Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy by Prof. Kishore Mahbubani

Summary and takeaways from the book.

"a paradox of the great geopolitical contest that will be played out between America and China in the coming decades that it is both inevitable and avoidable."

"One of the goals of this book is to promote hard-headed, rational thinking on an inevitably complex and shifting subject."

"This book will draw out the complexity and also recommend how it can be managed."

ISBN: 978-1541768130
Published: March 31, 2020
Pages: 320
Available on: amazon

Prof. Kishore Mahbubani, a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, has had two distinguished careers, thirty-three years in diplomacy and fifteen years in academia, when he was the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. He lived in New York for over ten years as Singapore’s ambassador to the UN. In 2019, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is globally recognized as one of the world's leading public intellectual.

He has authored several books, among them Can Asians Think?, Has the West Lost It?, The New Asian Hemisphere, The Great Convergence, and Beyond the Age of Innocence. He travels extensively and lives in Singapore.

Prof. Mahbubani was also "President of the United Nations Security Council between 2001 and 2002".

Prof. Mahbubani is uniquely qualified to write about this: "This personal connection with a remarkably wide range of Asian societies, as well as my ten years as an ambassador to the United Nations(UN), has convinced me that in the realm of international affairs, the texture and chemistry of the world have also changed in a way that most Americans are unaware of. "

"geopolitical contest that has broken out between America and China will continue for the next decade or two" and "strong bipartisan support for it".

"a paradox of the great geopolitical contest that will be played out between America and China in the coming decades that it is both inevitable and avoidable."

"The goal of raising these questions is to stimulate a strategic debate, think the unthinkable, and dissect and understand the many complex dimensions of the US-China geopolitical contest that will unravel in the coming decade. "

"One of the goals of this book is to promote hard-headed, rational thinking on an inevitably complex and shifting subject."

"the global context in which the US-China rivalry will be played out will be very different from that of the Cold War. The world has become a more complex place."

The message here is not to fight the last war, or to assume outcome is pre-determined, or to ignore its complex dimensions.

"Negative consequences always flow from the failure to make strategic adjustments when the world changes significantly".

Prof. Mahbubani says "This book will draw out the complexity and also recommend how it can be managed."

There are several lessons we can learn about geopolitics from Prof. Mahbubani analysis of the geopolitical and economic conflict between two largest economies in the world.

Don't start conflict without strategy

"America is making a big strategic mistake by launching this contest with China without first developing a comprehensive and global strategy to deal with China."

"By contrast, America thought hard and deep before it plunged into the Cold War against the Soviet Union. " "The master strategist who formulated America’s successful containment strategy against the Soviet Union was George Kennan."

But the current relevant "department was still trying to work out a comprehensive strategy to match the one spelled out by her predecessor, Kennan."

Ask the right questions

"first step to formulate any long-term strategy is to frame the right questions".

"in formulating such questions, one must always 'think the unthinkable'.

"the first step to formulate any long-term strategy is to frame the right questions. If one gets the questions wrong, the answers will be wrong. Most importantly, as Rajaratnam taught me, in formulating such questions, one must always 'think the unthinkable'".

The author Prof. Mahbubani "suggest ten areas that provoke questions that the policy planning staff should address". Some are listed below:

"If there are contradictions between the goals of preserving primacy and improving well-being, which should take priority?"

"America did not win the Cold War on its own. It formed solid alliances with its Western partners in NATO and cultivated key third world friends and allies, like China, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Egypt.

To preserve these close alliances, America kept its economy open to its allies and generously extended its aid. Above everything else, America was known for its spirit of generosity in the Cold War." "Can America build up a solid global coalition to counterbalance China if it also alienates its key allies?

"The most powerful weapon that America can use to bring its allies and adversaries into line and conform to its wishes is not the US military but the US dollar." "Is it wise to weaponize a global public good and use it for unilateral ends? Right now, there are no practical alternatives to the US dollar. Will that always be the case? Is this the Achilles’ heel of the American economy that China can pierce and weaken?"

"From the 1960s to the 1980s, American soft power soared. Since 9/11, America has violated international law and international human rights conventions (and became the first Western country to reintroduce torture). American soft power has declined considerably, especially under Trump. Are the American people ready to make the sacrifices needed to enhance American soft power? Can America win the ideological battle against China if it is perceived to be a 'normal' nation rather than an 'exceptional' one?"

"Are American strategic thinkers capable of developing new analytical frameworks to capture the essence of the competition with China?"

"In any major geopolitical competition, the advantage always goes to the party that can remain rational and cool-headed over the party that is driven by emotions, conscious or unconscious. As Kennan wisely observed, that 'loss of temper and self-control' is a sign of weakness. " and "are America’s responses to China driven by reason?" "In the politically correct environment of Washington, DC, is it possible for any strategic thinker to suggest such a politically incorrect but truthful point without getting politically skewered?"

"Chinese strategy was guided by the Chinese game of wei qi, not Western chess." "the goal is to slowly and patiently build up assets to tip the balance of the game in one’s favor. The emphasis is on long-term strategy, not short-term gains. So is China slowly and patiently acquiring assets that are progressively turning the strategic game in China’s favor? Interestingly, America has made two major efforts to thwart two long-term moves by China to gain advantage. Both failed." "Is America setting aside enough resources for the long-term competition? Does American society have the inherent strength and stamina to match China’s long-term game?"

Outcome not certain

In any contest, the outcome is not certain.

"One fundamental question... can America lose?" "In the moral dimension, to most Americans, the idea that a free and open society like America, the world’s strongest democracy, could lose a contest against a closed communist society like China is inconceivable. Americans are prone to believe that good always triumphs over evil and that no political system is inherently as good as the one envisaged by the founders of the republic."

"Yet, just as it has been a strategic mistake for American thinkers to take success for granted, it would be an equally colossal strategic mistake for China to assume the same."

"if I were a senior Chinese leader advising President Xi Jinping, I would strongly urge Xi to overestimate rather than underestimate America’s strengths."

"We must prepare ourselves for the next few decades of intense struggle before we achieve our goal of national rejuvenation."

The key here is that in any contest, the outcome is not certain. It is wise to overestimate than under-estimate opponents strengths. It is who shines through this struggle that emerges victorious.

"why the mighty Soviet Union, once the second-most powerful country in the world, collapsed so suddenly and spectacularly... the Soviet Union failed because none of the leaders could even conceive of the possibility of the Soviet Union failing."

"There is no danger of America collapsing like the former Soviet Union. America is a much stronger country, blessed with great people, institutions, and many natural advantages. However, while America will not totally collapse, it can become greatly diminished, a shadow of itself. "

"Any moderately realistic analyst can work out a scenario for how this could happen. Yet, many Americans are blind to such an outcome. History teaches us failure can happen if one cannot think of failing."

Why civilizations prosper or decline?

"America has turned away significantly from some of the key principles that defined social justice in American society." "Unfortunately, many Americans are unaware how much they have turned away from some key founding principles."

"One reason the West can no longer dominate the world is that the rest have learned so much from the West. They have imbibed many Western best practices in economics, politics, science, and technology. As a result, while many parts of Western civilization (especially Europe) seem exhausted, lacking drive and energy, other civilizations are just getting revved up."

Civilizational vigor: "As a civilization, China is remarkably resilient. The Chinese people are also remarkably talented." "For most of the past two thousand years, the large pool of brainpower available in the Chinese population was not developed under the imperial Chinese system. During the past thirty years, for the first time in Chinese history, it has been tapped on a massive scale. Cultural confidence, which the Chinese have had for centuries, combined with what China has learned from the West have given Chinese civilization a special vigor today." "In contrast to America’s stagnation, China’s culture, self-concept, and morale are being transformed at a rapid pace—mostly for the better.”"

Misreading social dynamics: "Chaos should be a sign of weakness. Yet for America, it is a sign of strength. The chaos is a result of the people arguing loudly and vociferously over the direction that America should take. And the people argue loudly because they believe that they, not the government, are the owners of the country. This sense of ownership of the country creates a tremendous sense of individual empowerment among the American people. Chinese culture values social harmony over individual empowerment. American culture is the opposite." Chaos can be strength or weakness. Same for stability.

"In many societies, the tall nail that stands out is hammered down. " "In America, the tall tree is worshipped." "No society has as powerful an ecosystem as America for producing strong individuals. Our society cannot replicate this great strength of America. China stood up again after a hundred years because of a towering figure like Mao Zedong. American society produces many Mao Zedongs."

Role of institutions: "The founders of the American republic were truly brilliant in drafting a constitution that provided for checks and balances. The democratically elected president and Congress have a lot of power. But their powers are also checked by other institutions like the world’s freest media and the US Supreme Court." "In America, the rule of law is stronger than the government of the day." "The strength of American institutions and rule of law explains why the whole world has faith in the American dollar."

"Throughout the long history of humanity, the most successful societies have always been those that fostered diverse schools of thought." "Today, America leads the world in fostering diverse views. The American universities have created the most powerful intellectual ecosystems in the world. This culture of challenging and criticizing conventional wisdom in turn generates creativity and innovation."

"China's biggest strategic mistake was to alienate several major constituencies in America," The result is that "With US and China at the precipice of a truly adversarial relationship, no group has really stepped forward to defend US-China relations, much less defend China." Needlessly confronting and alienating anyone has consequences.

The mistakes China made

"fundamentally unfair in many of its economic policies: demanding technology transfer, stealing intellectual property, imposing nontariff barriers."

"hubris that China officials displayed just after the 2008–2009 global financial crisis." "...a new tone in their dealings with the Chinese. " and "“What you have to remember is that you come from a weak and declining nation.” Another very senior British diplomat confided that “dealing with the Chinese is becoming increasingly unpleasant and difficult.”" "The hubris that enveloped Beijing after the global financial crisis may also explain the somewhat reckless moves that China made in the South China Sea in the following years."

Instead of displaying modesty, humility, and responding cautiously, China officials had "displays of arrogance".

The mistakes USA made

Emotions and instincts rarely produce good outcomes in a complex world.

"America, under Trump, is increasingly perceived as a chaotic and unpredictable actor."

Emotions and instincts rarely produce good outcomes in complex world: "director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn, patiently tried to put across to President Trump the basics of economic theory to explain why they were not a good policy tool. All of Cohn’s efforts to persuade Trump failed. Cohn finally asked why he insisted on tariffs. Trump replied: 'I just like tariffs.'"

With decisions by emotions and instincts, Trump "has single-handedly done more to reduce America’s prestige and influence in the world than any other American leader has. America was generally perceived to be a reliable partner by its closest allies. This sense of trust in America has diminished considerably. "

Decisions driven by emotions and instincts create uncertainty and erode trust. "It would be truly unwise for any American to underestimate the erosion of trust in America. Many of America’s best friends have warned America to take it seriously. America has become a rogue superpower... and actions of American leaders become far less predictable".
Other authors have also highlighted this: "erratic and impulsive style of governing, combined with a deeply flawed understanding of world politics, are making a bad situation worse."

"Geopolitical decisions, like all political decisions, are driven by personalities, and personalities keep changing".

"The high point of Sino-American cooperation took place in the 1970s, when an unusual combination of four geopolitical heavyweights came together to forge a remarkable partnership: Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai."

"Without the geopolitical skills of these four leaders, no breakthrough between the two powerful adversaries would have happened."

"Domestic politics often play a significant role in geopolitical decisions."

Not being honest, blaming China for trade deficit: "leading economic adviser was the late Harvard professor Marty Feldstein, who explained clearly how America’s trade deficit came about. He said: “foreign import barriers and exports subsidies are not the reason for the US trade deficit... the real reason is that Americans are spending more than they produce... blaming others won’t alter that fact.""

"the failure of America’s much vaunted system of checks and balances to save America from a mercurial and chaotic ruler. Neither the US Congress nor the fourth estate, neither the Supreme Court nor the executive branch can do anything to restrain Donald Trump. Consequently, all around the world, trust in America’s institutions of governance has begun to erode."

Fighting for fighting sake: "America is potentially sacrificing massive global benefits that flow from the US dollar remaining as the global reserve currency for the meager benefits of punishing, for example, Iran."

Inflated sense of self importance: "When I suggested that America could one day become the number two economy, none of the four distinguished panelists could agree with me publicly."

"An equally strong assumption is the belief that American society is inherently virtuous, both in its domestic and international behavior. As Stephen Walt, a Harvard professor, has said, this assumption is sadly not true." "the remaining 7.2 billion people on planet earth... do not share America’s assumption about itself".

Belief that one will always be number 1, and that one is virtuous leads to inability to confront reality. This leads to inability to work out a comprehensive global strategy.

"Perhaps, at the end of the day, this may be the fundamental explanation for the lack of a new comprehensive long-term American strategy to deal with the new world of the twenty-first century. Any realistic and credible strategy would have to question deeply held assumptions in the American psyche. Since it would be both psychologically and politically difficult to surface these assumptions for questioning, it would be safer for politicians to keep on suggesting that all America needs to do is to keep doing what it has been doing before and do it well, to keep America as number one."

"This is also the assumption behind Trump’s MAGA (Make American Great Again) goal: to neither reinvent America nor confront dangerous American illusions, all the while pursuing an increasingly unilateralist path."

Silos: "To make matters worse, critical decisions are made in silos."

Double standards: "double standards that Columbia University’s Jeff Sachs pointed out: when American companies break laws, the US penalizes the companies, not the senior executives. But when Chinese companies break laws, the US penalizes the senior executives."

Unnecessary wars: "the federal government has spent trillions of dollars on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Pakistan, we have lost opportunities to create millions of jobs in the domestic economy, and we have lost opportunities to improve educational, health, and environmental outcomes for the American public." "American people would be far better off if America stopped fighting unnecessary foreign wars and used its resources to improve the well-being of its people."

"Yet, the fact that the strategic thinkers cannot see this fundamental point demonstrates just how distorted their perspectives have become."

Intellectual laziness: "many American thinkers have unthinkingly transferred their previous assumptions about Soviet behavior onto the Chinese Communist Party." They are still fighting the last war, and still believe in their absolute supremacy.

Changing course

"the rigidity and inflexibility of American decision making has become structurally entrenched, and this is especially visible in the way that the United States approaches military conflict."

"American military expenditures are geopolitical gifts to China. If American defense spending was a result of rational process, there should now be a significant U-turn involving either a clever reduction or even a simple freeze of American defense expenditures. However, this will not happen. Like the former Soviet Union, the current United States of America is locked into irrational processes it cannot break free from."

"An aircraft carrier may cost $13 billion to build.* China’s DF-26 ballistic missile, which the Chinese media claims is capable of sinking an aircraft carrier,* costs a few hundred thousand dollars."

"Today, any American president would think twice before deciding to send aircraft carriers down the Taiwan Straits. For the Chinese military, they would appear as easy targets. The US military uses the term Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) to describe this Chinese strategy as being offensive. By protesting against it, they are conceding that it is effective."

Diplomacy is now important than big military. But military budget, and "Sadly, expert advice plays a very small role in American policymaking. All too often, domestic political considerations trump sensible diplomatic advice."

Without ability to change course and make U-turn, it is a path to slow decline.


There is tendency for groupthink inspite of the largest number of thinktanks.

"groupthink has taken over Washington’s approach to China".

"Sadly, despite its traditions of encouraging open debate, in this area, America will not be broad-minded enough to tolerate an open discussion of what happens when America becomes number two."

Lack of sensitivity and analysis

"America has not developed any such sensitivity. "

"Now, America exports oil. Hence, by spending millions of dollars daily to station American forces in the Gulf, the only country America is helping is China, as it is protecting oil supplies to China." "It would therefore be wiser for America to completely disengage from the Islamic world."

Another example is tendency to bomb nations in response to an event but without thinking through the outcomes or defining desirable outcomes: "the strategic thinking class almost unanimously condemned Obama for not doing so because Obama had said that any use of chemical weapons would cross a “red line.” Yet, none of these voices explained what a bombing would have achieved. Would it have removed Assad? Probably not. And if Assad had been removed, would the Syrian people have been better off or would they have suffered even greater loss of life, as the Iraqis and Libyans did after earlier Western interventions? What American national interests would have been enhanced by bombing Syria?"

Pragmatism over principles

"When principles trump pragmatism in geopolitics, valuable opportunities are lost."

"Deng Xiaoping decided to 'swallow the bitter pill of humiliation'" over Taiwan.

* * *

Geopolitical decisions should be based on careful, deep, multi-dimensional analysis, but increasingly they are being taken driven by demands of domestic politics, entrenched groupthink, emotions, and personalities.

"emotions are quite often buried in the subconscious".

The result will be not just an unnecessary economic, geopolitical, or even a military conflict, but a decline in power as major strategic mistakes are made by not thinking through the implications of actions in an inter-connected and complex world.

"former treasury secretary Hank Paulson as saying: 'We have a China attitude, not a China policy.... You have Homeland Security, the FBI, CIA, the Defense Department, treating China as the enemy and members of Congress competing to see who can be the most belligerent China hawk. No one is leaning against the wind, providing balance, asking what can we realistically do that has some chance of getting results that won’t be harmful to our economic and national-security interests in the long term'".

"Given the poisonous atmosphere toward China, it would be unwise for any American politician or public intellectual to advocate more reasonable approaches toward China."

"However, unlike geopolitical contests in the past, future geopolitical contests will not be determined by physical resources. They will be determined by intellectual resources,"

Geopolitical decisions should be based on careful, deep, multi-dimensional analysis, but increasingly they are being taken driven by demands of domestic politics, entrenched groupthink, emotions, and personalities.

"emotions are quite often buried in the subconscious" e.g. fear of the yellow peril. The author gives example of smooth transfer of power from England to USA before the Second World War as an example of subconscious emotions driving decisions.

"many American thinkers have unthinkingly transferred their previous assumptions about Soviet behavior onto the Chinese Communist Party." They are still fighting the last war, and still believe in their absolute supremacy.

The result will be not just an unnecessary economic, geopolitical, or even a military conflict, but a decline in power as major strategic mistakes are made by not thinking through the implications of actions in an inter-connected and complex world.

The world does not need this distrust, confrontation, and conflict. What the world needs is collaboration on common challenges and crisis: infrastructure, climate crisis, bio-diversity loss, clean energy, fourth industrial revolution, need to improve the lives of millions of Americans in Deaths of Despair, and improve the quality of life of billions of people around the world.

Related articles

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington
Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy by Henry Kissinger

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