Not yet, possibly never

Has China Won  by Kishore Mahbubani

Review of Has China Won: the Chinese Challenge to American Primacy by Kishore Mahbubani. Public Affairs, 2020.

“Singapore has to take the world as it is; it is too small to change it,” the city-state’s late founding father Lee Kuan Yew wrote. But that belies how Singapore’s geostrategic and symbolic importance, reputation for strong governance, and clear-eyed diplomacy have long earned it the respect and ability to play truth-teller to both Washington and Beijing. 

Its status as a majority ethnic Chinese democracy, security partner with the United States, and its position along the most important strait in the global economy, assure it an important role in the US-China contest. In that capacity, Singapore is consistently principled, fiercely insistent on its own autonomy, an advocate for a rules-based order on which its status as an economic hub is built, and a masterful balancer between the United States and China. 

Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean diplomat and public intellectual, betrays that reputation for balance and cool competence in his new book on the US and China. Instead, it is a stream of provocations aimed almost exclusively at the United States; more a series of clippings from the op-ed pages than a sustained and original argument.


“A major geopolitical contest between America and China is both inevitable and avoidable,” Mahbubani writes, and that duality is mostly the United States’ doing. He decries a “poisonous atmosphere” of hostility towards China that has become a rare point of consensus in American politics, insinuating strongly that it is driven by fear and racism. The United States, misguided by the delusions of its own exceptionalism, has become arrogant, plutocratic, and stagnant. The country has no coherent plan for how to manage a rising China nor the ability to envision itself as the world’s second-most powerful country. In some respects, America has “become as rigid and ossified as Qing dynasty China.”

While there are elements of truth in all of these assertions, they have been made with greater sophistication by others, many of whom he liberally quotes, and broadly ignore America’s offsetting strengths and the potential to improve its trajectory. Meanwhile, many of China’s critical challenges, including unenviable demographics that make its continued economic ascent difficult, are broadly beyond the country’s ability to reverse. 

Mahbubani does no equivalent inventory of China’s domestic challenges and contributions to international disorder. Unflinching in the strategic questions he believes the American strategists have failed to answer, he directs no equivalent questions towards Zhongnanhai. Instead, the “biggest strategic mistake” he attributes to China is its alienation of the American business community. He goes on to argue that America’s presence in the Middle East or its domestic criminal justice issues are greater violations of human rights than China’s internment of hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs. In another confounding instance, he suggests China’s punishment of Norway for awarding the Nobel Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo was “normal behavior” for a great power whose “national interests have been damaged” – not evidence of a deeply insecure regime. 

Mahbubani is confident that China is not an expansionist power – at least in the ideological sense that the Soviet Union was. The militarization of the South China Sea – after assurances it would not do so – is chiefly the fault of the American navy’s increased patrols, he explains; meanwhile, China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors are glossed over. Mahbubani counsels the US to reduce military spending – because after all, he quips, China is the biggest beneficiary of Pax Americana. His assessment of the “powerful antimilitary DNA of Chinese civilization” blithely ignores the country’s strong undercurrents of nationalism. 

If the US were to reduce its military footprint, China’s incipient steps towards foreign bases would likely become a full-out sprint, undermining Mahbubani’s claims of China’s limited military ambitions. Moreover, China does not need to export its ideology or seize swaths of territory to coerce nations to act in its interests. Mahbubani dismisses a report, with which this reviewer was affiliated, documenting China’s pattern of interference in open societies, despite the fact that Singapore has been among the most vigilant countries in this regard. Indeed, the country expelled a pro-Beijing professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy for being an agent of a foreign power during Mahbubani’s final months as the school’s dean.  


As flawed a messenger as he may be, Mahbubani mustn’t be ignored. America needs its international friends to speak up if the country is to correct its course. Amid the noise of any individual assessment or recommendation, there is a clear signal: that America must get its domestic house in order, that it must rationalize its foreign policy, and that a ‘with us or against us’ approach to other nations with respect to China will fail. 

America is indeed at risk of letting its China policy be carried away by emotion, a risk that appears likely to grow in the aftermath of the coronavirus. It will not be the first time the country’s foreign policy has been misguided. The historian Frank Costigliola has examined how “two decades of deep, conflicted feelings about the Soviet people and their government” shaped the famous Long Telegram. Costigliola observes that belying the telegram’s seemingly authoritative analysis, George Kennan portrayed the Soviet government as a “rapist exerting ‘insistent, unceasing pressure for penetration and command’ over Western societies.” In other instances, Kennan would make a distinction between a feminized Russian people and their masculine, authoritarian government. In at least one earlier writing, he “referred to the possibility of using ‘the psychology of children as a criterion for understanding Russians.'” 

The consequence of this emotional language, Costigliola concluded, was to delegitimize “cooperation with the Soviets. Emotions reframed the question from whether the United States and the Soviet Union could reach compromises that would safeguard the vital interests of both nations, to whether it was realistic and manly to deal with a regime fanatically committed to destroying the United States and everything else decent.”

United States policy towards China and other nations has also long been distorted through the lens of gender and race, best captured by Michael Hunt in Ideology and US Foreign Policy. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, China was presented as a ward “whom Americans had a special responsibility to tutor, protect against danger, and even punish for misbehavior.” Even today, the metaphor of marriage – and, now, divorce – is strikingly common in describing the bilateral relationship.

This pattern helps contextualize the disappointment and betrayal that defines America’s current posture towards China. It also suggests that the policy reaction it is prompting is in excess, or at least uncalibrated to, what a rational assessment would warrant. Emotion becomes particularly potent when combined with low levels of knowledge about China among America’s top decisionmakers. As Peter Mattis has written, this leads to potentially misleading “analogizing about China rather than assessing China for what it is.”  

The United States must find opportunities to elevate the nature of its competition with China, not degrade it to a challenge of resources, strength, and will. To do so, the United States must reframe its competition less in bilateral terms and instead place a greater emphasis on its own renewal and defending and advancing its alliances and global institutions. The United States should challenge China to cooperate, refusing to hold progress on global issues hostage to disagreements on bilateral concerns. 

The United States can insist on reciprocity without closing its borders; it can resist China’s efforts to interfere in open societies by redoubling its commitment to transparency and high standards. American institutions, properly informed of the risks, can be trusted to differentiate between preserving their own autonomy and absolute decoupling, thereby creating a model of conduct that other nations can follow. In practice, this means that the United States can deny individuals with ties to the Chinese military from pursuing research on American campuses without subjecting tens of thousands of Chinese students to undue scrutiny.

America must also recommit to the multilateral institutions where China is laying the groundwork to reset the global agenda. This includes embracing a new transpacific trade agreement while investing in its own people’s abilities to seize the opportunities of free trade. In deepening its commitment to alliances, America should, as Mahbubani puts it, give India the “strategic respect” that nation deserves while ending its “strategic ignorance” of Asean. In the Pacific, the US military’s posture can shift from supremacy to deterrence without implying concession. 


“There is no question that if China suddenly becomes a democracy, it would emerge with a leader as interventionist and imperialistic as Teddy Roosevelt, not with a leader as restrained and noninterventionist as Xi Jinping,” Mahbubani asserts, later arguing that America benefits from and is thus complicit in China’s lack of rights. 

That is questionable. If they were more accountable to the people instead of the central government, Wuhan’s local government might have acted to prevent the coronavirus outbreak instead of attempting to cover it up. A more democratic China would not need a massive propaganda apparatus fanning the flames of nationalism to secure its leaders’ rule. Instead of electing a Teddy Roosevelt, it might instead elect a Lyndon Johnson focused on the country’s domestic inequalities. A more democratic China would reflect the talent and decency of its people with far greater fidelity than the CCP.

But China will not democratize. Instead, its government is attempting to rewrite its social contract now that the economic growth it had been predicated on is no longer assured. It is seeking to legitimize itself as the guardian of Chinese civilization while aligning its need for stability with the opportunity for limited personal freedoms via an emerging social credit system.  

In this context, the only decoupling the United States should seek to do is to sever the CCP’s argument that opposition to the Party is tantamount to opposition to China as a people or a nation; that liberal values are incompatible with China’s culture or its development context; that China is weakened by outside influences, not enriched by them, as the world is by China’s engagement with it. To do so, the United States should be unambiguous in its support for a prosperous and secure China and reframe why reform is in China’s own interest. 

The US should respond to China’s quest for greater “discourse power” by supporting independent journalism around the world, particularly in the Chinese language and the developing world. It should also demand that global platforms take consistent approaches to disinformation regardless of its source. Within China, the United States should make a more concerted effort to penetrate China’s Great Firewall and more directly take on China’s domestic propaganda, for example by countering the CCP’s newfound embrace of Confucianism. 

“The basic mistake of engagement was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China’s political system, economy, and foreign policy,” Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, Obama era foreign policy officials, have written. “Washington risks making a similar mistake today, by assuming that competition can succeed in transforming China where engagement failed – this time forcing capitulation or even collapse.” They are right that the United States should focus on the ecosystem in which China and the United States coexist, not forcing an outcome it cannot assure. The United States should be positioned to succeed regardless of China’s trajectory.