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Lee Kuan Yew’s China

CAMBRIDGE – On the question of how the evolving relationship between the United States and China will influence the international order, there are few individuals whose observations receive equal attention on both sides of the Pacific. Henry Kissinger is one; Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, is another. In profiling Lee for Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people, Kissinger observed: “There is no better strategic thinker.”

Seeing the twenty-first century as a “contest for supremacy in the Pacific” between the US and China, Lee hopes that the two countries can fashion a viable power-sharing arrangement. Clearly, “Chinese power is growing,” but he does not “see the Americans retreating from Asia.” In his view, “the best possible outcome is a new understanding that when they cannot cooperate, they will coexist and allow countries in the Pacific to grow and thrive.”

In Lee’s judgment, China’s leadership will make a serious effort to avoid a military confrontation with the US – at least for the next several decades. The Chinese recognize that only when they have “overtaken the US in the development and application of technology can they envisage confronting the US militarily.” Furthermore, Lee observes, China’s “great advantage is not in military influence but in…economic influence.”

On current trend lines, Lee predicts that China “will be the top importer and exporter of all East Asian countries” within two decades. He notes that it is currently “sucking the Southeast Asian countries into its economic system because of its vast market and growing purchasing power.  Japan and South Korea will inevitably be sucked in as well.”