and China set aside their geopolitical contest and focus on resurrecting the global economy, which has deeply stalled since the outbreak of Covid-19. One clear indication of this viewpoint was provided by the refusal of any country to follow the US when it left the World Health Organization (WHO). German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have spoken out about the importance of multilateralism. The world should encourage the European Union to provide leadership in revitalizing multilateral institutions. They could help to stabilize a world disrupted by the US-China geopolitical contest.
Question: You recently said Hong Kong has become a “pawn’ in the escalating rivalry between the United States and China. Can you please elaborate on that?
Answer: In the US-China geopolitical contest, the former will naturally look for opportunities to embarrass the latter. This is natural superpower behaviour. The US also believes that the recent unrest in Hong Kong and the enactment of a national security law provide a convenient propaganda weapon that the US should use against China, especially in the Western world. It is, therefore, important for the people of Hong Kong to realize that their city has become a political football that will be kicked around in the geopolitical contest. In any football match, the players enjoy kicking the ball and using it to score goals, especially propaganda goals. But in this competition, the football gets damaged. If the people of Hong Kong do not understand that they have become a pawn in a geopolitical contest, they may resent later.
Many Western countries that have been supporting the demonstrations and protests in Hong Kong believe that their interests are best served by instability in the city as it is seen as an embarrassment for China. Actually, if the Western countries, including the US and the UK, did a sober calculation of their real long-term interests, especially their primary interest in revitalizing the global economy, they would come to the realization that stability in Hong Kong and its continuation as a vibrant commercial and financial centre could enable Western companies to get full benefit from China’s growth.
Question: Hong Kong under the British colonial rule up till 1997 was one of the frontlines of the West in Asia, but now China has asserted its sovereignty over Hong Kong. Beijing’s enactment of a national security law is being strongly opposed by the West. What’s behind such a clash?
Answer: Every country has national security laws which are designed to provide for protection against any foreign interference, especially in their domestic politics. For example, the United States has the freest press in the world but, until recently, no foreigner could own a TV channel there. Even Rupert Murdoch had to give up his Australian citizenship and become a US citizen before he could own a TV station in the United States. From 2017 onwards, the US has allowed 100% foreign ownership. Nonetheless, the State Department has used alternative legislation, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), to regulate foreign-owned TV channels. The American people were outraged when reports surfaced that Russian money may have helped Trump win the presidential election. Curiously, as the New York Times has documented, the US has a history of intervening in other countries’ elections. Dov Levin, assistant professor of International Relations at Carnegie Mellon University, found 81 instances of overt and covert interventions in other countries’ elections by the US, as compared to 36 by the Soviet Union/ Russia, between 1946 and 2000.
Since every country in the world has national security laws, the new laws to be adopted in Hong Kong can follow best international practices in countries that have civil and personal rights comparable to Hong Kong’s. There is no need to re-invent the wheel here.
I am confident that Hong Kong can remain a vibrant commercial and financial hub and an open cosmopolitan city if the national security legislation conforms to well-established international norms and is implemented by the independent courts of Hong Kong. However, to achieve this goal, the HK leaders must make a massive effort of public education to explain these new laws to the people.
Question: The death of George Floyd has led to massive protests in the United States. Not long after the protests began, US politicians have threatened to use army to quell protests. Why did they take a totally different attitude toward Hong Kong’s violent protesters?
Answer: Although peaceful protests are legal everywhere, no society can allow violent demonstrations. In all healthy societies, there is one cardinal unbreakable rule. The state authorities must have the monopoly on violent methods to preserve law and order. This is why police officers have the authority to legally arrest citizens. Hence, it was legitimate for both the Hong Kong police and US police officers to clamp down on violent demonstrations, although wise policemen do it with careful restraint. The HK police have been able to respond effectively to violent demonstrations without any loss of life. By contrast, some citizens have lost their lives in American protests.
It is a tragedy that the living standards of the bottom 50 percent in Hong Kong, like the bottom 50 percent in the US, have not gone up in recent times. This is the root cause for the demonstrations in Hong Kong as well as the US. Fortunately, Hong Kong is in a good position to take care of its bottom 50 percent. Hence, I remain optimistic for it.
Question: Since the 18th century, the West has barely reformed its political system. In the post-Covid-19 world, will the West gradually begin an era of “big government?” Do they need to make a reflection or reforms?
Answer: While speaking about the “West” and “big government,” one has to make a major distinction between the European Union (EU) member states and the US. It is true that both the EU member states and the US performed badly in response to Covid-19 as their fatality rates per million (Spain 580, Italy 562, UK 610, USA 339) are higher than the East Asian rates (Japan 7, China 3, Singapore 4 and Vietnam 0). Yet, on balance, many EU member states have developed a healthy balance between the roles of government and markets in developed societies. Their experience mirrors the wise advice of the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen who said that the countries that succeed are those who combine the “invisible hand” of free markets and “visible hand” of good governance. This is why some of the Scandinavian states, like Denmark and Finland, are viewed as models for the rest of the world to follow.
By contrast, after President Ronald Reagan, the US has abandoned the “visible hand” of good governance. The US needs to develop a new consensus on rebuilding key government institutions to take care of the significant socio-economic problems that the US has built up.
Distinguished Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
A veteran diplomat, student of philosophy, and celebrated author, Kishore Mahbubani is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Mahbubani is also a former President of the UN Security Council (Jan 2001, May 2002) and the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (2004-2017). Mahbubani writes and speaks prolifically on the rise of Asia, geopolitics and global governance. His eight books and articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times and Foreign Affairs have earned him global recognition as “the muse of the Asian century.” He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in October 2019.