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Kishore Mahbubani's speech on The Asian 21st Century at CCG
The veteran Singaporean diplomat says The Asian 21st Century is already here, the West refuses to accept it, and Asians mustn't be complacent. And his views on the war in Ukraine.
On July 18th, 2023, the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) held a book launch at its headquarters in Beijing, where it released the Chinese edition of The Asian 21st Century, authored by veteran Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.
Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean Ambassador to the United Nations and currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, gave a speech at CCG and answered questions, which was widely reported by China Daily, Global Times, CGTN, China News Service, Beijing Daily, Phoenix TV, Hong Kong Commercial Daily, etc.
The following is the full text of Mahbubani’s speech. A transcript of the Q&A will be published in the next post lest this one becomes too long.
Kishore Mahbubani Speaks at CCG: The 21st Century Will be the Asian Century
Good morning. I must say that it's such a pleasure to be here in person for this launch, because both Henry Wang and CCG have been very good friends of mine. One thing Henry Wang didn't mention in his remarks is that he and I participated in something called the Munk Debates in Canada. And we debated against two formidable Americans: General (Herbert Raymond) McMaster, who was the National Security Adviser under President Trump, and Michael Pillsbury, a well-known author. The question was whether China is a threat to the world. Of course, General McMaster and Michael Pillsbury argued that China is a threat. We said no. I'm pleased to inform you that Henry Wang and I won the debate. So, it's the continuation of an old friendship.
I also want to thank Mr. Wei Chen from the CITIC Press Group for coming here and for publishing my book in China. If I'm correct, you can see the press published my previous book in China as well, so I’m very pleased to be associated with you. And I want to thank Mike Liu and Shirley Ren for the wonderful arrangements that you have made for this launch.
And I'm gonna begin by talking a little bit about this book The Asian 21st century. And I’ll be very honest with you. When Henry Wang suggested the idea of publishing this book of essays of mine, I was very skeptical. I said, who wants to read a book of essays? They are all essays. Why should anybody read the book? I said, never mind, Henry Wang is my friend. So I submitted the essays, wrote an introduction, and I was confident that the book would be ignored that nobody would read it. In fact, when I met the publisher of Springer Nature in Davos in May 2022, I said, how many downloads do you normally get from an open-accessed book of essays? He said 20,000 downloads is a very good number. But when I met him in May and that was 5 months after the launch of the book in January 2022, there had already been 1.7 million downloads in 5 months. And now it's over 3 million downloads. It has clearly exceeded everybody's expectations.
So the big question is, why have 3 million people taken the time to download a book on The Asian 21st century? And amazingly, the answer is very simple and very clear, because many in the world can see what the Western media cannot see, which is that the 21st century will be the Asian century, and people can feel it in their guts. They know that this is what is happening. But at the same time, even though that the arrival of the Asian century is the biggest thing that is happening in the world, you will never find the word “Asian Century” anywhere in the Western media. And that's quite remarkable because when you consider that the Western media prides itself on being honest, open-minded, objective, impartial, neutral. They say, we use evidence-based approaches to understand the world. They use all the best scientific tools, and they cannot see the biggest thing that is happening in the world, which is actually quite shocking. It is shocking that this is the biggest thing that is happening in the world. And the most powerful media cannot see it happening.
Therefore, what I proposed to do in my remarks today is to leave with you three big ideas, which in some way or another possibly explained the success of the book. The first big idea, and I’ll say a little bit about that, is that the Asian century is real, it is happening, even though the Western media sdoesn’t report it. The second big idea is that there are structural reasons why the West is refusing to accept the idea of the Asian Century. I will explain the structural reasons. And at the same time, the third big idea I want to leave with you is that Asians should not be complacent, even though the Asian century is real, there are challenges, there are problems, and the Asian growth and development can be derailed if we are not careful. These are the three big ideas. I'll speak for about 10-15 minutes. And then I understand we'll have a Q&A session.
So why is the Asian century happening? There are many reasons for it. And the first and the most obvious reason why the Asian century is happening is that it is a perfectly natural development. Now, what do I mean by “natural” as I say “natural development”? Well, the most important thing to know is that if you look at the past 2,000 years of world history, in 1,800 out of the past 2,000 years, the two largest economies of the world were always those of China and India. So it's only in the last 200 years that Europe took off, and then North America took off. But the past 200 years of Western domination of world history has been an aberration, has been abnormal. What we are seeing in the 21st century is the exit of the abnormal and the return of the normal where China, India, and the other Asian countries are once again, becoming emerging as the largest economies in the world.
This is a reason, by the way, this is all a result of the fact that, for most of human history, Asian societies performed on par with European societies. And then something magical happened in the West. They had the Renaissance, they had the Enlightenment and other developments. And the West leapt ahead of the rest of the world. And after leaping ahead, conquered the whole world. I mean, even this city, Beijing, 120 years ago was ravaged by forces from the West. Incredible treasures of Beijing destroyed by Western soldiers. That was Western power at its peak over 100 years ago. But that's the past. And now we are back. Asians are back. Asians make up the majority of the world's population, 55%, and if performed on par, we will have the largest economies in the world. So that's one reason to return to normal.
But the other reason is that the Asian societies have also learned from the West how to succeed. I actually wrote a whole book on it called The New Asian Hemisphere published in 2008, in the year of the Beijing Olympics, explaining how Asian societies have succeeded by having understood, absorbed and implemented seven pillars of Western wisdom, including ideas like free market economics, mastery of science and technology, and the Rule of Law. All these things are those we have learned and we are implementing.
Something that is absolutely strange that is happening in the world today, which is again, under reported, is that while the Asian societies are embracing some of the successful western ideas, the west is walking away from its own successful ideas. Now this is not an exaggeration, just to give you a simple idea, I mentioned how mastery of free market economics is why Asian societies are succeeding. One thing the US always used to say is that, I remember in the 1980s, when I was in the US, I spent almost a decade there. And they said, we must open up our economies, liberalize, and sign free trade agreements. The US was pushing for free trade agreements in the 1980s. But today, the US congress cannot pass a single free trade agreement. Free trade is dead in the US and the world's largest free trade agreements are being signed here in East Asia. And in January 2022, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership launched by the 10 ASEAN countries, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, took off. That's an example of how things are changing. The world's largest free trade agreements should have been created in the west, but they can't. And now Asians are doing so.
This is true in many areas. For example, let me mention a very simple thing. When you come to China, what always stuns you is the infrastructure. Now, in theory, China is the number two power, and the US is the number one power. So in theory, the number one power should have the best infrastructure in the world. But amazingly, if you want to see first world airports, come to Asia, Beijing has got two first world airports, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, even Delhi and Mumbai have amazing airports. But if you want to see third world airports, you go to the US, John F Kennedy Airport is a nightmare. And there are many airports like this. And even President Joe Biden has said, how is it that the United States of America, the most advanced country in the world, doesn't have a single airport in the top 25 airports in the world? Amazing. So these are examples of how things are changing and how power and growth are shifting to Asia.
And the thing that's important here is that most of the world can see this happening and understand that this is real. They can see the data. Just a simple example, in the year 2000 in nominal market terms, the US economy was 8 times the size of China's economy. Now, it's only 1.5 times bigger. That's how fast China has grown, but other parts of Asia have also grown. Another statistic, if you look at the 10 ASEAN countries in the year 2000, I’m going to compare with Japan because Japan was then the second largest economy in the world. In the year 2000, Japan’s economy was 8 times bigger than ASEAN. Today, Japan’s economy is only 1.5 times bigger than ASEAN. And around 2030, ASEAN will become bigger than Japan. Isn't it amazing? If you look at the trade statistics, the world's largest trade flows are also coming from Asia. So you can see, and I can give you data on that, too, how all this is showing the shift of power to Asia. And it's very clear, and I must emphasize that we are in the year 2023. We still have 77 years left in the Asian century. A lot is going to happen over the next 77 years. And this is what this book does. It provides you a glimpse into that future that is coming. So that's the first big idea that the Asian century is real.
The second big idea is to explain the structural reasons of why the west is reluctant to accept the idea of the Asian Century. The structural reasons are a result of the fact that because of the past 200 years of Western domination of world history, the West occupies a lot of geopolitical space in the world. It controls many important organizations. It doesn't want to give up its control. Even though this control is a result of them having a lot of power, 50 years ago, the power has diminished. They should cede control, but they want to maintain control.
The most obvious example comes from the two largest, two most important economic organizations in the world, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They were created after World War II at that time as you know, this was an incredible achievement by the United States. The United States in 1950, soon after World War II, with 5 % of the world's population had a 50 % share of global GDP, that's how powerful. But that was unnatural, as I said. Now, the US has come down, it is still the number one economy. He maybe has 20% of the world's GDP but not 50 % anymore. And clearly, power has shifted.
But despite the fact that power has shifted, it still have a rule in the IMF that says to become the head of the IMF, you must be a European to become the head of The World Bank, you must be an American. And even though the most dynamic, successful economies in the world are Asian economies, no Asian citizen can run either the IMF or the World Bank. It's an important historical fact in the year 2009 at the height of the global financial crisis. When the West was in deep trouble, they agreed that they are no longer dominant. The IMF and the World Bank’s future will be selected on merit and not on the basis of geography. They made that commitment in 2008, 14 years have gone by, they have not fulfill that commitment. They are still controlling this organization in the way they do it. So the IMF, especially a country's share of voting power should represent its share of the global economy.
As recently as 10 years ago, three small states, Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg, had a greater voting share than China In IMF. Shocking. Even today, China shared the global GDP maybe is about 16%-17 %. But China’s share of IMF voting is only 6%. It should not be 6 %, it should be 16%-17 %. But the west will resist the change. Because they don't want to give up the power. The world and IMF will have a real problem when China becomes the number one economy in the world. Because as Christine Lagarde, when she was Head of the IMF, she said, in the constitution of the IMF it says that the headquarters of IMF shall always be in the capital of the largest economy in the world. That's why it's in Washington, D.C.. But when China becomes the world's largest economy, if the IMF tries to leave Washington，D.C.，Washington，D.C. will explode.
Now I'm giving you this examples of structural reasons why the west doesn't want to accept the Asian Century. Because if they accept that this is an Asian Century, they have to learn to share power with the rest of the world. And they don't want people get used to the power. There's always a huge time lag. And that's why the Western media also continues to pretend that the Asian Century is not happening. It's related to that structural reason. So that's the second big idea.
The third big idea on the lead with you is we in Asia at the same time, should not be complacent. We still have a long way to go in our development. We have done very well, succeeded very well, but we gotta be careful. Because there can be threats and difficulties in our growth and development. The biggest danger to growth and development in Asia is war. Because to develop, you must have peace. And if there's no peace, you can't develop, it's amazing. Since the end of the cold war in 1990, the guns had been silent in Asia, that's quite remarkable.
In this book, The Asian 21st Century, I cite some Americans who say that Europe had the biggest wars in the past, World War I, World War II, and all that will be Asia's future. At the end of the cold war, everyone thought the wars would happen in Asia and Europe would be in peace.
Now we know, 33 years after the end of the cold war, Asia has been at peace, and Europe has been at war. Europe had the Kosovo War, Ukraine War. As I say in this book, wars are the result of geopolitical incompetence. One idea that the Europeans refuse to accept is that the Ukraine War could have been prevented. All wars can be prevented if you work hard to achieve a political compromise that is acceptable to all the parties. An imperfect political compromise that delivers peace is better than a perfect war, which only destroys. And the war in Ukraine has been remarkably destructive, even though the West says that the whole world is supporting the West in this Ukraine War, that's not true.
It's true that over 140 countries voted in favour of the UNGA resolution condemning the war in Ukraine and it’s right, because the Russia invasion of Ukraine is illegal. Under international law, countries have to criticize it. But when the West impose sanctions on Russia, 85 % of the world's population did not impose sanctions on Russia. 85 % of the world's population didn't agree with the West that only Russia is to blame for this war in Ukraine. So you see how the West has isolated itself from the rest of the world.
It's important for us in Asia to learn a big lesson from the Ukraine War and make sure that nothing similar to Ukraine War happens in our region. One organization which is genuinely under-appreciated by everybody in the world, and even sadly, under-appreciated in Asia is ASEAN. Because one of the key reasons why East Asia is at peace is because of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And that's why I wrote a book called The ASEAN Miracle because ASEAN is the one organization. It is a very weak organization.
But because it is so weak, everybody trusts it is the only organization that can invite the United States, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, European Union to come from meetings. The convening power of ASEAN is phenomenal. But by bringing the countries together, they have also helped to improve relations, and sometimes maybe even have prevented wars. In the late 1990s, when there was a quarrel between China and Japan, and they couldn't talk, leaders couldn't talk to each other bilaterally. They came to an ASEAN meeting, and then they talked to each other. And that's what ASEAN does. And ASEAN is under-appreciated.
Therefore, just because we have achieved peace over the last 33 years, we should not be complacent. We should ensure that this doesn't happen in the region. We have to continue working hard both domestically as well as internationally to preserve peace in the region.
But I'm going to conclude with just one last statistic because this statistic will explain why I continue to remain optimistic for the future of Asia. This statistic alone can explain why the Asian Century will happen. I want to focus on three fast-growing parts of Asia, what I call the new CIA.
CIA doesn't stand for Central Intelligence Agency. CIA stands for China, India , and ASEAN. They make up almost 40% of the world's population because if you add the 1.4 billion people in China, 1.4 billion people in India, and almost 700 million people in ASEAN, you get 3.5 billion people. Now out of 35 million people in these CIA countries in the year 2000, the total middle-class population was only 150 million out of 3.5 billion in the middle-class. But by 2020, that number had exploded 10 times to 1.5 billion people. And by 2030, that number may be 2.5 to 3 billion people.
Asia has now produced the world's largest middle-class population, which also means that the world's largest markets will now be in Asia. This will be where people will come to seek growth and development. It is statistics like this that explain why the rest of the world understands that the Asian Century is happening and why the West still refuses to accept that the Asian Century is happening.
Thank you very much.
(A transcript of the Q&A will be published in the next post lest this one becomes too long.)
The 2019 Munk Debate with Kishore Mahbubani and Henry Huiyao Wang on one side, and General Herbert Raymond McMaster and Michael Pillsbury on the other.