China doesn't threaten international liberal order: Kishore Mahbubani in debate that he won

He successfully made his case against the opposition, which was led by American experts on China and national security.

Kayla Wong | May 30, 2019, 12:10 PM

China is not threatening the international liberal order, said former Singapore diplomat Kishore Mahbubani in his opening statement at the Munk Debates held in Toronto, Canada on May 9.

In fact, what China is threatening is the global balance of power that is currently led by the United States, the former Lee Kuan Yew School dean argued.

Mahbubani is now serving as a senior visiting scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School's Ash Center.

The debate -- a semi-annual initiative that started in 2008 -- saw Mahbubani and other security experts debate on the following motion: "Is China a Threat to the Liberal International Order?"

Arguing for the resolution is H. R. McMaster, a former National Security Advisor, as well as Michael Pillsbury, one of the top advisors on China to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Pilsbury (left) and McMaster (right) listening while Mahbubani makes his pitch. (Screenshot via Munk Debates)

Together with Wang Huiyao, a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and founder of Beijing-based think tank Center for China and Globalization (CCG), Mahbubani argued against the resolution.

Participants of the Munk Debates in the past include Canadian President Justin Trudeau, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Here are some of the points that Mahbubani made in his argument.

Majority of Asian countries are accepting of China's rise

Mahbubani first pointed out that it was only in the last 200 years of world history that Europe and North America "took off", overtaking China and India which were the two largest economies in the world from "the year 1 to 1800".

Therefore, the last 200 years of history had been a major historical aberration, he said.

He went on to contend that all aberrations come to a natural end, and so "it is perfectly natural to see the return of China and India".

He then made the argument that China should be judged by Asia, and not the West, as the majority of the world is made up of people who live outside of the West:

"Out of the world's population of 7.5 billion people, only 12 percent live in the West, while 88 percent live outside the West.

So if you want to judge China's international behaviour, ask yourselves how is the 88 percent of the world reacting to China's rise?

Amazingly, they're welcoming, they're cooperating with it."

He added that the rest of the world other than the U.S. are eager to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Mahbubani also stressed during the debate the importance of focusing on the "international sentiment" towards China, implying that non-western responses to China should be taken into consideration as well.

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Not an apologist for China

Halfway through the debate, McMaster posed a question to Mahbubani, asking him how the Singapore government feels about him being an "apologist" for the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) policies in the region.

He explained that when he talked to Singapore officials, they sounded "much different" than Mahbubani.

In response, Mahbubani reiterated his stance as an academic who argues based on facts, and that he was not speaking on behalf of the Singapore government.

He then went on to give two facts to support the position he has taken up in the debate:

1. China has not gone to war in 40 years

China is the only major power in the world which has not gone to war in 40 years, and has not fired a single bullet in 30 years, said Mahbubani.

In contrast, in the last year of former U.S. president Barack Obama's presidency, the U.S. dropped 26,000 bombs on seven countries, he said.

However, McMaster later raised a counterpoint by saying "a good percentage of those bombs that the U.S. dropped were in support of allied and Canadian soldiers who were courageously fighting alongside [them] against the enemies of all civilisations".

2. The U.S. itself has not abided by international law

For his second "fact", Mahbubani raised the example of a bilateral issue between Canada and the U.S.

He recounted a story he heard from a senior Canadian diplomat while he was serving as a non-resident commissioner to Canada:

"He (the Canadian diplomat) said for many years in the north of Canada, there's a dispute between the U.S. and Canada as to whether or not a body of water was an internal waterway of Canada or was it an international straits under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Canadians were busy writing papers to prove their case, and then the U.S. responded by sending a destroyer through the straits."

The waterway Mahbubani was referring to is most likely the Northwest Passage.

In 1985, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, the Polar Sea, navigated through the Northwest Passage, sparking a diplomatic incident.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has recently reiterated the U.S. position on the passageway in May when he rejected Canada's claims to it as "illegitimate".

The bilateral issue is set to persist as the ice-bound passageway becomes more usable with the advancement of climate change.

Mahbubani then continued saying, to the laughter of the audience:

"By the way, under international law, you're allowed to shoot a destroyer in your internal waters, but you wisely decided not to do so.

You're very wise. You could have taken the U.S. to the world court!"

He ended his point by saying that while many countries took the U.S. to the world court, the U.S. simply ignored the rulings.

The most recent ruling that the U.S. put aside, he said, was an island occupied by both the U.S. and the United Kingdom in the Indian Ocean.

While the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled in February that the Chagos Islands belong to Mauritius, the U.K. has yet to hand over control.

One of the U.S.' most important overseas military bases was set up there.

"So I think if the U.S. sets an example, seriously, of obeying international law, then I think that's the best way to persuade China to abide by international law," said Mahbubani.

China is progressing, while America is regressing

In response to his opponents' argument that China's illiberal domestic policies, which are many years behind the standard of human rights that the west is accustomed to, in turn informs its foreign policy and international behaviour, Mahbubani offered a different angle to look at the issue.

While he agreed with McMaster and Pilsbury that the U.S. does enjoy a higher standard of human right than China, he posed the following question instead: "Which society is progressing forward, and which society is regressing?"

He then provided three "facts" to substantiate his point that the American society is regressing:

  1. It is the only major developed society where the average income of the bottom 50 percent has gone down over the past 30 years.
  2. Two-thirds of American households don't have US$500 in cash for emergency purposes, while China might have already achieved that.
  3. It is the first major developed country to "reintroduce torture" (referring to the Guantanamo Bay scandal)

McMaster then argued against Mahbubani's points, saying that when the U.S. discovers flaws in its government's behaviour, the American society goes on to debate about them, causing them to get exposed.

And it is this self-critical characteristic that brings about improvement to its society, he said.

McMaster went on to ask: "Imagine, could we even have this debate in Beijing?"

He also said, to rousing applause from the audience: "How many people are trying to become Chinese citizens?"

"There's a reason for that great disparity between those who want to come to free and open societies, and those who prefer not to live in authoritarian, closed, policed surveillance states."

You can watch the two-hour long debate here.

Changed the minds of the audience

Wang and Mahbubani managed to win the debate by a narrow margin of 2 percent.

This means that out of the 1,322 respondents, 2 percent of them -- or about 25 people -- were won over by their argument, and changed their minds by the end of the debate.

Screenshot via Munk Debates

Top image via Munk Debates