Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Will China Ever Be No. 1?

If you want to know the answer, ask Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Will China continue to grow three times faster than the United States to become the No. 1 economy in the world in the decade ahead? Does China aspire to be the No. 1 power in Asia and ultimately the world? As it becomes a great power, will China follow the path taken by Japan in becoming an honorary member of the West?

Despite current punditry to the contrary, the surest answer to these questions is: No one knows. But statesmen, investors, and citizens in the region and beyond are placing their bets. And U.S. policymakers, as they shape the Obama administration's pivot to Asia, are making these judgments too. In formulating answers to these questions, if you could consult just one person in the world today, who would it be? Henry Kissinger, the American who has spent by far the most time with China's leaders since Mao, has an answer: Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee is the founding father of modern Singapore and was its prime minister from 1959 to 1990. He has honed his wisdom over more than a half century on the world stage, serving as advisor to Chinese leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping and American presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. This gives him a uniquely authoritative perspective on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of East and West.

Will China continue to grow three times faster than the United States to become the No. 1 economy in the world in the decade ahead? Does China aspire to be the No. 1 power in Asia and ultimately the world? As it becomes a great power, will China follow the path taken by Japan in becoming an honorary member of the West?

Despite current punditry to the contrary, the surest answer to these questions is: No one knows. But statesmen, investors, and citizens in the region and beyond are placing their bets. And U.S. policymakers, as they shape the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia, are making these judgments too. In formulating answers to these questions, if you could consult just one person in the world today, who would it be? Henry Kissinger, the American who has spent by far the most time with China’s leaders since Mao, has an answer: Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee is the founding father of modern Singapore and was its prime minister from 1959 to 1990. He has honed his wisdom over more than a half century on the world stage, serving as advisor to Chinese leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping and American presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. This gives him a uniquely authoritative perspective on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of East and West.

Lee Kuan Yew’s answers to the questions above are: yes, yes, and no. Yes, China will continue growing several times faster than the United States and other Western competitors for the next decade, and probably for several more. Yes, China’s leaders are serious about becoming the top power in Asia and on the globe. As he says: "Why not? Their reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force." No, China will not simply take its seat within the postwar order created by the United States. Rather, "it is China’s intention to become the greatest power in the world — and to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the west," he said in a 2009 speech.

Western governments repeatedly appeal to China to prove its sense of international responsibility by being a good citizen in the global order set up by Western leaders in the aftermath of World War II. But as Kissinger observes, these appeals are "grating to a country that regards itself as adjusting to membership in an international system designed in its absence on the basis of programs it did not participate in developing." 

In Lee’s view, "the Chinese are in no hurry to displace the U.S. as the number one power in the world." As he told us in an interview, some Chinese, "imagine that the 21st century will belong to China, others expect to share the century with the U.S. as they build up to the Chinese century to follow."

China’s strategy to achieving preeminence, according to Lee, is "to build a strong and prosperous future and use their huge and increasingly highly skilled and educated workforce to out-sell, and out-build all others." Militarily, China’s leaders do not envision a confrontation until the country has "overtaken the U.S. in the development and application of technology," an area in which it still lags.

As Lee says, "the Chinese have figured out that if they stay with ‘peaceful rise’ and just contest for first position economically and technologically, they cannot lose." But when it comes to hard power, Chinese leaders are primarily still heeding the maxim of Deng Xiaoping: "Hide your strength, bide your time."

Are we thus entering a Chinese era? Lee expects so, though he notes that "the chances of it going wrong in China are about one in five." If Lee is correct, leaders in both China and the United States will face a huge challenge in coming decades as a rising power rivals a ruling power. Historically, statesmen have failed this test: 11 of 15 such cases since 1500 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 violent conflict in the future.

See Also: Is It Time for the U.S. to Issue a Digital Dollar?

Graham Allison is a professor of government at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he was the founding dean. He is a former U.S. assistant defense secretary and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Twitter: @GrahamTAllison

Robert D. Blackwill is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and a distinguished scholar at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University. He was deputy national security advisor for strategic planning, presidential envoy to Iraq, and ambassador to India in the George W. Bush administration.

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