Scholar, Diplomat Kishore Mahbubani Assesses U.S.–China Relationship, Advocates for Multipolar World Order
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, August 21, 2020 — Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) welcomed scholar and veteran diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, along with J.P. Morgan Private Bank Vice Chairman and ASTC board member Martyn E. Goossen, for a conversation on Mahbubani’s recent book Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy. Informed by his diverse experience and knowledge, including as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1984-1989, 1998-2004) and President of the UN Security Council (2001-2002), Mahbubani commented on the historical development of U.S.–China relations, where we are now, and what we may hope for in the future.
Asking the right questions
Goossen noted that the title of Mahbubani’s recent book is thought-provoking, even a little provocative, and said he wondered whether that was Mahbubani’s intent while writing it. Mahbubani responded that while studying philosophy at the National University of Singapore, he realized that “the most important thing is not to get the answers right […] but to get the questions right.”
This viewpoint, he said, guided his writing of Has China Won?, as well as his other books with similar titles, such as Has the West Lost It? and Can Asians Think?
Do China and the U.S. understand each other?
A predominant theme Mahbubani highlighted in the program and throughout Has China Won? is that a lack of natural empathy underpins the U.S.–China relationship. He noted that while multilateral institutions like the UN help us understand how different people see different issues, the U.S. and China have not fully taken advantage of that benefit. He said it is important to acknowledge that both the U.S. and China are very complex societies, and that the differences between the two are not merely black and white.
In Mahbubani’s eyes, both China and the U.S. need to better understand whom they’re working with. He also pointed out that current tensions in the bilateral relationship have far-reaching consequences and put many countries in Southeast Asia — who have positive relationships with both China and the U.S. and want it to remain that way — in a tough position. Diplomacy is not a zero-sum game, he said, and it should not be a binary choice of being “with us or against us.”
An interconnected world and future
However, Mahbubani made a point to underscore that not all competition within the international system is bad, and said he believes that states can and will continue to compete. He also acknowledged that the U.S. has legitimate grievances against China, and that efforts to improve the bilateral relationship need to be a two-way street. Nevertheless, he indicated that there are areas — like the coronavirus pandemic and global climate change — where the world needs to cooperate as one. According to Mahbubani, strengthening multilateral ties and creating a multipolar world order would do more to constrain great powers in the long term.
In an increasingly interconnected world, Mahbubani said he sees all of us as having a shared destiny. He explained the question we should be asking is not whether China or the U.S. has won, but whether humanity has won. “If we lose planet Earth […] there’s no Planet B to go to,” he said. “It’s very stupid to try and sink the only planet we have, and that’s why humanity has to come together.”
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
About Asia Society at Home
We are dedicated to continuing our mission of building cross-cultural understanding and uplifting human connectivity. Using digital tools, we bring you content for all ages and conversations that matter, in order to spark curiosity about Asia and to foster empathy.
About Asia Society Texas Center
With 13 locations throughout the world, Asia Society is the leading educational organization promoting mutual understanding and strengthening partnerships among the peoples, leaders, and institutions of Asia and West. Asia Society Texas Center executes the global mission with a local focus, enriching and engaging the vast diversity of Houston through innovative, relevant programs in arts and culture, business and policy, education, and community outreach.
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