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The Sage of Singapore

By: Patrick J. Garrity
April 24, 2013

"Harry" Lee Kuan Yew is often referred to as "the Sage of Singapore." The Cambridge University-educated Lee was the founding father of that modern independent city-state. He served as its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, overseeing its rise as the first of the Southeast Asian "tigers." He was also one of the region's most influential international statesmen, renowned for both his geopolitical acumen and his far-sighted economic vision. When Harry Lee spoke, people listened.

That is not to say that everyone always agreed with Lee. He approved of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, which in his view helped to balance power in Asia and stem the tide of Soviet and Chinese-supported Communist regional insurgencies. This did not endear him to those Americans and Europeans who believed that the war was both immoral and strategically unwise, although it won him friends in the Johnson and Nixon administrations. After the end of the Cold War, Lee warned against assuming the universal applicability of Western values and political forms. He famously defended "Confucian" values (often referred to as "Asian values," although Lee refused to conflate the two) as a better standard by which to judge political behavior and regimes in his part of the world. While Lee's defense of non-Western value systems won him plaudits in the region as well as in the multicultural intellectual community, which generally rejected his strategic insights, it earned him the ire of those who contended that "Confucian values" was code for authoritarian government and the suppression of individual rights, of which Lee himself was accused of doing in Singapore

So, when Harvard University's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs strongly promotes their new book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World, one naturally pays attention—and not just to the Grand Master's insights. What is the Belfer Center's equity in the matter? The book is edited by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, two heavy-hitters at Harvard with high-level experience in the U.S. government, and by Ali Wyne, a junior associate. The editors explain that

our focus is the future and the specific challenges that the United States will face during the next quarter century. We have tried to imagine the questions that the individual who takes the presidential oath of office on January 20, 2013, would find of most immediate interest, and then to summarize Lee's most direct responses in his own words. We are confident that these answers will be of value not only to those shaping American foreign policy, but also to leaders of businesses and civil society in the United States, who are making investments of scarce dollars and even scarcer time based on their expectations about significant trends in the wider world.

 

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If anyone doubts that the Belfer Center has the highest esteem for Lee, the book includes a laudatory forward by Henry Kissinger:

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.... As to the ancient argument—whether individuals shape events or are their register—there can be no doubt about the answer with regard to Lee Kuan Yew, a man of unmatched intelligence and judgment.

 

This is followed by equally laudatory archived blurbs from across the political spectrum, including the late Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama, and from journalists, businessmen, and other leading American opinion-makers.

Perhaps all this promotion is aimed to increase book sales, money being scarce at Harvard, but the student of strategy can be excused for looking for a particular message or idea that the editors want to advance. Allison and Blackwill tell us that they will offer no commentary but will let Lee speak for himself, through quotations taken from Lee's writings and interviews—the editors themselves interviewed Lee on several occasions in 2011. The quotations are organized into ten chapters on various topics, including geopolitics and globalization and Islamic extremism, but as the book's title suggests, the editors focus on the future of Sino-American relations. "Between these two great powers," they note, "Lee sees confrontation: ‘There will be a struggle for influence. Competition between them is inevitable.' But," the editors are quick to tell their readers, "contrary to pessimistic realists, he does not judge conflict inevitable if leaders of both nations exercise reasonable judgment."


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This strikes me as a not-unfair characterization of Lee's position, but the Grand Master clearly has more to say. Lee wants to steer the two sides in a pacific direction and he does not believe that outright conflict is preordained, but his analysis points to significant difficulties that will occur as U.S.-PRC relations evolve over coming decades and beyond (Lee thinks in terms of decades and centuries). These difficulties will certainly challenge and may well swamp the best efforts of "reasonable judgment," certainly if that judgment consists of simple Western and Asian accommodation to China's presumably inevitable rise.

One caution is in order: the 2011 interviews with Lee take up a relatively small portion of the book. Other quotations are from much earlier periods—one is from 1950—and many are from the 1990s, very different times indeed. The quotations are not placed in chronological order. One must refer to the endnotes to develop some context for Lee's particular views, not only as to the date he expressed them, but also to the format (whether a speech, magazine or personal interview, or Lee's own writings) and to the audience that he was addressing. This is not to be overly Oriental—or Straussian—in one's approach to the book, but it is to acknowledge that Lee is a careful as well as honest messenger, and that the editor's approach risks obscuring as much as it reveals.


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The first chapter begins with Lee's assertion that China's leaders are indeed serious about displacing the United States as the leading power in Asia and, over the longer-term, in the world. Why would they not aspire to do so? Lee asks rhetorically. They are on track to become the world's leading economy within two decades and have already achieved impressive technological advancements, including putting men in space and demonstrating the ability to shoot down satellites. The 1.3 billion people in China—many of great talent—are inheritors of a 4,000 year old culture. Their "reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force." The Chinese understand that this is a long-term process and they expect to share this century as co-equals with the United States.

In Lee's view, the Chinese leadership recognizes that the United States has provided sufficient stability in Asia to allow unprecedented growth for many nations, including China itself. China needs access to American markets and technology. Chinese students who study in the United States "bring back to China new ideas about new frontiers." Beijing sees no profit in confronting the United States in the next few decades in a way that could jeopardize these benefits. Rather, "its strategy is to grow within this framework, biding its time until it becomes strong enough to successfully redefine this political and economic order."

The Chinese, according to Lee, believe that the best strategy to this end "is to build a strong and prosperous future, and use their huge and increasingly highly skilled and educated workers to out-sell and out-build all others." China does not need to fight for East Asia. Lee believes that China is well aware of the mistakes that have been made by other rising powers, specifically the Germans, Japanese, and Soviets in the 20th century. To directly take on a stronger and technologically superior power like the United States would abort China's "peaceful rise" (a term since modified to the presumably less threatening "peaceful development.") The Chinese are acutely aware of the Soviet Union's mistake, which was to put too much into military expenditure and too little into civilian technology, a misallocation of resources that led to economic collapse. "I believe the Chinese leadership has learnt that if you compete with America in armaments, you will lose," Lee commented. "You will bankrupt yourself. So, avoid it, keep your head down, and smile, for 40 or 50 years."


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Continued economic growth in China depends on imports, including energy, raw materials, and food, and on secure sea lanes, which could be threatened by hostile powers as a means of coercing China. To bridge the strategic gap between the present and the Chinese imperium of the future, the PRC is rapidly developing asymmetrical means to deter U.S. military power, while applying diplomatically the full weight of China's economy and demography to get what they want.

China's leaders want to convey the impression that China's rise is inevitable and that countries will need to decide if they want to be China's friend or foe when it "arrives."... China is sucking the Southeast Asian countries into its economic system because of its vast market and growing purchasing power. Japan and South Korea will inevitably be sucked in as well. It just absorbs countries without having to use force.

 

Lee faults the United States in part for this state of affairs: "The U.S. should have established a free-trade area with Southeast Asia 30 years ago, well before the Chinese magnet began to pull the region into its orbit. If it had done so, its purchasing power would now be so much greater than it is, and all of the Southeast Asian countries would have been linked to the U.S. economy rather than depending on China's." That is water under the bridge, unfortunately. And so, according to Lee, the Chinese now approach the Singaporeans in the following fashion: "They tell us that countries big or small are equal: we are not a hegemon. But when we do something they do not like, they say you have made 1.3 billion people unhappy.... So please know your place."

That does not seem to be a very happy outcome, for Singapore or anyone else other than the Chinese. On what grounds, then, might current or future Chinese leaders apply "reasonable judgment" to moderate their aims sufficiently to allow Asia and the world to live peacefully with them?

Sorting through Lee's various quotations, we can identify his sense of the major challenges to China's unfettered rise. First, the time scale involved, which Lee places on the order of many decades or even centuries. This gives time for all parties to reach a modus vivendi.

The Chinese are in no hurry to displace the U.S. as the number 1 power in the world and to carry the burden that is part and parcel of that position. For now, they are quite comfortable in being part of a larger group like the G20 [Group of Twenty] where their views will be taken seriously and economic interests safeguarded, but the responsibility is shared amongst 20 member states.... [T]he center of gravity among the [Chinese] leaders is cautious and conservative. They operate on the basis of consensus and have a long view. While some may imagine that the 21st century will belong to China, others expect to share this century with the U.S. as they build up to China's century to follow.

 

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Second, China faces a number of internal difficulties that will keep it from becoming an American-like comprehensive superpower—a first-rate military power that can stay on top because of its economic and cultural dynamism and its broad international appeal.

China, in Lee's opinion, will face barriers caused by governance, culture, language, and an inability to attract and assimilate foreign talent. Chinese will never serve as the universal language among elites, as is now the case with English. (Lee once advised a Chinese official to make English the first language of China, although he recognizes that will never happen.) Though it will catch up to the U.S. in the absolute size of its economy, it is an open question whether Chinese creativity will ever match American. The free exchange and contest of ideas so prevalent in America goes against the grain of 5,000 years of Chinese history, which can make it seem that everything worth being said has been already been said, and said better, by earlier writers.

Lee further points to the enormous stresses China faces because of the size of the country, the persistence of graft and corruption, the poor infrastructure, the weak institutions, the absence of the rule of the law, and the legacy of having modeled themselves upon the Soviet system in Stalin's time.

He does not foresee revolutionary change in China, however, nor does he favor democratization as a solution to its domestic problems. China would collapse if it attempted to become a liberal, parliamentary democracy at the national level, although such governance might be applied at the local level. "If you believe that there is going to be a revolution of some sort in China for democracy, you are wrong. Where are the students of Tiananmen now? They are irrelevant. The Chinese people want a revived China." Chinese leaders will always err on the side of caution and will move in an evolutionary manner, which means gradually accepting international standards of basic human rights. "If they change in a pragmatic way, as they have been doing, keeping tight security control and not allowing riots and not allowing rebellions and, at the same time, easing up...giving more provincial authority, more city authority, more grassroots power, it is holdable." But, we might reasonably conclude, "holdable" is not the same as stable and reliable. Chinese leaders will always have strategic limitations placed on them by the need to keep an eye on the domestic front.


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Third, there are also international obstacles that the Chinese must come to recognize, if they have not already done so:

Present-day China faces a very advanced North America, Europe, Japan, and a fairly developed Southeast Asia and India.... China's leaders 30 years hence will know that although by 2050 China will be the biggest economy in GNP [gross national product], per capita, they will still be small, and technologically, they will still be way behind. So to get there, they must have a sense of realism.... They have got to be like Singapore's leaders, with a very keen sense of what is possible and what is not. They must know that to dominate Asia is not possible. Straight-line extrapolations from such a remarkable record are not realistic.

 

Above all, in Lee's opinion, the United States is not going away, allowing China a free hand in Asia. Despite all the hand-wringing about American decline brought about by the great financial crisis, Lee does not believe that the United States is in systemic decline, but will remain the sole superpower for at least the next several decades. History demonstrates that the Americans are resilient and boundlessly creative (even if Lee dislikes the tawdry aspects of American culture, distrusts its sometimes dysfunctional political system, and is concerned about its long-term debt problems).

America's strengths include no grooved thinking but rather an ability to range widely, imaginatively, and pragmatically; a diversity of centers of excellence that compete in inventing and embracing new ideas and new technologies; a society that attracts talent from around the world and assimilates them comfortably as Americans; and a language that is the equivalent of an open system that is clearly the lingua franca of the leaders in science, technology, invention, business, education, diplomacy, and those who rise to the top of their own societies around the world.

 

If American leaders are wise, they will understand that they remain the essential balancer to what would otherwise be the unchecked and destabilizing growth of China.

The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific, because that is where the growth will be. That is where the bulk of the economic strength of the globe will come from. If the U.S. does not hold its ground in the Pacific, it cannot be a world leader. America's core interest requires that it remains the superior power on the Pacific. To give up this position would diminish America's role throughout the world.

 

The other powers in the region appreciate that fact and will encourage the United States to play that role.

Prudence dictates that there be a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. This is reflected in a widely held consensus that the U.S. presence in the region should be sustained.... A military presence does not need to be used to be useful. Its presence makes a difference, and makes for peace and stability in the region. This stability serves the interest of all, including that of China.

 

The United States is uniquely suited to play the role of regional balancer.

America is a great nation not just because of its power and wealth, but mainly because it is a nation moved by high ideals. Only the elevating power of her idealism can explain the benign manner in which America has exercised its enormous power since the end of World War II and the magnanimity and generosity with which it has shared its wealth to rebuild a more prosperous world. The United States is the most benign of all the great powers, certainly less heavy-handed than any emerging great power.

 

The United States is therefore the key to realizing a peaceful and prosperous outcome in Asia, one that successfully accommodates the rise of China. In Lee's opinion, the United States should not view the competition for primacy in Asia as Cold War II. There is no great ideological conflict because China has embraced the marketplace. China, unlike the Soviet Union, "is not interested in changing the world" (by which Lee presumably means that Beijing will not seek to subvert other governments and replace them with regimes similar to the one in China). China is acting purely in what it sees as its own national interest. Hence, the struggle will be subdued. Sino-U.S. relations can be both cooperative and competitive, but they need not be adversarial. "The best possible outcome is a new understanding that when they cannot cooperate, they will coexist and allow all countries in the Pacific to grow and thrive." This requires a realistic appreciation by American leaders that they must eventually share their preeminent position with China. America cannot stop China's rise but must learn to live with it.


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That means—here one can almost see the sages of Harvard nodding their collective heads—that the United States must take the lead in integrating China into the world community. It must not treat China as an enemy; otherwise the PRC will develop a counterstrategy to destroy the American position in Asia and the Pacific. The United States must engage, not isolate, China. "You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say you will engage China on some issues and isolate her over others. You cannot mix your signals." Washington should not listen to American human rights groups, which bait the Chinese. Nor should America threaten to cut-off China's most favored nation status, impose other sanctions because of Chinese domestic practices, or seek to democratize China. "Such a haphazard approach risks turning China into a long-term adversary of the U.S. Less sensitivity and more understanding of the cultural realities of China can make for a less confrontational relationship.... China has to be persuaded that the U.S. does not want to break up China before it is more willing to discuss questions of world security and stability."

As China's development nears the point when it will have enough weight to elbow its way into the region, it will make a fateful decision—whether to be a hegemon, using its economic and military weight to create a sphere of influence...or to continue as a good international citizen.... It is in everyone's interest that before that moment of choice arrives, China should be given every incentive to choose international cooperation which will absorb its energies constructively for another 50 to 100 years. This means China must have the economic opportunities to do this peacefully, without having to push its way to get resources like oil, and have access to markets for its goods and services.... If such a route is not open to China, the world must live with a pushy China.... The United States can through dialogue and cooperation with China chart a course to manage China's transition in the next 20-30 years into a big power.... China is an old civilization and will not easily change because of external pressure or sanctions. But changes will come when their leaders, thinkers, and intellectuals become convinced on their own that adopting certain attributes and features of other societies will benefit China.

Integrating China into the global system will build up strong vested interests in China to play by international rules. It will increase China's interdependence for trade, services, investments, technology, and information. These interdependent links could increase to a point where to break them in a unilateral breach of international obligations would carry unbearable costs.

 

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Lee's own analysis, however, points to the difficulties of letting history, guided by reasonable judgment, simply run its course. Even today's relatively conservative Chinese leaders do not embrace this vision of China enmeshed in a world of economic interdependence. "At the core of their mindset is their world before colonization and the exploitation and humiliation that brought," Lee acknowledges. "In Chinese, China means ‘Middle Kingdom'—recalling a world in which they were dominant in the region, other states related to them as supplicants to a superior." When China reaches this dominating state, based on a reasonable extrapolation of Lee's position, we should not expect that it would assume the current role of the United States, that of a relatively benign hegemon enforcing the rules a liberal economic system in its enlightened self-interest. The Chinese do not want to run a Western-like liberal order, although for now they insist on enjoying its great benefits. In the long run they aim at overthrowing that order and replacing it with one of their own, based on the tributary model. All nations, not just small states like Singapore, would be told to know their place. (Politely, of course.) For the Chinese to abandon that vision, especially in the absence of an alternative legitimizing ideology like Marxism-Leninism, they would have to cease to be, well, Chinese.

Cultures and civilizations can and do change over time, to be sure. As a rule, however, change of this sort more typically occurs as the result of catastrophic defeat in war or in domestic revolution, not through the long-term effects of "soft power." Lee's way out of the problem is to kick the can far down the road—if all sides exercise "reasonable judgment," we can let history decide whether an economically dominant China is a moderate or triumphalist superpower (Lee seems to suggest that the Chinese, if they persist on their present course, are playing the winning hand).


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The seemingly inexorable historical forces pointing to China's long-term rise to the apex of power—perhaps shared with the United States, perhaps not—may not be cushioned quite as much by time as we might be led to think. Although Lee believes that the "center of gravity" among current Chinese leaders is "cautious and conservative," he also recognizes that there are countervailing social and political forces at work that want to speed up history—"voices calling for China to move more rapidly in establishing its superiority, demanding the respect that comes along with that standing, and exercising this role." Lee reports that he once told a senior Chinese leader:

Your generation has been through the anti-Japanese war, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, and finally the Open Door policy. You know there are many pitfalls, that for China to go up the escalator without mishaps, internally you need stability, externally you need peace. However, you are inculcating enormous pride and patriotism in your young in a restored China.... It is volatile.

 

The Chinese leader told Lee that they would make the young understand the importance of peace and stability. "Well, I hope they do," Lee adds. "Somewhere down this road, a generation may believe they have come of age, before they have."

The nations and peoples around China also see an acceleration of history, one for the most part that they do not like. They have been told, implicitly if not explicitly, what Singapore has been told: "You have made 1.3 billion people unhappy.... So please know your place." As Lee comments:

Will an industrialized and strong China be as benign to Southeast Asia as the United States has been since 1945? Singapore is not sure. Neither are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.... We already see a China more self-assured and willing to take tough positions.... Many medium and small countries in Asia are also concerned. They are uneasy 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.

 

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Misgivings are giving way to outright concern, if not fear, in the region. Most of the nations of Asia are not prepared to accept the emergence of the Middle Kingdom, and the resulting diminution of their sovereignty, as a replacement for the current international order (however much they would like to modify that order to their individual advantage). They perceive a growing impatience by China to move things along faster. They fear a generation of leaders just over the horizon with even greater ambitions than their forbearers, ambitions not merely economic in character. These nations are pushing back and they expect the United States to be on board, to serve as the balancer to China. At the same time, they do not desire confrontation, much less conflict, with China. In the nature of things they will blame Washington as much or more as Beijing if things go bad. They also want the United States to satisfy their individual interests, which are as often as not in conflict with each other (as with the Chinese). If the United States cannot effectively serve as a balancer, or satisfy allied interests, many will find other ways to try to resist, seeking new allies or new means of preserving their sovereignty, such as national nuclear forces. Some of the weaker powers will begin to bandwagon with China in order to beggar their neighbors.

This is a very different and much less happy picture of the world than that for which Lee Kuan Yew holds out hope. And the point of decision will be on us much sooner than we would like. It is the latest face of the age-old strategic dilemma: whether to try to preempt or contain a rising power early in the game, in the face of ambiguous evidence of its long-term intentions, in order to head off potentially worse things in the future, a path that leaves a nation open to the charge of unwarranted aggression and to the adverse reactions by allies now fearful of its power. Or whether to buy time in order for ambiguity to resolve itself and for countervailing historical forces to work in one's favor, knowing that at some point it may be too late to react should things move in an adverse direction.