Jun 03, 2021 06:16 PM

Singapore’s Former U.N. Ambassador Talks Nationalism, Taiwan, and China-U.S. Relations

Kishore Mahbubani
Kishore Mahbubani

China should carefully manage its rising nationalistic sentiment, particularly among young people, to help create a favorable environment for the country’s development and foreign relations, Singapore’s former United Nations ambassador said in a wide-ranging interview with Caixin.

Kishore Mahbubani, the city-state’s ambassador to the U.N. from 2001-2002, said that “nationalism is a natural consequence of countries becoming stronger and stronger.”

However, “it will be good for the Chinese government to manage this nationalism very carefully,” he said. “Nationalism can evolve into a big angry dragon and must never be seen as unmitigated good, so it’s better to restrain the dragon before it starts breathing fire.”

Mahbubani, also the founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore, shared his views with Caixin in April on various issues related to China’s role in the world, such as Cross-Strait relations, the Sino-U.S. tech war and regional trade talks.

Instead of confrontation, he said China and the U.S. should work together to deal with the world’s thorniest issues ― including the conflict between civil government and military in Myanmar ― and boost regional trade and economic integration in Asia-Pacific. “There are many issues in the world that can be solved with U.S. and China working together with each other, rather than working against each other,” he said.

He also said it’s unlikely that a war would break out across the Taiwan Strait as, compared with the former Trump administration’s provocative acts, the new U.S. government is taking “positive steps” to stabilize the situation.

“As long as everybody respects the ‘One China’ Policy, I think the status quo in Taiwan can continue, until a final solution can be found,” he said.

The former ambassador also said “Singapore will remain politically stable” as the country’s prime minister is planning to retire next year. “The Singaporean system will continue,” he said, “we have enough time for the fourth generation leadership to select a new leader.”

Here’s the transcript of Caixin’s interview with Mahbubani.

Caixin: Your recent book published in March 2020 is titled “Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.” What is your definition of “winning”?

Mahbubani: Winning can mean many things. I don’t think that there will be a war between U.S. and China in a way there was during the World War II between U.S., Germany, and Japan. I think China’s “winning” will not be in the military dimension, but in the economic dimension.

The United States has had the world’s largest economy for 130 years. The Americans cannot even conceive of the possibility that America could have the No. 2 economy in the world. But according to IMF statistics, in 10 or 15 years, China’s GNP will become bigger than America’s GNP. Then I will say, China has won and America is number two.

Some say that 20 or 30 years from now, as the West looks back on the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century, the West would lament, it was at this time that the United States missed the final chance of containing the rise of China. To what extent would you agree with this forecast?

In my book “Has China Won?” I argued that the United States hasn’t worked out a comprehensive strategy in terms of dealing with the rise or the return of China. But even after China’s GNP becomes bigger than that of the United States, United States can still remain the most influential country in the world if it has a strategy of looking after the interests of the world, and not just the interests of America.

This is why it was a mistake for Donald Trump to say he wants to make America great again. The former U.S. President John F. Kennedy said that America will pay any price and bear any burden to defend democracy in the world. So, America should prepare itself for a world where even after America has the second-largest economy in the world, you can still remain an influential country by showing an interest in helping other countries in the world.

What is your evaluation of the Taiwan situation? How should we interpret the recent remarks and signals coming from China, U.S., Japan, and relevant sides regarding a possible conflict across the Taiwan Strait?

I don’t think it’s likely that a war will break out. However, if the leaders in Taiwan are unwise, and if they push further for independence of Taiwan, then I think war is a possibility, but I think Taiwan leaders will be very careful.

Also, I think Taiwan should be grateful that a Biden administration has been elected in the United States, because the Trump administration was violating the understanding between U.S. and China on Taiwan by sending incumbent officials to Taiwan. The Biden administration has taken a positive step by sending retired officials to Taiwan, including former Senator Christopher Dodd, Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, and Jim Steinberg, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. This means that United States is going back to the old understanding — the United States sends retired officials to Taiwan who no longer have a government position. So in this regard it’s a positive development by the Biden administration.

Across the Taiwan Strait tensions have been rising, partially because the Trump administration was very reckless on the issue of Taiwan, and violating understandings that have been achieved for a long time between United States and China, and partially because Tsai Ing-wen was trying to change the goal posts in her agenda.

So the important thing is for all the parties to ask a very simple question: why did we have peace for the past several decades? Between 1949 and 2021, one of the key understandings that all the parties must respect the ‘One China’ Policy. As long as everybody respects the ‘One China’ Policy, I think the status quo in Taiwan can continue, until a final solution can be found.

If a war breaks out across the strait, do you think Washington could send troops or navy to intervene?

I think nobody knows. The U.S. has a Taiwan policy of strategic ambiguity, which I think is a good policy to have.

A war can happen in two ways. One is that the Taiwanese start the war, then United States will say: “this is not my fault; they started the war.” On the other hand, if China starts the war, it’s a different matter. Therefore, it depends on who starts the war, and that’s why strategic ambiguity is a good thing.

In my opinion, the best thing to do in Taiwan is to not shake the status quo, which means that we have had peace across the Taiwan Strait since 1949. Since you’ve had peace there for 72 years, don’t change the status quo.

Taiwan should not push for independence. Taipei should also continue to say that it respects a ‘One China’ Policy. Maintaining the ‘One China’ Policy and the status quo is the best way to prevent war in the Taiwan Strait.

Judging from Biden administration’s economic stimulus policies and new legislation, the U.S. has essentially embarked on a path of strongly supporting the development of the domestic tech sector, for example the semiconductor industry. How do you see the future of Sino-U.S. tech war as Washington takes more steps to implement industrial policies?

The U.S. and China contest plays out in many areas, in the economic, trade, technologies, military, political, ecological, and many dimensions. I think in the technology sphere, the United States is trying very hard to ensure that it maintains a technological superiority over China. Now that China is catching up in many critical technologies, the United States is carrying out government policies to maintain its technological supremacy, which previously was mainly the work of the private sector. For example, the former head of Google, Eric Schmidt, is now chairing National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

When we look at the history of the United States, when the United States emerged after World War II in the 1950s and 1960s, many technologies, including the Internet, happened as a result of U.S. military investments in technology. There’s no such thing as a perfect market system, or a perfect state-run system. Both United States and China have hybrid systems. So some of the investment is made through the public sector, and some is made through the private sector.

I think both countries will have hybrid versions of both public and private sector investments to retain their technological edge. Also, more and more countries will have industrial policies to maintain the edge in critical technologies. This is natural and not necessarily a bad thing, because as China becomes stronger and stronger in artificial intelligence, and the U.S. becomes stronger and stronger, then it’s good for the rest of the world, since everyone can learn from China and from America.

The U.S. has taken measures to restrict exports of semiconductor chips to China. This is a strategic mistake on the part of United States, because now China has no other choice but to become self-reliant. And when China becomes self-reliant, American companies would have lost a big market. So it is not wise of the United States to do so, and it is an example of the United States not having a comprehensive strategy in dealing with a rising China.

If I was advising the United States, I would say, the U.S. should continue to export semiconductor chips to China, then China will be dependent on the United States in the semiconductor sector. Instead, by restricting the exports, the United States has now forced China to become self-reliant, which is not a win but a loss for the United States.

What is your evaluation on the chances of China and the United States joining the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership)? What are both sides’ calculations in this issue?

I think it would be in America’s national interest to join the CPTPP, because this means that American economic influence remains in the region. But unfortunately, as you know, the political environment in the United States Congress is so opposed to free trade agreements, that it is unlikely that the United States will be able to rejoin the CPTPP, even though it will be in America’s interest to do so. I hope at some point, America will come back to the CPTPP.

I think it’s more likely that China will join the CPTPP than for the U.S. to join at this stage, which is unfortunate on the part of the Americans. China has been integrating itself with Southeast Asia for a long time, starting with China joining the World Trade Organization in 2001. China has worked out a consistent policy of sharing its prosperity with its neighbors. When you share your prosperity with your neighbors, then United States cannot carry out a containment policy against China. Even for American allies like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, they also want trade with China as they do with the United States, and they cannot afford to join a containment policy against China. And that’s a fact. I don’t know whether the Chinese leaders explicitly thought of that, but the result has been that integration.

ASEAN’s economic ties with China have been strengthening, while the region still expects to rely on the United States for security concerns. Yet this solution seems more and more untenable. What will be ASEAN’s strategy to reconcile these conflicting elements?

ASEAN countries want to maintain good ties with both China and the United States. And it’s not necessarily in the way described as economics versus security, because United States also has a very large economic presence in Southeast Asia. Total American investment in Southeast Asia is much larger than Chinese investment.

ASEAN countries don’t want to be forced to choose sides. They don’t want to see just an American military presence in the region, they want to see an American economic presence in the region as well. And similarly, they want to have good economic and military ties with China. Since the ASEAN countries are benefiting a great deal from trade with China, they will carry on with their trade relationship with China. If the United States asks ASEAN to stop, ASEAN will not stop.

It’s natural that pressure will come from both sides, but I think it’s not wise for either China or the U.S. to force ASEAN. Because when you have a pressure, you have a backlash. It is better to let ASEAN decide what is good for ourselves.

In the long run, would ASEAN’s consensus-based decision-making model and noninterventionist principle affect its leverage in major international affairs, for example, in its authority to mediate in the recent Myanmar crisis?

Myanmar is a tragedy. It is very sad. I think it’s important to save lives first, we don’t want innocent people to die. There could have been a political compromise between Aung San Suu Kyi and the military. It is a pity that there was no compromise, so the military seized power.

At the end of April, the ASEAN countries held a meeting to discuss the Myanmar situation in Jakarta. The good news is that the Myanmar’s junta chief Min Aung Hlaing attended and listen to the five-point consensus of the ASEAN countries.

I think ASEAN countries can push for some kind of compromise between the Myanmar civil government and Tatmadaw (the official name of the armed forces of Myanmar) whereby no one side can have all the power, then that will be good for both sides. ASEAN will try very hard to push for compromise. The ASEAN strength is that they can talk to both sides, whereas the Western countries cannot talk to the military.

What might this new compromise between the civil government and the military look like?

It would be very difficult to go back exactly to the pre-crisis status, including the agreement that 25% of Myanmar parliament’s seats are reserved for the military.

The best way is for the U.S., China, ASEAN, and India to work together to help Myanmar achieve political stability, which is the most important thing at the moment. And political stability in Myanmar can only come if the two sides compromise with each other, which is what we should be pushing for. I think, if there are consistent messages coming from United States, China, ASEAN, India and Japan to call for political stabilization in Myanmar, then it can exert an impact on Myanmar.

Furthermore, I think the crisis in Myanmar provides an opportunity for the United States and China, which have difficulties in many issues, to collaborate on some areas. I was a diplomat for 33 years. From my experiences, diplomacy is best conducted behind closed doors. You mustn’t talk to journalists about diplomacy. And in diplomacy, when you collaborate in some areas, you build up trust. There are many issues in the world that can be solved with U.S. and China working together with each other, rather than work against each other.

Across the world, social media platforms have contributed to more radical political stances and rising nationalist sentiment, especially among the younger generation. Have you observed such trends in the Chinese young people? In what way was this domestic factor interweaved into the development of Chinese foreign policy?

I think I am not surprised that there is rising nationalism in China, because nationalism is a natural consequence of countries becoming stronger and stronger. At the same time, I think it will be good for the Chinese government to manage this nationalism very carefully. Nationalism can evolve into a big angry dragon and must never be seen as unmitigated good, so it’s better to restrain the dragon before it starts breathing fire.

I think the Chinese government does tell the Chinese people: it is good for China to be strong and at the same time to get along with its neighbors and with the rest of the world. This is why I like President Xi Jinping’s idea of having a community of shared future. It is in China’s interest not just to take care of the interests of Chinese people, but also to help the rest of the world.

Politics in Singapore

Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat made a surprising announcement that he would no longer be the leader of the fourth generation leadership. What has been the major reaction from the Singaporean people?

People in Singapore are not worried. I know at the end of the day, there will be some solution, then Singapore will remain politically stable. As you know, Singapore has been one of the most politically stable countries in the world. The ruling party People’s Action Party has been winning elections since 1959. No other political party in the world has won elections every five years for 62 years, so Singapore is No. 1.

Do you think the Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s decision to step down as the prospective Singaporean leader would have a permanent impact on Singapore’s traditional way of choosing and cultivating the next leader, where every member of the leadership agrees upon their leader collectively?

I think the Singaporean system will continue. Prime Minister Lee, who planned to retire next year, has agreed to stay on longer, which is good for the country so we will have political stability. I think we have enough time for the fourth generation leadership to select a new leader. Singapore will remain politically stable.

Contact reporter Zeng Jia ( and editor Lu Zhenhua (

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