The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Kishore Mahbubani during a Newsweek podcast debate on China. You can listen to the podcast here:
China has been around for 5,000 years. The United States has been around for 250 years. And it’s not surprising that a juvenile like the United States would have difficulty dealing with a wiser, older civilization.
So the troubles that the United States is having in dealing with China are perfectly understandable. What the United States doesn’t understand is the longer arc of human history.
There’s a British historian called Angus Maddison who pointed out that if you look at the history of the world over the past 2,000 years, the two largest economies of the world have always been those of China and India. It’s only in the last 200 years that the West took off, Europe in the 19th century and North America in the 20th century. The past 200 years of world history have been a major historical aberration and all aberrations come to a natural end.
It’s perfectly natural to see the West retreat to its normal share of global power. And there are some things in the longer arc of human history that cannot be stopped. So the return of China, and subsequently India, are perfectly natural developments.
Of course it’s perfectly natural for the United States, which has got used to being number one for 130 years since they replaced British in 1819, to feel a sense of entitlement, that they should always be number one in the world.
What the United States lacks in dealing with China is a comprehensive long-term strategy, which is what you need to deal with one of the oldest civilizations on planet earth. This insight actually was given to me by Henry Kissinger
China is not threatening the United States. China is not mounting a military invasion of the United States. China is not sending troops to the U.S. border or naval ships close to United States.
This is the most important point for Americans to learn: China is not threatening American prosperity because American middle class prosperity has been the main engine of China’s economic growth. So if the Chinese destroy American middle class prosperity, they are destroying the main engine of China’s economic growth—and the oldest civilization in the world is not a stupid civilization. It understands that actually American prosperity is a gift to the world and a gift to China.
In this new world that is emerging, the West—including the United States— created a rules-based order that is based on the United Nations system. It’s a system I know well because I was an ambassador to the UN for over 10 years. That rules-based order created by the West is a gift to China and China wants to preserve it and protect it.
So the paradox about the world today is that even though the global rules based order is a gift of the west, China embraces it.
Kishore Mahbubani served as a diplomat for Singapore for 33 years.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.