Relations between the U.S. and China are at their lowest point in decades.
The two countries are trading barbs over China’s new national security law in Hong Kong and fighting over who should bear responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic. And, after the two-year U.S.-China trade war eased in January with a phase 1 agreement, prospects for further negotiation seem bleak in the aftermath of the outbreak.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has escalated tensions between the two sides. Yet, as the November U.S. election approaches, China may be hoping for four more years of Trump in office, argues Kishore Mahbubani, former president of the United Nations Security Council and current scholar at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute.
In a discussion with Fortune’s Clay Chandler on Wednesday, Mahbubani argued that Trump’s reelection would continue to diminish the U.S.’s standing globally and provide China the opportunity to take a stronger role on the international stage. Mahbubani also discussed his new book Has China Won?, which argues that the U.S. may be more vulnerable than it thinks in its geopolitical contest with China, as well as East Asia’s response to the coronavirus and Beijing’s proposed national security law in Hong Kong. The Q&A below has been edited for length and clarity.
Fortune: There is an ongoing debate about whether the success of major Asian economies in combating the coronavirus has to do with their political systems, some of which are more centrally controlled than those of Western nations. Could liberal democracies, like the United States, have contained the virus like China did?
Kishore Mahbubani: It’s an easy cop-out [for the U.S.] to say, you know, it’s only a foreign, dictatorial, Communist system that can do well. But East Asia is not uniform. South Korea has done well; it is a robust democracy. Australia and New Zealand have done well; they are liberal democracies. The more fundamental reason why East Asian countries seem to be coping better is that they are unlike the United States, where the institutions of government became delegitimized, defunded, demoralized after the Reagan-Thatcher revolution. After all, Ronald Reagan famously said, government is not the solution; government is the problem.
In East Asia, by contrast, there has always been a deep respect for institutions of government and a realization that if you undermine institutions of the government, society will suffer. The United States needs to understand that societies succeed when they combine the invisible hand of free markets with the visible hand of good governance. And the United States has been fighting a one-handed battle against COVID-19. We [in East Asia] have been fighting a two-handed battle.
Do you see the U.S.-China relationship deteriorating further as we near the election? If Trump is not reelected, do you see that relationship improving?
I can confidently predict that between now and November, the relations between the U.S. and China will get worse. Because the easiest way to win votes in the United States is to bash China.
Things may get superficially better under a potential Joe Biden administration, because he will definitely be more courteous in speaking to China. But, paradoxically, China may be interested in the reelection of Donald Trump. Donald Trump has done so much to reduce America’s standing in the world, and therefore opened political space for China. So, four more years of Donald Trump may actually be good for China. Trump may be painful in the short term, but China may gain long-term dividends.
There’s a growing consensus in Washington and among the business community, whose members were once great allies of China, that the U.S.’s engagement policy with China isn’t working. How do you answer people who claim that was a failed strategy?
China did make some serious mistakes with its relationship with the United States. It’s not that one side is right, and one side is wrong. China’s alienation of the American business community was a serious mistake on their part because they lost the biggest constituency in applying the brakes to any kind of negative policies toward China. At the same time, I don’t agree with the view that the engagement policy has failed. But it has failed to create a liberal democracy in China. There’s absolutely no question about that.
But, from the Chinese point of view, the best 40 years they’ve had in the last 4,000 years have been in the last 40 because there has been a greater improvement in the standard of living and the well-being of people than ever before in Chinese history. And this is why it’s happened, because of engagement with the United States of America. That’s not a failure.
What’s your take on Beijing’s new national security law that bypasses the Hong Kong legislature?
When it comes to legislation the devil is in the details. And we have not yet seen what this legislation is, and what it will do. For example, if this legislation preserves the autonomy of Hong Kong and on all other issues and sticks to foreign interference, then I think it will not do much damage to Hong Kong. So, I think we’ll have to see what the legislation says.
But Hong Kong is going to sadly become a political football in the new geopolitical contest that has broken out between the United States and China. The sad part about being a football is that the players enjoy kicking the ball. But the ball is the one that gets damaged and broken in the end. So that’s the danger that Hong Kong faces.
If there is a response from the U.S. government or Congress about the law, what actions might China take against the U.S.?
The levers that China has against the United States are very, very poor. The United States is still by far the much stronger power. But at the same time, if the United States takes any measures against Hong Kong, the 1.4 billion people in China will not suffer. The 7 million people in Hong Kong will suffer.