Questions for Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill

By Ian Bremmer
February 20, 2013

Graham Allison and Bob Blackwill have important questions to ask about China, America and the extraordinary impact of the relationship of those two countries on the rest of the world. For answers, they turned to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first premier and one of the world’s most formidable geopolitical thinkers and strategists. The result is a fascinating book called Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World. I had some of my own questions for them. The answers are written responses that Allison and Blackwill wrote together.

Q: Why is Lee Kuan Yew invaluable as a source of insight into China, America and the world? And why is Singapore so important for Asia’s future?

If you were to ask the world’s smartest and most influential people the question, “Who, by virtue of intelligence and life experience, is likely to have the most insightful answers about China, America, and the world?” their answer would be: Lee Kuan Yew.

As Henry Kissinger says in the foreword to our book, “I have had the privilege of meeting many world leaders over the past half century; none, however, has taught me more than Lee Kuan Yew.” Lee has also served as mentor to every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping and as counselor to every American president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. The list goes on.

Under his leadership, a small, poor, corrupt port city rose in a single generation to first-world status, and its citizens now enjoy higher annual incomes than Americans. He spearheaded “the rise of the rest” in Asia, which has transformed Singapore’s front yard — the Strait of Malacca — into one of the most important commercial crossroads in the world.

Q: Why, in your opinion, are relations between China and the United States crucial for the future of international politics and the global economy?

Both the United States and China will face a huge challenge in coming decades as a rising power rivals a ruling power. Historically, statesmen have failed this test: Eleven of 15 such cases since 1500 have ended in war.

Today’s leaders must bear this grim statistic in mind, learn from the success stories and brace themselves for the fact that massive adjustments of attitudes and actions will be required by both sides to avoid war. As Lee says, “The U.S. cannot stop China’s rise. It just has to live with a bigger China, which will be completely novel for the U.S., as no country has ever been big enough to challenge its position.”

Q: Lee argues that the U.S. should be more active in Asia. In your opinion, how can the U.S. play a larger political, commercial and military role in the region while ensuring that competition with China doesn’t provoke conflict?

As Lee says, the 21st century is going to be “a contest for supremacy in the Pacific” between the U.S. and China. The hope is that the two countries can come to some viable power-sharing arrangement. It is hard to imagine that Americans will retreat from Asia, and as a result, the best outcome will be, in Lee’s view, “a new understanding that when they cannot cooperate, they will coexist and allow countries in the Pacific to grow and thrive.” It will not be easy, and has few successful precedents in history.

Q: What is China’s greatest long-term strength? What is it greatest vulnerability?

The rise of China is the geopolitical event of our lifetimes, and the wind is at its back. After three decades of double-digit growth, an economy that was smaller than Spain’s in 1980 now ranks second in the world and will become No. 1 in the next decade. China has raised more than 600 million people out of conditions of abject poverty and created a rapidly expanding middle class already larger than the entire population of the United States.

But Lee has a warning for Chinese leaders: They should know that “to dominate Asia is not possible.” With China’s newfound power, some will seek to restore the status quo of centuries past, in which other states related to China “as supplicants to a superior.” But since the United States, Europe, Japan and even India and countries in Southeast Asia are all relatively powerful, this approach is misguided.

Q: China will still be a developing country when its economy becomes the world’s largest. What implications does that have for the rest of us?

Lee is less worried about the current generation of leaders and more worried about the next generation for this very reason. Today’s leaders have experienced the Great Leap Forward, hunger, starvation and “the Cultural Revolution gone mad,” as Lee says. But China’s young people “have only lived during a period of peace and growth in China and have no experience of China’s tumultuous past.” They think that China has “already arrived.” The danger here is of a China that overestimates its strength and blunders into a war.

Q: If Lee is right that China’s leaders are serious about displacing the United States as Asia’s No. 1 power, how are China’s neighbors likely to react?

China’s foreign policy in Asia has become much more assertive over the last five years, and its neighbors, including Lee’s own country of Singapore, are getting nervous. As Lee says, they worry “that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries and have misgivings about being treated as vassal states having to send tribute to China as they used to in past centuries.”

Take Japan and the Philippines, which are contesting territories with China in the South and East China seas. If you look at last year’s exports from Japan and the Philippines into China, they are down 20 percent and 16 percent, respectively. These are cases in which China is using its economic power to send a message. From the perspective of a strategist like Lee Kuan Yew, this is not only predictable; it is a predictor of things to come.

Q: Speaking of the neighbors, Lee’s skepticism of India’s ability to enhance its influence is well known. What role do you believe that India is likely to play in Asia’s future?

The United States recently asked its $50 billion intelligence community to make predictions about what the world will look like in 2030. It concluded that India’s middle class will be outspending China’s by then. India also has a demographic edge over China, since it is younger, and will eventually have a bigger population.

Lee Kuan Yew disagrees strongly. He was optimistic about India’s future when Nehru was in charge but thinks the country has been held back by its stifling bureaucracy, rigid caste system and absence of genuine leadership. We asked him whether India will match China’s rise, and his answer was, “No. Do not talk about India and China in the same breath. India is not a real country. Instead, it is 32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.”

Q: How did your conversations with Lee influence your views on differences in the American and European models of social democracy?

Lee reinforced our view that the American system, for all its flaws, has significant advantages over the European system. He stresses Americans’ “can-do approach,” “entrepreneurial culture” and “ability to range widely, imaginatively and pragmatically.” He warns, however, that the country risks going in “the ideological direction of Europe” if it fails to control its debt, at which point “the U.S. will be done for.

Q: Pollsters like to ask American voters whether their country is “on the right track.” How would you answer that question, and how did Lee’s opinions on the subject influence your views?

It is a common view among the chattering class in the United States that the country is in systemic decline. But interestingly enough, Lee, who knows and likes the U.S., is not pessimistic. He emphasizes the extent to which American resilience and the capacity to take in new people and absorb them are sources of strength. The best talent in the world wants to come to the United States and can succeed here as Americans. The Chinese don’t have the willingness or capacity to do this, which is a big advantage for the United States. He’s not counting us out, but he thinks it is going to be a big challenge for both China and the United States.

Q: Lee’s aversion to political correctness and his ability to surprise are well known. Which of his answers did you find most surprising and why?

That’s a hard question because, as Lee says in the book, “I always try to be correct, not politically correct.” The book bristles with zingers — direct, candid and often provocative insights. For example, ask most pundits or policymakers whether this generation of leaders aspires to displace the United States and become the predominant power in Asia in the foreseeable future. You are familiar with the literature and the many circumlocutions that have been offered in response. But Lee answers: “Of course. Why not? Their reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force. It is China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world — and to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the West.”

Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Robert D. Blackwill is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are co-authors of Lee Kuan Yew: the Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.

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