Now’s the time for US to work with China

Source:Global Times Published: 2019/5/21 20:32:23

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The issue of today is not whether China is a liberal domestic order. The issue of the day is whether China is working with the liberal international order. And I can tell you what a liberal international order is, because I was born in an era or what you call an illiberal international order in a British colony. And, as you know, when you are colonized you have no rights whatsoever. 

China went through a hundred years of hell from 1842 to 1949. And then when the liberal international order began, China discovered two big things that work for China. One, the first pillar of the liberal international order is sovereignty. Every country can then decide its own future, what it wants to do. And then the second thing is rules - rules to insure what you can and cannot do in the international space, not domestic space, international space. 

And I also want to give you one statistic which I hope you will bear in mind throughout this whole debate. Out of the world's population of 7.5 billion people in the world, only 12 percent live in the West. 88 percent live outside the West. So if you want to judge China's international behavior - let me emphasize that, international behavior - ask yourself how is the 88 percent of the world reacting to China's rise? And amazingly, they're welcoming it, they're cooperating with it. 

So the debate is about the liberal international order. Please pay attention to international sentiments. 

Yes, China has got lots of problems and challenges. But let me just describe one story of China. When I first went to China in 1980, people in China could not choose what to wear, where to live, where to work, what to study and no Chinese could travel overseas as tourists. Zero. Today you go to China and they choose what to wear, where to live, where to work, what to study and each year in this amazing land of non-freedom, 134 million Chinese - how many times the population of Canada? - travel overseas every year freely.

Let me take two facts for you on the military dimension. 

You know the only major power on planet Earth that actually has not gone to war in 40 years and has not fired one bullet in 30 years across its borders is China. By contrast, under the peaceful presidency of president Barack Obama, in the last year of his presidency, the US dropped 26,000 bombs on seven countries. These are facts. Am I being an apologist for the Chinese government? Go and check the facts. 

The trouble with such a debate is that you always end up in black-and-white perspectives and you lose the nuances. I completely agree that the standards of human rights in the US are much higher than those in China. It's a fact. Freedom of speech, sit in a riot. And it's a fact, China is a long way away. 

But the other question to us is which society is progressing forward and which society is regressing? Let me just tell you three important facts about regression. 

Point No.1, the only major developed society where the average income of the bottom 50 percent has gone down over the past 30 years is the US. Fact No.2, I mention this in my book, two-thirds of American households don't have $500 cash for emergency purposes. I think two-thirds of Chinese households may have gotten theirs already. Fact No.3, and this is the most damaging fact. Believe me, it was a great personal shock to me when Guantanamo happened. How is it that the world's biggest defender of human rights became the first major developed country to reintroduce torture?

We are at a very special moment of history where we have a rather narrow window of opportunity to create a better world for tomorrow. 

What is this narrow window of opportunity? It is this: China - while it is still No.2, not yet fully No.1 - is prepared to accept the constraints of the liberal international order. China abides by major agreements and when you work with China in the United Nations as many of us have done so, they try to support the UN all the time. I can say, after 10 years in the UN, the objective of the US mission to the UN was to weaken the UN, control the budget and not give it freedom to grow.

What is this window of opportunity? While it is still No.2, and while it is still willing to play by the rules, this is the moment for the US to actually work with China, to strengthen the multilateral order and to serve as a good role model. 

But unfortunately, as you know, the US is doing the opposite and is walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement, has withdrawn from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is walking away from the Transpacific Partnership and has withdrawn from the Human Rights Council… I can keep going on and on.

The article is an abstract of Kishore Mahbubani's arguments at the Munk Debates in Toronto on May 9. Mahbubani is a professor in the Practice of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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