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Asians Thinkers and the New Great Game

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.

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  • Mike Anderson

    Meanwhile, American pundits urge us to become more like China. I suppose we could start by stigmatizing those Falun Gong weirdos…

  • Roger Fortier

    In addition, breeding good, harmonious relations with your neighbors has always proven difficult for tyrants, like those in China.

  • Luke Lea

    “The US ‘pivot’, he says, provides yet more telling evidence that Asia is replacing Europe as the central driving force in world politics.”

    Hard to argue with that. Unless and until,Europe is threatened by total economic collapse and/or military conquest, the action must be elsewhere. I wouldn’t count the Middle East our just yet though.

    Contemporary history and world politics are all about the spread of Western civilization. Or the lack thereof. I mean science, capitalism, and democracy. These are no longer live issues in Europe. So the original statement is almost a tautology.

  • Ken marks

    Regarding Yan Xuetong’s statment: “[China] needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness.” What does this really mean? Wouldn’t the communist party of China say that that’s what they are doing now; that that’s the whole basis of communism? If he’s coming from the communist point of view, then he knows as you well do that the only way to establish these “high ideals” is through the point of a gun. The best that could be said of this is that in the end it’s a meaningless statement because such concepts of social justice and fairness are decided by individual points of view which can diverge by 180 degrees.

  • jan wolf jesse

    Play the two asian giants – us and china – off will work for the smaller states. But when a crisis will emerge big powers no longer offer carrots but demand a commitment to their “stick”.
    In international politics nothing is for free…. therefore all asian countries should persue good bilateral relations with both!

    Empirical evidence shows however a split! For security those nations are reaching out for the us while in the economical realm the are becoming more and more linked with china. This strategy is unsustainable as the struggle for mastery in asia slowly but surely unfolds.

  • Luke Lea

    Isn’t China still an undemocratic society with a centrally planned economy to a very large extent? Most of the major industries are still owned and managed by the government I read in the papers. How is she supposed to win the hearts and minds of the peoples around her? Our task is much simpler, it seems to me, namely, to maintain freedom of the seas in cooperation with those peoples, who depend on that freedom to run their export-oriented economies.

  • Kris

    “the aspirations of Asian countries and peoples.”

    Chinese aspirations:

  • hanmeng

    Yan Xuetong’s article is an embarrassment if you take it as advice directed to those outside China, but perhaps it’s actually directed at the current Chinese regime, warning them they’d [darn] well better shape up. But that’s not very likely.

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @hanmeng: to me, it read like strong advice to the government, delivered very politely.

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