Lee Kuan Yew, Grand Master of Asia

Singapore's éminence grise sees China rising and India falling.

On his desk in the Oval Office, President John F. Kennedy kept a small plaque that reminded him of the vicissitudes of life, even for the leader of the most powerful nation on earth. It read: “Oh God, my boat is so small and thy ocean so large.” In the turbulent sea in which statesmen, corporate leaders, investors, and the rest of us are trying to get our bearings in international affairs today, where can one find wise coordinates?

In thinking about the rise of China, the stumbling of the United States, the potential of India, or the claim that the twenty-first century will belong to Asia, whom should we look to for insight about this uncertain future? Among the seven billion inhabitants of planet Earth today, only one has created a modern Asian city-state whose nearly six million inhabitants now enjoy higher levels of income than Americans. Only one individual has been called “mentor” by Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who initiated China's march to the market, and its new leader Xi Jinping. Only one individual has been called upon for counsel about these developments by every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. That individual is Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore.

Over the past 18 months, we have been privileged to engage Lee Kuan Yew in a series of interviews and conversations about these issues. Having listened, reviewed what he has written and said in other settings, and then returned to follow up, we have been able to drill down in ways that capture many of his most penetrating strategic insights.

As they have embraced the magic of Adam Smith’s marketplace, Asian economies have grown at unprecedented rates. In a nation of 1.3 billion, China has raised more than 600 million people out of conditions of abject poverty and created a rapidly expanding middle class already larger than the entire population of the United States. On its current trajectory, for the first time in history, millions of individuals will experience a one-hundred-fold increase in their standard of living in a single lifetime. In Europe, that took one thousand years.

After three decades of double-digit growth, an economy that was smaller than Spain’s in 1980 now ranks second in the world and will become number one in the next decade. Do China’s leaders intend to displace the United States as the predominant power in Asia in the foreseeable future? Lee Kuan Yew answers: “Of course. Why not? Their reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force.” Will a China that has risen to become the world's largest economy follow the path chosen by Japan and Germany, accepting its place within the postwar order created by the United States? Lee says decidedly not. “It is China’s intention to become the greatest power in the world—and to be accepted as China, not as an honorary member of the west.”

Nevertheless, Western ideals of individuals’ basic rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have become part of the mental geography of China’s “golden billion,” who are becoming increasingly part of the world outside China. Lee thinks this bodes well for the future of the Asia-Pacific: “peace and security in the region will turn on whether China emerges as a xenophobic, chauvinistic force, bitter and hostile to the West, or educated and involved in the ways of the world, more cosmopolitan, more internationalized and outward looking.”

Will India rival or even surpass China’s rise? The U.S. government recently asked its $50 billion intelligence community this question. Their recently released report, Global Trends 2030, forecasts that “the most rapid growth of the middle class will occur in Asia, with India somewhat ahead of China in the long term.” Lee Kuan Yew disagrees strongly. As he puts it, provocatively: “When Nehru was in charge, I thought India showed promise of becoming a thriving society and a great power,” but it has not “because of its stifling bureaucracy” and its “rigid caste system.” Being deliberately provocative, Lee says: “India is not a real country. Instead it is thirty-two separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.”

In the competition between East and West, he expects Asia to overshadow the Euro-Atlantic powers. The principal reasons why have more to do with culture than with numbers. In his view, “Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government. In the East, we start with self-reliance.”

No one will agree with all of Lee's views. No one, however, can fail to be challenged by his direct, pithy answers, or to be enlightened by his insights. For navigating in the buzzing, booming confusion of international affairs today, the strategic grand master is a source of wise coordinates.

Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Robert D. Blackwill is Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are coauthors of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, published Feb. 1 by MIT Press).