Why pragmatism will shape the US-China relationship

Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew believes that the US has an important role to play in maintaining stability in Asia, but it must also engage with China proactively and on equal terms.

There are few surviving grand strategists from the Cold War era. Among them are Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Lee Kuan Yew. They are elder statesmen who combine top level diplomatic skills with sheer raw intellect.

All of them have a strong interest in China and especially the future of the China-US relationship, arguably the most important relationship that determine the course of the 21st century. Lee Kuan Yew is especially interesting, given his long association with both Washington and Beijing. He is trusted across the Pacific.

At the time of an increasingly strained relationship between the US and China over multiple fronts --from the South China Sea to cyber espionage -- what does Lee, the founding father of Singapore, think of the future of China and its relationship with the US?

Thanks to two Harvard scholars Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill, who quizzed Lee extensively last year about the major issues confronting the China-US relationship, we know what Lee thinks in substantial detail.

Lee is the ultimate pragmatist: he ruthlessly used leftist forces in Singapore and spat them out later once he ascended to power. He supports the central role of the United States in maintaining the peace and stability of the region but at the same time, he thinks the rise of China as a superpower is inevitable and that the US needs to engage China more pro-actively.

On the most important question whether there will be a major conflict between the US and China, Lee thinks it is unlikely. “This is not the Cold War. The Soviet Union was contesting the US for global supremacy. China is acting purely as China in its own national interests. It is not interested in changing the world,” he says.

Sino-US relations are both cooperative and competitive. China needs the US market and technology and there are no irreconcilable ideological differences. Unlike the Soviet Union, China is only nominally communist and is not interested in evangelising. It has more or less accepted the market economy as the guiding principle of organising the country’s economic life.

Like many other Asian leaders (including the Australian prime minister), Lee wants the US to stay in Asia as a counter-balancing force to China. “The question is whether the US 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 US economy does not recover its competitiveness within the next ten years,” he says.

The calculus is simple. China is simply too big for any Asian power or even a consortium of Asian powers to take on. China’s economy is nearly twice the size of Japan, the third-largest economy in the world. China’s dominance in the region is assured without the involvement of the United States, which alone possesses the military and economic power to balance China.

Lee thinks the US, which has been the preeminent power for so long, is psychologically unprepared and unwilling to accept the rise of China as a great power. The founder of Singapore, who has been a vocal exponent of Asian values, says the American sense of cultural supremacy will make the adjustment process most difficult.

“Americans believe their ideas are universal: the supremacy of the individual and free, unfettered expression. But they are not -- never were,” says the old cultural warrior, in spite of his blue-blooded English education at Raffles, Cambridge, and the Middle Temple.

Lee’s pragmatism comes through prominently again in his assessment of the US’ strategy towards China. He admonishes Washington’s obsession with human rights issues, Dalai Lama, Taiwan and its plight with dissidents. 

“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,” he told Graham and Blackwill.

When he was asked about how to influence China’s trajectory and future behaviours, he said the greatest asset the US could deploy was its educational institutions.

“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 China’s scholars and scientists. They will be the most powerful agents for change in China.”

That is a prescient observation. Even President Xi Jinping’s daughter is reportedly studying at Harvard. A whole generation of a leading Chinese policymakers and scholars are schooled in the US and Xi’s most important economic advisor is also a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

If we can boil down Lee’s idea to its essence, it actually bears resemblance to Hugh White’s thesis on how to engage with China. The United States needs to stay engaged in Asia but has to be prepared to accept China as an equal. “The US 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,” Lee advises.