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China---The Future of US and China Relations as assessed by Lee Kuan Yew


    The future of China, the rise of Asia and the implications for global balance of power based on Lee Kuan Yew’s assessment    60 min

              All the passages below are taken from the book by Graham Allison and Robert D Blackwill with Ali Wyne, " Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World” published in 2012.


How likely is a major confrontation between the United States and China? What role should the balance of power play in America's strategy for addressing the rise of China? How should U.S. policies and actions adjust to deal with the rise of China? What policies and actions should the United States avoid in dealing with the rise of China? Can U.S. policies and actions significantly influence China's trajectory and behavior as it emerges as a great power? How should Chinese policies and actions adjust to establish a sustained cooperative relationship with the United States? Managing a changing relationship with China is a central challenge of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. In his answers to these questions, Lee Kuan Yew offers his advice to U.S. leaders.

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

This is not the Cold War. The Soviet Union was contesting the U.S. for global supremacy. China is acting purely as China in its own national interests. It is not interested in changing the world.1

There will be a struggle for influence. I think it will be subdued because the Chinese need the U.S., need U.S. markets, U.S. technology, need to have students going to the U.S. to study 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 U.S. and become bitter enemies, all that information and 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 U.S.2

Unlike U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War, there is no irreconcilable ideological conflict between the U.S. and a China that has enthusiastically embraced the market.... Sino-U.S. relations are both cooperative and competitive. Competition between them is inevitable, but conflict is not.3

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. 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.4

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 U.S. 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 economy5.

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 United Nations Law of the Sea is to prevail.6

What role should the balance of power play in America's strategy for addressing the rise of China?

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.7

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 1990s]. The longer-term outlook then becomes problematic. Even if the U.S. deficits are reduced, industrial productivity improves, and exports increase, the U.S. 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.8

The world has developed because of the stability America established. If that stability is rocked, we are going to have a different situation.9

The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance.10

The question is whether the U.S. 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 within the next ten years.11

The U.S. cannot afford to abandon Japan unless it is willing to risk losing its leverage on both China and Japan. Whether or not there is an America-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, the only stable balance that can be maintained is a triangular one between Japan and the U.S. on the one side and China on the other. This is inevitable because of China's potential weight, which far exceeds that of the U.S. and Japan combined.12

 Why should the U.S. stay engaged to help East Asia's combined GNP [gross national product] to exceed that of North America? Why not disengage and abort this process? Because this process is not easily aborted. It will be slowed or stalled for some years, but only until Japan, China, Korea, and the Russian Republic establish a new balance. However, no alternative balance can be as comfortable as the present one, with the U.S. as a major player... The geopolitical balance without the U.S. as a principal force will be very different from that which it now is or can be if the U.S. remains a central player. My generation of Asians, who have experienced the last war, its horrors and miseries, and who remember 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 [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations], will feel a keen sense of regret that the world will become so vastly different because the U.S. becomes a less central player in the new balance.13

President Nixon was a pragmatic strategist. He would engage, not contain, China, but he would also quietly set pieces into place for a fallback position should China not play according to the rules as a good global citizen. In such circumstances, where countries will be forced to take sides, he would arrange to win over to America's side of the chessboard Japan, Korea, ASEAN, India, Australia, New Zealand, and the Russian Federation.14

 How should U.S. policies and actions adjust to deal with the rise of china?

For America to be displaced, not in the world, but only in the western Pacific, by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt as decadent, feeble, corrupt, and inept is emotionally very difficult to accept. The sense of cultural supremacy of the Americans will make this adjustment most difficult. Americans believe their ideas are universal---the supremacy of the individual and free, unfettered expression. But they are not---never were. In fact, American society was so successful for so long not because of these ideas and principles, but because of a certain geopolitical good fortune, an abundance of resources and immigrant energy, a generous flow of capital and technology from Europe, and two wide oceans that kept conflicts of the world away from American shores.15

Americans have to eventually share their preeminent position with China.16

The U.S. cannot stop China's rise. It just has to live with a bigger China, which will be completely novel for the U.S., as no country has ever been big enough to challenge its position. China will be able to do so in 20 to 30 years.17

The size of China's displacement of the world balance is such that the world must find a new balance in 30 to 40 years. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player. This is the biggest player in the history of the world.18

The U.S. Congress is against any new free-trade agreements. If the next Congress continues to oppose FTAs, valuable time will be lost, and it may be too late to try again. Congress must be made to realize how high the stakes are and that the outlook for a balanced and equitable relationship between the American and Chinese markets is becoming increasingly difficult. Every year, China attracts more imports and exports from its neighbors than the U.S. does from the region. Without an FTA, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and the ASEAN countries will be integrated into China's economy---an outcome to be avoided.19

What policies and actions should the United States avoid in dealing with the rise of China?

Do not treat China as an enemy from the outset. Otherwise, it will develop a counterstrategy to demolish the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific; in fact, it is already discussing such a strategy. There will inevitably be a contest between the two countries for supremacy in the western Pacific, but it need not lead to conflict.20

The baiting of China by American human rights groups, and the threatening of loss of most-favored-nation status and other sanctions by the U.S. Congress and administration for violations of human rights and missile technology transfers ... ignore differences of culture, values, and history, and subordinate the strategic considerations of China-U.S. relations to an American domestic agenda. 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.21

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, U.S.-China relations are no longer anchored in a common threat. The U.S. has yet to settle on a bipartisan policy on China. China has the potential to become a superpower. America's interest is to maintain the status quo, where it is the only superpower, but in 30 years, China's growth could challenge this preeminence.... U.S. policy towards China has been driven by extraneous factors, like the saturation media coverage of Tiananmen, the plight of Chinese dissidents fleeing persecution, democracy, human rights, and most-favored-nation status, autonomy for Tibet and the Dalai Lama, and Taiwan seeking to become an independent United Nations member... Issues which challenge China's sovereignty and unity will arouse China's hostility. To emphasize such issues makes sense only if it is U.S. policy to contain China and to slow down or abort its rapid economic growth. 22

 Massive economic reforms have opened up China. If liberalization is the goal of U.S. policy, then more trade and investments are the answers. Instead, the U.S. threatens to derail this process by cutting off most-favored-nation status. The State Department draws up its report on China's human rights like a headmaster drawing up a pupil's annual report for the parents. This may make Americans feel good and Chinese look small, but East Asians are uneasy over its long-term consequences.23

It is the U.S., more than any other country, that can integrate China into the international community.... The difficulty arises from America's expressed desire to make China more democratic. China resents and resists this as interference in its domestic matters. Outside powers cannot refashion China into their own image.... American society is too pluralistic, its interests too varied to have a single or unanimous view of China. Sometimes the language of discourse in America has caused the Chinese to wonder if by engagement the U.S. does not mean an engagement in combat.... 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.24

Can U.S. policies and actions significantly influence China's trajectory and behavior as it emerges as a great power?

 Yes indeed. If the U.S. attempts to humiliate China, keep it down, it will assure itself an enemy. If instead it accepts China as a big, powerful, rising state and gives it a seat in the boardroom, China will take that place for the foreseeable future. So if I were an American, I would speak well of China, acknowledge it as a great power, applaud its return to its position of respect and restoration of its glorious past, and propose specific concrete ways to work together.25

Why should the U.S. take on China now when it knows that doing so will create an unnecessary adversary for a very long time---and one that will grow in strength and will treat it as an enemy? It is not necessary
. The U.S. should say: We will eventually be equal, and you may eventually be bigger than me, but we have to work together. Have a seat, and let us discuss the world's problems.26

This is the fundamental choice that the United States has to make: to engage or to 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.27

America's greatest long-term influence on China comes from playing host to the thousands of students who come from China each year, some of the ablest of Chinese scholars and scientists. They will be the most powerful agents for change in China.28

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.29

The best way to quicken the pace and direction of political change in China is to increase her trade and investment links with the world. Then her prosperity will depend increasingly on the compatibility of her economic system with those of the major trading nations. And wide-ranging contacts will influence and modify her cultural values and moral standards.30

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.31

Peace and security in the Asia-Pacific will turn on whether China emerges as a xenophobic, chauvinistic force, bitter and hostile to the West because it tried to slow down or abort its development, or educated and involved in the ways of the world, more cosmopolitan, more internationalized and outward-looking.32

How should Chinese policies and actions adjust to establish a sustained cooperative relationship with the United States?

From 1945 to 1991, China was engaged in a series of wars that nearly broke them.... This generation has been through hell: the Great Leap Forward, hunger, starvation, near collision with the Russians ... the Cultural Revolution gone mad.... I have no doubt that this generation wants a peaceful rise. But the grandchildren? They think that they have already arrived, and if they begin to flex their muscles, we will have a very different China. . . . Grandchildren never listen to grandfathers. The other problem is a more crucial one: if you start off with the belief that the world has been unkind to you, the world has exploited you, the imperialists have devastated you, looted Beijing, done all this to you ... this is no good.... You are not going back to old China, when you were the only power in the world as far as you knew.... Now, you are just one of many powers, many of them more innovative, inventive, and resilient.... If I were America, Europe, or Japan, I would spend time to make sure that the mindset of the younger generation is not one of hostility, but one of acceptance and an understanding that you are now a stakeholder, which was Bob Zoellick's very apt description of their role. . . . Make them feel that they are stakeholders, and if this earth goes warm, they will be in as much trouble as anyone else.33

It is vital that the younger generation of Chinese, who have only lived during a period of peace and growth in China and have no experience of China's tumultuous past, are made aware of the mistakes China made as a result of hubris and excesses in ideology. They have to be imbued with the right values and attitudes to meet the future with humility and responsibility. The authors of China's doctrine of peaceful emergence are acutely conscious that as China resumes its recovery, it has the responsibility and self-interest to assure its neighbors, and the world at large, that its emergence is benign, not a threat, but a plus for the world, that it will try to avoid disruption and conflict.... China is aware of the problems its rapid growth will present to the rest of the world and wishes to work together with the international community to minimize the disturbance. It is to the good of China to study how to mitigate the adverse impacts of its growth.34

The ways in which Chinese superiority will be expressed will undoubtedly be quite different than in the earlier era. Take the current case of East Asia, where they have, obviously, established a dominant economic position in relations with their neighbors, and used that position including access to a market of 1.3 billion people and significant investments in other countries to their advantage. If states or enterprises do not accept China's position and pay appropriate deference, they are faced with the threat of being shut out of a rapidly growing market with 1.3 billion people.35


1. Lee Kuan Yew, interview with Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, December 2, 2011.
2. Lee Kuan Yew, interview with Charlie Rose, March 28, 2011.
3. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council's 25th Anniversary Gala Dinner, Washington, D.C., October 27, 2009.
4. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Conference, Singapore, September 12, 1997.
5. Lee Kuan Yew, "Battle for Preeminence," Forbes, October 11, 2010; and Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the Fortune 500 Forum, Boston, October 23, 1997.
6. Lee Kuan Yew, interview with Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, December 2, 2011.
7. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Conference.
8. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the Asahi Shimbun Symposium, Tokyo, May 9, 1991.
9. Patrick Barta and Robert Thomson, "Singapore's `Mentor' Seeks a Sturdy U.S.," Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2011.
10. P. Parameswaran, "U.S. Must Engage Asia to Maintain Global Power: Lee," Agence France-Presse, October 27, 2009.
11. Lee Kuan Yew, "East Asia in the New Era: The Prospects of Cooperation," speech given at the Harvard Fairbank Center Conference, New York, May 11, 1992.
12. Lee Kuan Yew, "Japan's Role in the 21st Century," speech given at the Asahi Forum, Tokyo, November 17, 1994.
13. Lee Kuan Yew, "East Asia in the New Era: The Prospects of Cooperation."
14. Lee Kuan Yew, "America and Asia," speech given at the Architect of the New Century Award Ceremony, Washington, D.C., November 11, 1996.
15. Nathan Gardels, "The East Asian Way-with Air Conditioning," New Perspectives Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Fall 2009), p. 116.
16. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the Lincoln Award Medal Ceremony, Washington, D.C., October 18, 2011.
17. Summary of a conversation between Lee Kuan Yew and John Thornton at the FutureChina Global Forum, Singapore, July 11, 2011.
18. Nicholas D. Kristof, "The Rise of China," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 5 (November/December 1993), p. 74.
19. Lee Kuan Yew, "China's Rise: A Shift in Global Influence," Forbes, December 20, 2010.
20. Lee Kuan Yew, interview with Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, December 2, 2011.
21. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the Amex Bank Review Awards Global Forum, Singapore, November 15, 1993.
22. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the Create 21 Asahi Symposium, Osaka, November 19, 1996.
23. Lee Kuan Yew, "The Rise of East Asia in the World Economy: Geopolitical and Geoeconomic Implications," speech given at the Asia Society Conference, Singapore, May 19, 1994.
24. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the Create 21 Asahi Symposium.
25. Lee Kuan Yew, interview with Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, May 11, 2011.
26. Ibid.
27. Lee Kuan Yew, "The Rise of East Asia in the World Economy."
28. Lee Kuan Yew, speech given at the Create 21 Asahi Symposium.
29. Lee Kuan Yew, "America and Asia."
30. Lee Kuan Yew, "The Dawn of the Pacific Century," speech given at the Pacific Rim Forum, San Diego, California, May 13, 1992.
31. Lee Kuan Yew, "The Rise of East Asia: Challenges and Opportunities," speech given at the World Economic Forum Summit, Singapore, September 20, 1995.
32. "U.S. Holds Key to Asian Security-Lee," Reuters, May 16, 1993.
33. Question and answer session with Lee Kuan Yew at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy's 5th Anniversary Gala Dinner, Singapore, September 2, 2009.
34. Lee Kuan Yew, "Shanghai's Role in China's Renaissance," speech given at the 2005 Shanghai Forum, Shanghai, May 17, 2005.
35. Lee Kuan Yew, interview with Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, May 11, 2011.


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