Interview: Lee Kuan Yew on the Future of U.S.- China Relations


In this book excerpt, one of Asia's greatest statesmen says competition is inevitable between China and the U.S., but conflict is not.

Lee Kuan Yew.jpgFormer Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) gestures as he answers a question from the floor during the LKY School of Public Policy 7th anniversary dialogue session in Singapore September 14, 2011. (Tim Chong/Reuters)

Few individuals have had as consequential a role in their nation's history as Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore. During Lee's three-decade long tenure in office, he helped transform Singapore from an impoverished British colony lacking natural resources into one of Asia's wealthiest and most developed countries.

Over the years, Lee has also become one of Asia's most prominent public intellectuals, one whose unique experience and perspective gives him tremendous insight into trends shaping the continent.

In the following conversation, Lee trains his sights to the most prominent geopolitical issue of our time: the rise of China. Rather than attempt to thwart China's emergence as a global superpower, Lee argues, the United States should find ways to work constructively with China in forging a new global order.

This conversation is excerpted from the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World comprised of interviews and selections by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, with Ali Wyne, and a foreword by Henry A. Kissinger.

How likely is a major confrontation between the United States and China?

Competition between the United States and China is inevitable, but conflict is not. This is not the Cold War. The Soviet Union was contesting with the United States for global supremacy. China is acting purely in its own national interests. It is not interested in changing the world.

There will be a struggle for influence. I think it will be subdued because the Chinese need the United States, need U.S. markets, U.S. technology, need to have students going to the United States to study the ways and means of doing business so they can improve their lot. It will take them 10, 20, 30 years. If you quarrel with the United States and become bitter enemies, all that information and those technological capabilities will be cut off. The struggle between the two countries will be maintained at the level that allows them to still tap the United States.

Unlike U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the United States and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market. Sino-American relations are both cooperative and competitive. Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and China are more likely to view each other as competitors if not adversaries. But the die has not been cast. 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.

A stabilizing factor in their relationship is that each nation requires cooperation from and healthy competition with the other. The danger of a military conflict between China and the United States is low. Chinese leaders know that U.S. military superiority is overwhelming and will remain so for the next few decades. They will modernize their forces not to challenge America but to be able, if necessary, to pressure Taiwan by a blockade or otherwise to destabilize the economy. China's military buildup delivers a strong message to the United States that China is serious about Taiwan. However, the Chinese do not want to clash with anyone -- at least not for the next 15 to 20 years. The Chinese are confident that in 30 years their military will essentially match in sophistication the U.S. military. In the long term, they do not see themselves as disadvantaged in this fight.

China will not let an international court arbitrate territorial disputes in the South China Sea, so the presence of U.S. firepower in the Asia-Pacific will be necessary if the U.N. Law of the Sea is to prevail.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared concepts of balance of power obsolete in the 21st century: "Neither [the U.S. nor China] can afford to keep looking at the world through old lenses, whether it's the legacy of imperialism, the Cold War, or balance-of-power politics. Zero sum thinking will lead to negative sum results." What role should the balance of power play in America's strategy for addressing the rise of China?

Prudence dictates that there should 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 interests of all, including those of China.

However, the Chinese do not want to clash with anyone -- at least not for the next 15 to 20 years.

Peace and security both in Europe and in the Pacific still depend on a balance of power. A U.S. military presence in both regions is very necessary. However, unless the U.S. economy becomes more dynamic and less debt laden, this presence will be much reduced by the end of this decade. The longer-term outlook then becomes problematic. Even if U.S. deficits are reduced, industrial productivity improves, and exports increase, the United States nevertheless cannot afford and will not be willing to bear the whole cost of the global security burden. The great danger is that the U.S. economy does not recover quickly enough and trade frictions and Japan bashing increase as America becomes protectionist. The worst case is where trade and economic relations become so bad that mutual security ties are weakened and ruptured. That would be a dreadful and dangerous development.

The world has developed because of the stability America established. If that stability is rocked, we are going to have a different situation.

The size of China will make it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity over the next 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance. The question is whether the United States can continue its role as a key security and economic player in the Pacific. If she can, East Asia's future is excellent. But there will be problems if the U.S. economy does not recover its competitiveness.

The United States cannot afford to abandon Japan unless it is willing to risk losing its leverage on both China and Japan. Whether or not there is a U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, the only stable balance that can be maintained is a triangular one between Japan and the United States on the one side and China on the other. This is inevitable because of China's potential weight, which far exceeds that of the United States and Japan combined.

Why should the United States stay engaged to help East Asia's combined gross national product to exceed that of North America? Why not disengage and abort this process? Because this process is not easily aborted. No alternative balance can be as comfortable as the present one, with the United States as a major player. The geopolitical balance without the United States as a principal force will be very different from that which it now is or can be if the United States remains a central player. My generation of Asians, which experienced the last war, its horrors and miseries, and which remembers the U.S. role in the phoenix-like rise from the ashes of that war to prosperity of Japan, the newly industrializing economies, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) will feel a keen sense of regret that the world will become so vastly different because the United States becomes a less central player in the new balance.

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Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Robert D. Blackwill is the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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