How China Will Shape Global Diplomacy

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Will a powerful Beijing recognize the need to work together with other countries? Don't bet on it. An interview with Kishore Mahbubani. 

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Kishore Mahbubani, twice Singapore's Ambassador to the United Nations, has carved a reputation as a trenchant critic of U.S. unilateralism in world affairs. In his new book, The Great Convergence, Mahbubani argues that in the 21st century, global institutions are as vital as ever. In this interview, he discusses whether an ascendant China will embrace cooperation with other states, or attempt to exert its own power.

As China grows in power and influence, how might it accommodate multilateral institutions in comparison to the United States?

Actually, it's almost impossible to answer this question now. China has emerged as one of the most powerful countries in the world, but it hasn't yet figured out how to behave as a great power. If the U.S. behaves in a more multilateral way, then China will follow.

Can the U.S. accept the possibility that it will be eclipsed by China?

It's simply politically impossible for any politician in the United States to speculate publicly about the United States not being the number one country in the world. There are, of course, more thoughtful people in Washington, DC who understand that perhaps in the future America won't be the world's most powerful nation, but no American leader can afford to say it now for he or she will be politically persecuted.

You mentioned in your book that even with its authoritarian system of government, Chinese leaders must be mindful of public sentiment. Can you explain how this might affect Chinese foreign policy?

In the past, Chinese foreign policy could be run by a few wise men at the top that could make a big decision and largely get away with it. For example, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai could decide to open up to America, or Deng Xiaoping could decide to liberalize the economy, and there wasn't much anyone else could do. Now, things have changed. The Chinese government doesn't want to have poor relations with Japan, for example, but it can't be seen as being weak in the eyes of its people.

You advocate making changes in the constitution of the UN Security Council, such as elevating more countries to permanent membership status. Do you expect China to be more amenable to this idea than the United States?

Probably not. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the USSR and U.S. were apart on everything, they had a mutual interest in keeping the UN weak. A similar arrangement will exist between China and the U.S.; they disagree on many things, but have a similar incentive toward the UN. However, this position no longer really fits their interests. Because the world is converging, the need for greater global governance is growing. While both China and the U.S. would rather the Security Council have five permanent members, this will cause the Security Council to lose its legitimacy. And if it loses its legitimacy, both the U.S. and China will become losers.

As Myanmar opens up and develops, will a competition emerge between China and ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) for influence in the country? In other words, does ASEAN have enough leverage in the country to check China's economic and foreign policy meddling?

It's difficult to overstate the importance of ASEAN in managing Myanmar's opening up. Initially, ASEAN was criticized for admitting Myanmar. But think about it. If ASEAN hadn't let Myanmar in, Myanmar would have become the focus of a geopolitical rivalry between China and India. Granted, Myanmar's opening up was a very gradual process. However, please remember that their officials attended 1,000 ASEAN meetings a year. As a result, they came to realize how backward their country was in comparison to their neighbors. That's part of the reason why they began to open up.

What about North Korea?

North Korea is the great exception. It's a very difficult problem to resolve. But we've tried isolating NK for 30-40 years and nothing has happened. Look at Myanmar -- rather than isolate Myanmar, we engaged it -- and it worked, just slowly. I believe that if we keep isolating North Korea, nothing will change. Hence, we should engage it.

More than 100 Chinese intellectuals recently signed a petition urging the adoption of human rights in the country. Are their values and desires congruent with the Chinese population as a whole?

As China develops the world's largest middle class, I am very confident that they'll want the same protections -- freedom from arbitrary arrest, for example -- and the government will feel pressure to conform to international norms. There are constant pressures coming from both inside and outside China, but I believe if the pressures come from within they will be more effective. The Chinese government is aware that they are dealing with a new reality, and they realize they can't go back to the harsh authoritarian rule of before.

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Matt Schiavenza is a former associate editor at The Atlantic

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