Lee Kwan Yew interview in Der Spiegel

(Here.) Every single word is worth reading. He has brilliant comments on Europe, and the likely prospects for India and China.

I was most struck by this exchange:

Mr. Lee: About eight years ago, I met Liu Huaqing, the man who built the Chinese Navy. Mao personally sent him to Leningrad to learn to build ships. I said to him, “The Russians made very rough, crude weapons”. He replied, “You are wrong. They made first-class weapons, equal to the Americans.” The Russian mistake was that they put so much into military expenditure and so little into civilian technology. So their economy collapsed. I believe the Chinese leadership have learnt: If you compete with America in armaments, you will lose. You will bankrupt yourself. So, avoid it, keep your head down, and smile, for 40 or 50 years.

SPIEGEL: What are your reservations?

Mr. Lee: I don’t know whether the next generation will stay on this course. After 15 or 20 years they may feel their muscles are very powerful. We know the mind of the leaders but the mood of the people on the ground is another matter. Because there’s no more communist ideology to hold the people together, the ground is now galvanised by Chinese patriotism and nationalism. Look at the anti-Japanese demonstrations.

LKY is saying that China can peacefully dominate its region in 50 years if it avoids confrontation with the USA, and that it plans to do so. However, the leadership may not be able to hold this quiet course for that long, because as China gets powerful over the next decade or two and nationalism is the only thing that will give the government legitimacy. He puts the period of danger at circa 2020-25.

This is precisely the Kaiserian Germany scenario which I discussed here. In his classic assessment of Germany’s bid for world power, Ludwig Dehio argued that hegemonic challengers always launch their bid too early, they seem to be possessed by a “demonic power” when they feel that they are ready to take their rightful place in the world and are being denied the respect they are due and the voice in world affairs they are entitled to. Spain, France, Germany and Soviet Russia all attempted to achieve world power, and were thwarted in turn. Will China follow this path? I hope not.

Thomas Barnett cited to the LKY interview. Barnett focuses on the many positive assertion that LKY makes, which support his usual view that takes as given that the Chinese economic rationality will prevail over darker forces. This points up my most serious area of disagreement with Barnett. While I think there is a strong possibility that China will develop peacefully, it is also apparent that there are a lot of ways this could go wrong. Peaceful development of backward countries into major powers is not what usually happens. Also, Barnett is an American optimist who sees a world full of half-full glasses, or even empty glasses that can and should be filled. He sometimes seems to lack an awareness of the tragic dimension of international politics. Barnett’s likely response would be to point out that with nuclear weapons, any major power military confrontation is simply off the table, the old dynamic is gone. This may be so. I hope so. But counting on rationality in leadership, even in an age of nuclear weapons, is not the best bet.

The first phrase I learned in a poli-sci class was “the security dilemma”. Attempts to make yourself more secure necessarily make others feel less secure, which provokes responses from those other countries, which also ratchet up, which leads to a spiral of insecurity and military tensions and clashes. China may be acting “normally” by creating a large navy, just as Kaiserian Germany believed that it needed a navy to protect its overseas commerce. Of course, any navy strong enough to do that was a knife held to the throat of Britain, a country which otherwise was not interested in conflict with Germany. Similarly, any Chinese navy, precisely to the extent that it protects China’s access to Mideast oil threatens access by others. The only way out of this is for China to build trust embodied in agreements and divisions of responsibility, essentially buying into the existing order. This is the Barnett scenario, the happy ending scenario. It may happen, but it is not inevitable. I see that kind of thing emerging with Japan and India far more easily than with China, due to any number of factors. (Discussing those factors is a separate post, so I will for now simply point you to William Jenner’s troubling essay China and the Irrelevance of Freedom.)

We do need engagement with China, trade with China, lots of it … and hard deterrence. Carrots and sticks. Not either/or, but both/and. The kind of authoritarian rule that prevails in China is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run, no matter how competent it may be at delivering many public goods. And in fact, the Chinese regime has in recent years made extraordinary strides in doing so. This is well-described in the recent article in Foreign Affairs by Kishore Mahbubani.

If there is “regime change” in China, the process may not be orderly or even bloodless. The USA needs to preserve its deterrent in the region against any such scenario. That way if there is political turmoil in China a “Falklands option” will obviously fail and it will not have any appeal to the leadership when all Hell is breaking loose. This does not mean unnecessarily confronting China or assuming that a war is inevitable. It is not. China is not a new USSR and a new Cold War is not necessary. Unlike the USSR, China presents no ideological threat, it is post-communist in all but name and has shed its communist myths of revolution and warmaking, nor is its economy warped into focusing over-heavily on making weapons as the Soviet Union was. Nonetheless, making even the prospect of a war against the USA or its friends or allies, on its face, unwinnable, will help to keep the peace as China goes through the difficult decades ahead.

25 thoughts on “Lee Kwan Yew interview in <i>Der Spiegel</i>”

  1. I would never ignor the Chinese historical cycle of disunion, consolidation, empire, corruption, anarchy that has yet to be broken. Could be the first time, however the information along the edges of this Middle Kingdom indicates that corruption is indeed spreading faster and faster. The interests of the regions may yet outway the interests of the central committee. Its a dynamic not to be ignored.

  2. I think that treating the PRC as the next war we’re just waiting for has great potential to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. A certain amount of happy talk is thus necessary to avoid setting off rabid chinese nationalists any more than the absolute minimum necessary. The happy talk should not lull us to sleep, though. That, too, creates excess risk of war between the US and the PRC as the nationalists make the same mistake that OBL made, thinking us a “weak horse”. It’s a very fine line that must be walked to minimize the prospect of war and I’m not sure anybody’s 100% sure what the proper mix is.

  3. “…self-fulfilling prophecy.” Agreed. We shouldn’t say or believe that a war is inevitable with China because it is not. But there is a hazard running the other way as well, which I believe is worse. Weakness is provocative. The wars that people arm for and prepare for are precisely the ones that they are less likely to have to fight. We should do everything nice with China, but be well-armed as well. No one can be sure 100% of much of anything, but lots of trade, lots of business and personal ties, lots of person-to-person contacts — and sufficiency of deterrence strike me as good descriptions of what we should be doing.

  4. That is why our stance on both Taiwan and Iraq is important. We need to avoid confrontation on Taiwan but make clear that an invasion would be resisted forcefully.

    Similarly, the Chinese are certainly watching Iraq. They would view a pullout the way OBL viewed our withdrawal in Somalia — as a sign that the US is incapable of following through with a tough, even unpopular policy. The more they believe this, the more they would overestimate their ability to intimidate the US in the event of military confrontation. They would also feel that attacking Taiwan would be ok if they could make the US uncomfortable about supporting Taiwan.

    And let’s not forget one more thing — if the US fails to deter China from engaging in belligerent quasi-irrational military action, the Japanese would go nuclear in about 5 seconds. Then we would really be in a pre 1914 world in which a single shot could set off a worldwide war.

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  6. This is precisely the Kaiserian Germany scenario which I discussed here. In his classic assessment of Germany’s bid for world power, Ludwig Dehio argued that hegemonic challengers always launch their bid too early, they seem to be possessed by a “demonic power” when they feel that they are ready to take their rightful place in the world and are being denied the respect they are due and the voice in world affairs they are entitled to.

    I’m obviously biased, but I’m convinced that the world would be a much better place if Germany had won WW I.

  7. Great post, Lex. I agree with everything and especially with this:

    Unlike the USSR, China presents no ideological threat, it is post-communist in all but name and has shed its communist myths of revolution and warmaking, nor is its economy warped into focusing over-heavily on making weapons as the Soviet Union was.

    The more time passes, the more this is true.

  8. The PRC doesn’t have a warped economy? No, no, no, the PRC has a very warped economy. It’s just warped in a somewhat different way than the USSR, more butter, less guns. The sequence for PRC reform is clear.

    1. Eviscerate ideological communism
    check – as of Deng
    2. maintain political control while unwinding economic distortion, all without any ideological justification for the regime
    check – in progress
    3. open up political and ideological discussion to create a new ideological foundation for the PRC
    This is the future safe landing where the current leadership gets a sustainable footing without ending up hanging from lamp posts.

    The problem is that the PRC is in a Wile E Coyote moment and has been since Deng. Will they survive suspended in mid-air for the length of time necessary to accomplish stages 2 and 3? Stage two is already a semi-failure as chinese (Han?) nationalism has had to be deployed to maintain the regime during this stage. Can that nationalism be defanged and a substitute justification for this regime be grafted on?

    I think that only a big bang can really save the PRC from the consequences of its actions now. If the current PRC leadership were to legalize the main Taiwan parties in a grand deal that reunified Taiwan with the mainland peacefully and without recriminations or punishment for any past acts on any side, that might do it. Frankly, I can’t think of another alternative that wouldn’t cause major trouble for the US as well as being extremely risky for the PRC.

  9. Grim Beorn has a post on a (presumably) CCP-endorsed strategy paper in the current issue of Foreign Affairs (available to non-subscribers). The paper is authored by Wang Jisi, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University and Director of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School of the CCP.

    Grim interprets the elegant and eloquent essay as a “velveted fist” offer from “the Chinese court” to the US: Peace and cooperation, in exchange for a free hand with Taiwan.

    This could fit into a Kaiserian scenario, or a Barnett-like one. Interesting either way.

  10. TML — I said specifically not “warped” in the particularly dangerous, Soviet-style of building the whole flippin’ economy around arms production. The Chinese, no doubt, have their own major headaches in terms of economic distortions. But they are not as dangerous as what the Russian commies used to be like, a country the size of a continent that can make mountains of pretty good or even very good weapons, but cannot make a decent toaster. Insanity. I was looking at a book the the other night, with an essay by Jack Matlock, who was our ambassador over there. Some time after the Cold War a retired Soviet General who had once been some big dog in the Kremlin told Matlock, “until Chernobyl, I thought we could fight and win a nuclear war.” Thank God, literally, that the USSR is gone. They were lunatics. The Chinese are much more sensible, and most of the senior guys have been to the USA, many of them educated here. For them, eventual reunification with Taiwan is a question of regime survival, so we need to go easy on them. The PLA has lots of guys who would like to have a shot at taking us down, and spend all day every day planning, training and brainstorming on how to do it. Of course. After all, they are soldiers and they have to get ready for the next likely war, and they have to be ready, willing and able to go to war and kick ass, or at least try to. That’s their job. That’s cool. As long as the sensible guys in suits can stay in charge, they will never get to try it. My big concern is what happens on the day when the guys in suits are in a panic, or fleeing the capital in armored limousines amidst rioting, or whatever sh*tstorm scenario happens if China enters a new “time of troubles”. I hope to heck that never happens. I just think there is a pretty decent chance it can and will happen. So, we need to act with care, Teddy Roosevelt-style, nice big stick, talk real quiety, lots of trade, lots of good reasons to not want to get into it with us. That will keep the peace.

  11. Lex,

    Your latest comment is a very sensible view of the situation. It is, at the same time, scary because of the ghosts it invokes…the shades of the It Can’t Happen essays written in Europe in the decade prior to August 1914.

    You, TML, and the rest of us readers know that, of course. We hope that knowledge of this history improves the judgement of all concerned, from Foggy Bottom to Tienamen Square.

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  13. Sun Bin, thanks for the link. I put it up in the post.

    Friends who do business in China tell me that China has made incredible strides in the last ten years in making itself more efficient and orderly, confirming Mahbubani’s main point. All to the good.

  14. You are welcome, Lex.

    Mahbubani had made great observation. China is indeed moving to the right direction, and the leadership today think and act rationally.

    LKY has expressed his concern on China’s younger generation, esp those who are borned after 1980s. He has made similar comments a couple years ago. His logic is (roughly):
    1. the current leadership have suffered through cultural revolution and dark days of China. They know how difficult it is to modernize China. They also learned painfully that Mao’s way does not help their aspiration, nor will any aggressive behavior that alienates the world. They are therefore, content with improving the basic well-being of their country; and realizing how difficult such a task is, they are willing to do anything they can to focus on this task. Making enemy does not help such focus.
    2. However, some of the younger generation, LKY observed, who do not carry the memory of China’s dark ages, may not understand this. They might become unreasonably proud and hence become aggressive. LKY should have noted that opening up of China also means more exposure to democratic and liberitarian values from the west. He was not ignoring that. He just wanted to make sure China (and the world) work hard to prevent that happening. It is not very likely, but it is worhtwhile be preventative. Therefore, he has been advocating for China to focus on educating its younger generation, teach them to be “humble” and to understand that the best way to achieve the old glory is to play by the rule of the game with the rest of the world, with logic.

    Lee’s concern is probably exaggerated, as we know the extremist are often louder and more heard(e.g. in Chinese internet BBS) than they really are. But we should be cautious and try to steer China’s younger generation to the right path.
    Unfortunately, some of the exposure to western values are negated by disappointment over “china containment” and what they see as “double standardness” in the US policies (to China and to, e.g. Iraq). (I would use the analogy that the bitterness among German helped porpel Hitler to power in 1930s to illustrate this point, although I admit this is not a good analogy) What we need to do is to let them understand that despite the fault of the west, the core values are still highly honored, by its people, and by the government through its democratic system. The best way to do so, is to let more of them travel and study in the west, and let them meet the average american and european people who could share with them what they believe the western values are. This would help to weaken the school of the hawks.

  15. Sun Bin, I share your hopes. I worry about the aggressively nationalistic attitudes that the Government seems to be cultivating in China. I agree that rationality leads to a peacefully developing China. My problem is that my reading of history demonstrates that rationality does not always prevail. I literall pray that China will develop peacefully. If it doesn’t, the world will suffer another round of catastrophe and I’d prefer not to personally experience such a thing, or even more have my family involved in it. I, however, believe that we should do maximum possible trade and personal travel and contacts — but also maintain hard military power. The USA gets in trouble when it does not prepare for a likely next war. Weakness is more provocative than strength. It never has to fight wars it prepares for. Paradoxical, but that is how I read the record. So, I am a hawkish dove, and I am sticking to that position.

  16. Good post! I would also submit that Japan is an excellent example of a “catchup power”; the lessons of her rise and fall are particularly meaningful in the context of China’s rise. However, I don’t expect most Chinese to want to admit that they could learn by Japan’s example.

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  18. Thanks Lex and everyone else. This helps us all focus better.

    Perhaps this is off subject, but will the excess of men in the coming generation make a difference? Do we have any precedent for that?

  19. Ginny, the excess of men may well make a difference. It is unlikely to be a positive one in terms of political stability and civil order. Yet another factor that leads me to think that we should be be using all means to help China develop peacefully, including trade, while maintaining the necessary military power to make any kind of military threat to us manifestly hopeless. Both.

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