India Can Build Bridges. China Can’t

China may be rising, but it is India which is uniquely poised to play a bridge-building role in an Asian century, says Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former envoy to the UN whose next book unravels the meaning of the rise of Asia.

In his Beyond The Age of Innocence, Mahbubani, one of Asia’s leading thinkers, searchingly probes the paradox of America’ relations with the world that has changed from one of benefactor to one whose flawed policies have alienated 1.2 billion Muslims the world over. Subtitled “Rebuilding Trust Between America and the World,” the book, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “summons the better angels of our nature in order to save America from itself.”

Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, was born to an immigrant Indian family in the then British colony of Singapore. He has also written a defining book on the Asian value systems called “Can Asians Think” (1998). His next book maps out the rise of Asia and resistance it may face from the world’s leading powers, including the US.

Described by The Economist as “an Asian Toynbee preoccupied with the rise and fall of civilisations, Mahbubani, who has served with the Singapore Foreign Service for 33 years, including two stints in the UN, triggered the Asian values debate of the 1990s with his incisive essay ‘The West and the Rest’.

Manish Chand caught up with Mahbubani on a recent visit to India.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q) From what one hears, you are writing a book on the rise of Asia?

A) Yes, my next book is about the rise of Asia. Asia will soon have three of the largest economies of the world. In the last two centuries only, Europe took over the global stage. The preceding eighteen centuries were dominated by Asian powers. As I wrote in an article in Time magazine last year, at the end of this century historians would want to know why Asian societies succeeded so late, taking centuries to catch up with a Europe that they had outperformed for millennia.

Q) Do you expect resistance to the rise of Asia?

A) There will be a resistance to the rise of Asia. The European domination of the world is unnatural. They will find it difficult to give up power after all these centuries of uninterrupted dominance.

Look at the multilateral institutions like the UN and the World Bank. There is an unwritten rule that the head of the IMF must be a European and that of the World Bank an American. It disqualifies 3.5 billion Asian people from holding top posts in leading multilateral institutions. Let’s not forget that Asian powers have trillion dollars in foreign reserves.

The total population of the world, including Western Europe and North America, may be roughly around 700 million. That’s about 12 per cent of the world’s population. Now, this 12 per cent cannot be making all the big decisions and setting the global agenda. It’s time for other civilisations and powers to play an equally important role.

Resistance is natural. However, in order to change things, the rising Asian powers need to apply psychological pressure on them.

In the last few post Cold War years, the Asian countries have benefited from peace. It’s time to capitalise on it and have a greater say in world affairs. Moreover, the UN should represent powers of today and not yesterday. The UN must be reformed to reflect contemporary realities.

Q) Where do you think the Western powers, most importantly the US, have failed?

A) The Americans have shown incompetence in the Iraq and in the Middle East. There is clearly a need for change, for a larger say of Asian powers in the world. But for that to happen Asians need to present a coherent vision of the world.

Until now, the West has been having a free ride. At a recent London School of Economics conference, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said most participants agreed that the world order must change to accommodate the rise of Asia. The international media did not report it. But when Tony Blair gave a speech on the Middle East, all leading western publications reported it extensively. The bias is there. That’s because the international media is controlled by the West and they see the glass always half empty in Asia.

Q) How much of this rise of Asia is hype and how much of it is for real?

A) Some of this is hype. But the hype is good. Hype about the rise of India is very positive. At the same time, you must balance hype with realism. If you want to exercise leadership, you have to be bold and realistic.

Q) How do you see the rise of China? The West, most prominently the US, sees it as a threat. On the other hand, top Chinese leadership never tire of projecting China’s rise as peaceful.

A) Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of powers: staus quo powers and revisionist powers. China is a status quo power. The present world order is benefiting China. Why should they disrupt it?

Q) Some say the US is using India as a counterweight to rising China? Do you share this perception?

A) Why should India be somebody else’s card? For a huge country like India, it makes equal sense for India to use the US as a card. India should have an independent foreign policy which it has. The big mistake for India will be to behave like the UK. The moral of the story is: Don’t be somebody’s card.

Q) You have written perceptively about the West’s relationship with Islam in your book. Post 9/11, do you think the so-called clash of civilisations has sharpened?

A) The West says it’s not responsible for problems in the Muslim world. But the American policies in the world, especially in the Middle East, have completely alienated the Muslim world. There is a real sense of grievance among the Muslims. Over 1.2 billion Muslims of the world feel humiliated that they can’t defend 4 million Palestinians. There is also lack of development in the Muslim world. The West should have some kind of Marshall plan for the Muslim world. Bin Laden is also a beneficiary of globalisation. He runs a multi-national jihad network and he is taking advantage of modern technology. That’s why the response to Osama bin Laden and the forces he represents has to be global. You must build consensus with moderate Muslims on your side. Many moderate Muslims rejoiced when the WTC fell. There is an undercurrent of sympathy for radicalism and extremism represented by bin Laden.

Q) In your book Beyond the Age of Innocence, you have tried to portray ambivalence of the West and America towards the Muslim world. Is there a subliminal schizophrenia in the West’s attitude towards the Muslim world?

A) I try to present a balanced view. America has done more good for the world than any country has. The lapse occurred towards the end of the Cold War. Unless they change their policies, they won’t be able to change the perceptions of America in the Muslim world. America is hated because of its policies. If America can create two independent states – Palestine and Israel – this would succeed in removing a root cause of the Muslim discontent.

The dialogue so far has been a one-way street. The West does all the talking and Asians do all the listening. This dialogue should be a two-way street. Now, Asians should do more talking and the West should listen more. The capacity of the West to listen to others is very poor. The point is that the present global system can’t survive if you carry on as before.

Q) You have served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the UN and seen all that politicking and quibbling up close? How do you see India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council?

A) If India can present a comprehensive vision of the UN reforms, it’s possible. But you just can’t go and ask to be given a veto. The G-4 process is not working. They need to take a fresh approach.

Now, there is an increasing web of interdependence among nations in the world. The problem is that all 193 countries are sailing in the same boat with each one looking after its own cabin but no one is looking after the boat. India should present a vision on how to manage the global boat.

Q) Has the clash of civilisations become sharper in the world after 9/11? What role do you see for India in what looks like an Asian century?

A) I believe in a fusion of the East and West. Doubtless, there will be differences between the East and the West. India has a tremendous responsibility to play a bridge building role in this new world. China can’t be a bridge builder. Japan tried and failed. India can succeed.

Q) You have written perceptively about the Asiatic value system. What kind of value system you see emerging in Asia after Asian powers like India and China take over the global stage? Will it be largely imitative of the West?

A) A new system of values will emerge after the rise of Asia. For the last two centuries, we have had an artificial situation where global values were essentially set by one civilization: the Western civilization. With the rise of China and India, new values will surface. Amartya Sen’s book, “The Argumentative Indian”, describes how the values of tolerance and consensus building are deeply ingrained in Asian societies.

Q) What kind of power you think India will become in this Asian century?

A) I recently gave a lecture on the question “Will India Emerge as an Eastern or Western Power?” at UPenn. Japan emerged as a Western power. China will emerge as an Eastern power. India will bring together the best of the East and the West, if it succeeds in its current modernization efforts.

Author Profile

Manish Chand
Manish Chand
Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network ( and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.