Those who follow Asian political debates don’t need to be told who Kishore Mahbubani is. As Dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy at the University of Singapore, Mahbubani is leading the development of an institution that hopes to become one of the world’s leading research and policy centers. Over a career of distinguished service, he has been an articulate and forthright exponent of the Singaporean view that the 21st century belongs to Asia, and he has done as much as any Asian public intellectual to articulate a vision for Asian thinkers and writers in a new era of world history.In a post at the FT, Kishore lays out the way many senior Singaporeans think about the new Asian great game. The US ‘pivot’, he says, provides yet more telling evidence that Asia is replacing Europe as the central driving force in world politics. The American engagement is broadly welcomed by most Asian countries. But the US should now expect many of those countries to attempt to play the two giants off against one another; once America has committed itself to a regional contest with China, the smaller powers can do what many countries did in the Cold War as they extorted aid and concessions from both the US and the USSR. Thus, speaking as an Asian from a country well placed to benefit from the rivalry, Mahbubani expresses some satisfaction at the way things are going.How will it all turn out? For answers, Mahbubani advises us to go to another Asian scholar, Yan Xuetong from Tsinghua University. (Located in Beijing, Tsinghua is often called the MIT of China.) Yan published an article in the New York Times advising China that winning the hearts and minds of Asia was the key to its ability to prevail in any contest with the US. Drawing on Confucian concepts of just dealing and humane governance, Yan looks at China’s role in Asia from a traditional Chinese point of view:
How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home. Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.This means China must shift its priorities away from economic development to establishing a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor. It needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness.
As I read them, both Mahbubani and Yan offer analyses that point to the considerable advantages of the US side. Broadly if perhaps not deeply popular in Asia, wielding considerable advantages when it comes to economic, military and political reach, and blessed with a stable domestic order, the US is extremely well placed to advance its agenda in Asia. But over the long term, the US can only prosper by creating a deeper partnership with Asian counterparts, including China, that creates a culturally, socially and politically legitimate Asian order answerable not only or even primarily to US concerns, but advancing the interests and satisfying the aspirations of Asian countries and peoples.We shall see.