Check out other comments in this series from: Graham Allison, Gordon G. Chang, David Denoon, Michael Fabey, John Glaser, James Holmes, Lin Gang, Kishore Mahbubani, Robert Ross, Ruan Zongze, Robert Sutter, Xie Tao, Xu Feibiao and Wang Jisi.
Kishore Mahbubani, Professor in the Practice of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and author of Has the West Lost It?:
George Orwell once famously remarked that “to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” This aptly describes America’s struggle to understand its changing relationship with China. It is absolutely certain that within the next decade, China will become the world’s number one economy and America will become number two. The logical thing for American policymakers to do is therefore to prepare for becoming number two.
However, it may be psychologically impossible for America to do so. I learned this when I chaired a forum in Davos in January 2012 entitled The Future of American Power in the 21st Century. During the forum, Republican Senator Bob Corker explained that “the American people absolutely would not be prepared psychologically for an event where the world began to believe that it was not the greatest power on earth.”
Since Americans are psychologically incapable of preparing for such a world, they will wake up with a rude shock when the IMF announces one day that America has become the number two economy. In this process, it is inevitable that Americans will react angrily and feel cheated by China. This political shock is predictable but unavoidable.
Yet, all is not lost. Unlike America, China is not aiming for global primacy. It only wants to secure peace and prosperity for its 1.4 billion people. As a result, even after China becomes number one, it will not try to dislodge America from its claim of primacy. China is quite happy to uphold the rules-based international order that America and the West have gifted to the world. As Xi Jinping said in Davos in 2017, “We should adhere to multilateralism to uphold the authority and efficacy of multilateral institutions. We should honor promises and abide by rules.”
In view of this, it is actually possible for America and China to achieve a new modus operandi with a philosophy of “live and let live”, in which neither America nor China challenges each other’s core interests. China will not try to displace America from regions that America values, like the Middle East. However, it would expect America to be sensitive to its core interests, like Taiwan. All these adjustments will require sensitive diplomatic negotiations. The time to prepare for them is now.