“Do not talk about India and China in the same breath”: Lee Kwan Yew

LKYOf all the themes of the book (LEE KUAN YEW: THE GRAND MASTER’S INSIGHTS ON CHINA, THE UNITED STATES, AND THE WORLD BY GRAHAM ALLISON, ROBERT BLACKWILL AND ALI WYNE, MIT PRESS), the single most important, of course, is China, and its global equation with the United States. And who better to discuss that than Lee, who has been a mentor to Chinese leaders going back to Deng Xiao Ping, as well as to American presidents going back to Nixon. We can, he cautions us, expect to see China assert itself as the No. 1 power in Asia—and ultimately in the world. The Chinese have calculated that they need perhaps fifty years to build up their capabilities—economic, technological and military—and then make the ultimate transition from communism to the market system. Until then the dictum is, apparently, “Keep your head down, and smile for forty or fifty years”. But after that, perhaps circa 2060, the smile is likely to be switched off. China cannot forget its dominant historical position as the ‘Middle Kingdom’, to which lesser nations offered tribute, Lee explains, and a sense of reawakened destiny now drives them to reclaim that position.

Yet, China’s journey to pre-eminent superpowerdom is not necessarily a certainty, and there are significant stumbling blocks that might still trip it up. Lee suggests three potential obstacles. First, China’s great cultural and linguistic complexities which make it difficult to attract, and integrate, the global talent necessary to drive its competitive engines for the future. Second, the deep-rooted need for order and discipline hard-wired into Chinese society, which tends to inhibit a culture of creativity and potential for innovation. And third, the inevitable question of governance in the long term. Especia­lly coming from the man whom Xi Jinping, China’s new leader, deferentially calls “our senior, who has our respect”, these are things we need to pay careful attention to.

The chapter devoted to India is not particularly flattering, but it deserves to be read without prejudice. To sum up his position, Lee believes that India squandered its opportunities in the 1960s, and is held back today by issues ranging from its political system to its social infrastructure. “Do not talk about India and China in the same breath,” he says, slightly disdainfully, going on to note that India can grow to be an important regional power, though it “does not pose such a challenge to international order as China”.

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