India should act on structural reforms to catch up with China

Diplomat-turned-author and educationist Kishore Mahbubani on emerging trends in Asia and the world


Mahbubani says institutions of global governance are weak today by design, rather than by default. Photo: Bloomberg
Mahbubani says institutions of global governance are weak today by design, rather than by default. Photo: Bloomberg

Singapore: Kishore Mahbubani has played multiple roles in the span of a few decades. A distinguished career diplomat-turned-author and educationist, Mahbubani was recently listed by the Financial Times newspaper among the top 50 individuals who will shape the debate on the future of capitalism. Global leaders and intellectuals regularly seek out his views on how to better bridge the gap between the East and the West. An unabashed critic of the West and its domination of institutions of global power, the Singaporean scholar of Indian origin seeks to offer “a non-Western worldview in a world dominated by a Western Weltanschauung”.

He has long argued that the era of Western domination is coming to an end as the world re-balances and the power shifts from the West to the East in the 21st century. In his view, it is wise to ensure that the interests of the West are balanced with global interests and that some power is ceded by the US and Europe to China, India, Latin America and the Middle East.

In his new book The Great Convergence, Mahbubani argues that “the voices and interests of each human being” should be represented equally well in key global institutions so as to allow a level playing field for the “rest” to compete with the West.

He claims that the West, which represents only 12% of humanity, does not comprehend the mindset and aspirations of the rest that make up the remaining 88%. He also projects that powerful forces of global convergence—a growing economic interdependence along with the unstoppable rise of a global middle class—would eventually unite the interests of the East and West and even traditional rivalries among nations in the East, and especially in the subcontinent, will be resolved through this growing interdependence in the coming decades.

Mahbubani is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore (LKY School), an institution whose mission is to help improve the state of governance in Asia. In less than a decade, he has helped build it into one of the most prestigious policy schools in the world and one that conducts significant research on bridging India and China. In an interview with MintAsia, Mahbubani spoke about the emerging trends in Asia and the world. Edited excerpts:

You are considered to be one of Asia’s leading geopolitical strategists. Tell us what you envision for the continent in the next couple of decades?

I envision Asia as a more peaceful and prosperous continent than it has ever been before historically. If you look at the European Union (EU), their biggest accomplishment today is that after fighting endless ferocious battles, you don’t just have zero wars, you now have zero prospect of war.

In Asia, we have not reached that stage yet, of zero prospect of war, though we can achieve it in 30-40 years if we try hard. I’m confident we are moving in the right direction. Of course we will never have the kind of close regional cooperation in Asia as you have in EU because Europe is a small mono-civilizational club, a group of Christian countries cooperating with each other, whereas in Asia you have a multi-civilizational club with immense diversity, so you’ll never get that same degree of closeness. But as long as there is a continued commitment in the region to grow trade and investment links and as long as the Asian countries continue to strive to improve their standards of living and grow their economies, Asia will re-assume its rightful place on the global stage.

As a diplomat and author who has written extensively on the global multilateral institutions and how to make them more effective, what is your view on why UN and other global multilateral institutions are still weak today despite massive budgets and mandates given to them?

A dirty little secret is that institutions of global governance are weak today by design, rather than by default. This has long been an open secret, as I know from having lived in New York City, the home of the United Nations, where I served for more than 10 years. The one thing that the US and Soviet Union agreed on during the Cold War when they disagreed on everything else was to marginalize the UN while paying lip service to it in public. They squeezed UN budgets endlessly, appointed pliable Secretaries-General and, of course, planted CIA and KGB spies in all corners of the UN system. All this was well-known to anyone who worked within the UN system. It has been a longstanding Western strategy, led primarily by Washington, to keep institutions of global governance like the UN weak. Their strategy has been nuanced, of course, as even though the UN was kept weak, the UN Security Council was kept relatively strong and effective because the West has been able, by and large, to control and dominate the UN’s most important body.

Similarly, the West has allowed both the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank to function better than the UN. These two bodies have a system of weighted voting, which has allowed the West to retain control of both of those institutions. In short, the West has adopted an intelligent long-term strategy. If it can control an international institution, it allows that institution to become strong and occasionally effective. If it cannot control an international institution, it deliberately debilitates that institution.

As we move into the era of the great convergence, the world clearly needs stronger global village councils. The time has come for the West to work on strengthening, rather than weakening, these institutions. I hope India and China can work together to play a greater role in the UN as it is in their common interest to do so.

Tell us about the central premise of your new book.

My thesis in the book is that there is some truly good news emerging today, despite the gloom and doom that one reads daily in the mainstream media. I believe that a vast majority of the world’s people now share a common set of material and educational aspirations which are becoming more important than their differing ideological or religious aspirations, and that this overriding set of common interests is pushing the world’s population to cooperate together more than ever before.

I argue in this new book that a majority of the countries all over the world have more or less come to the conclusion that war is a damn stupid thing! That’s why the prospects of interstate war are the lowest today...

Even if you take the case of India and Pakistan, despite a history of conflicts, mistrust and estranged relationship, an overwhelming number of Pakistanis and Indians want peace and friendship. A survey—conducted by independent research agencies and sponsored by the Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India on the first anniversary of their joint peace initiative called Aman Ki Asha— showed that 70% of Pakistanis and 74% of Indians want peaceful relations.

So, India and Pakistan, like other traditional rivals such as Greece and Turkey, or Argentina and Brazil, find their populations want their governments to focus on economic development, not on war. Hence, there is pressure on governments to build better infrastructure, better roads and railways, better sewage pipes and schools. We have, as a result, seen a greater improvement in the standards of living of populations in the last 30 years than we have in the last 300 years.

Can India and Pakistan really get past their history of mistrust given the current political scenario in Pakistan?

The short answer is “yes”, in my view. Even if you take the very tense line, the Line of Control, up in the mountains, in the past you would get 2,000 coffins coming back a year, but now it is less than 180.

Actually, between India and Pakistan, I would say that even though the traditional suspicions remain high, frankly the prospect of a major interstate war is quite low because both sides realize it would be absolutely futile to go to war. And what is clear is that the Pakistani middle class increasingly no longer wants a war with India and that’s a big shift. They want to achieve the same kind of comfortable middle class existence that many in India are achieving and, of course, it will take some time for them to gain enough influence over the Pakistani military to prevail upon them to shift the country’s policy towards India; but I think eventually the middle class will succeed in this endeavour.

I am also more optimistic about Pakistan than others because despite all the bad news coming out of the country, the big picture is that at the end of the day it still remains a functioning state. I mean to give one concrete example: it is amazing how their Chief Justice could get rid of a very strong military dictator. In theory, if Pakistan is a military dictatorship, the military dictator should have put the Chief Justice in jail; but as you know, the military dictator is in jail today!

Also, at least one elected government completed a full term of office finally in Pakistan; so to me there are positive things happening in a macro sense which is all very good for India and its long-term security and prosperity.

What should India do in South Asia to ensure there is more peace and prosperity given the rising tensions?

Indians need to be more pragmatic and look carefully at the Chinese model. The Chinese have been very clever about increasing interdependence with all their neighbouring states through boosting trade phenomenally over the last 10 years; this has been done as much for economic reasons as for geopolitical reasons. India should do the same in South Asia to play a true leadership role.

What should India’s strategy be vis-a-vis China and the US?

See, India is a big enough country that it doesn’t need to join any alliances because any alliance will be a constraining factor on India. The best thing India could do is to maintain its freedom of manoeuvre so it can maintain good relations with both countries. India’s biggest advantage is that it is not distrusted by America, it is not distrusted by Europe, it is not distrusted by Japan, it is not distrusted by Russia and even the level of distrust by China is relatively low. By contrast, China has got high levels of distrust from the US, high levels of distrust from Europe, high levels of distrust from Russia; so India is in a much sweeter position geopolitically. The tragedy will be that even as India enters this geopolitical sweet spot vis-a-vis these countries and especially the two superpowers who both want to co-opt it, it could actually sail right through it and not take advantage of it; so India should ensure it leverages its strong position well.

You are a part of the Indian Prime Minister’s Global Advisory Council of Overseas Indians. Tell us your observations about India’s foreign policy as part of this council for the last five years?

Well, sitting at this Forum close to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his advisors and aides, first of all, I don’t get the sense that is being projected in the mainstream media that India has a deep distrust of China. The PM actually sees that while there are some problems naturally, he also sees on the other side leaders he can work with to solve these problems.

Most Indians are unaware that the new set of leaders that China has are maybe among the best set of Chinese leaders ever. The quality of their strategic thinking, their vision and determination for improving China domestically and also ties with India is commendable. It is possible that China may be entering another golden era as their new leaders are very serious about carrying out significant structural reforms; here, the Indian political process stands in contrast and it is of course more difficult to get a consensus and get things done. Still, if India does not get its act together soon and make some serious structural reforms, it will be left trailing in the dust and it will be too hard for India to play catch up with China again.

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