Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, and Ali Wyne on Lee Kuan Yew’s Predictions for China’s Future

| Jan. 30, 2013

Time magazine’s Feb. 4, 2013 international edition published an extensive excerpt from the new book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (MIT Press, Feb. 1, 2013), by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, with Ali Wyne. The book draws on their in-depth interviews with Lee and his voluminous writings and speeches. The excerpt in Time distills Lee’s strategic insights about the future of China.

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore and its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, has honed his wisdom during more than a half century on the world stage. He has served as a mentor to every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, and as a counselor to every U.S. president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. With his uniquely authoritative perspective on the geopolitics of East and West, Lee does not pull his punches.

In “Foreseeing Red: Lee Kuan Yew on China,” Time’s Asia editor, Zoher Abdoolcarim, writes:

“Lee's powerful intellect is captured in a new book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World. It's a collection of interviews with him by Harvard University professor Graham Allison, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Robert Blackwill and Harvard's Belfer Center researcher Ali Wyne, while also drawing on other selected and cited writings by and about Lee. Now 89, officially retired and somewhat frail, Lee has mellowed with age — not unlike his creation Singapore, governed today with a lighter touch even as its citizens grow more vocal. Yet, as the book, and the adaptation here of the China chapter, reveal, Lee is as sharp, direct and prescient as ever. Though the volume was completed before China's current territorial tensions with its neighbors, it helps expose, and explain, Beijing's hardball mind-set. Over the years Lee has been called many things — unflattering as well as admiring. But perhaps the single most fitting description is: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow.”

An excerpt fromLee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World:


Are Chinese leaders serious about displacing the United States as the number-one power in Asia in the foreseeable future and in the world thereafter?


Of course. Why not? They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world—on track, as Goldman Sachs has predicted, to become the world’s largest economy. They have followed the American lead in putting people in space and shooting down satellites with missiles. Theirs is a culture four thousand years old with 1.3 billion people, with a huge and very talented pool to draw from. How could they not aspire to be number one in Asia, and in time the world?

Today, China is growing at rates unimaginable fifty years ago, a dramatic transformation no one predicted. The Chinese people have raised their expectations and aspirations. Every Chinese wants a strong and rich China, a nation as prosperous, advanced, and technologically competent as America, Europe, and Japan. This reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force.

Unlike other emergent countries, China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West. The Chinese will want to share this century as coequals with the United States.


How will China’s behavior toward other countries change if China becomes the dominant Asian power?

At the core of their mindset is their world before colonization and the exploitation and humiliation that brought. In Chinese, “China” means “Middle Kingdom,” recalling a world in which they were dominant in the region, when other states related to them as supplicants to a superior and vassals came to Beijing bearing tribute.

The concern of America is what kind of world they will face when China is able to contest their preeminence. Many medium and small countries in Asia are also concerned. They are uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries and have misgivings about being treated as vassal states having to send tribute to China as they used to in past centuries.

They tell us that countries big or small are equal; we are not a hegemon. But when we do something they do not like, they say you have made 1.3 billion people unhappy. So please know your place.

What is China’s strategy for becoming number one?

The Chinese have concluded that their best strategy is to build a strong and prosperous future, and use their huge and increasingly highly skilled and educated workers to outsell and outbuild all others. They will avoid any action that will sour relations with the United States. To challenge a stronger and technologically superior power will abort their “peaceful rise.”

China will not reach the American level in terms of military capabilities any time soon but is rapidly developing asymmetrical means to deter US military power. China understands that its growth depends on imports, including energy, raw materials, and food. China also needs open sea lanes.

The Chinese have calculated that they need thirty to forty—maybe fifty—years of peace and quiet to catch up, build up their system, and change it from the communist system to the market system. They must avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. Their competition for power, influence, and resources led in the last century to two terrible wars. I believe the Chinese leadership has learned that if you compete with America in armaments you will lose. You will bankrupt yourself. So, avoid it, keep your head down, and smile for forty or fifty years.

What are the major hurdles in executing that strategy?

Internally, the chief challenges are culture, language, an inability to attract and integrate talent from other countries, and, in time, governance.

Even if China were as open to talented immigrants as the United States, how can one go there and integrate into society without a mastery of Chinese? Chinese is a very difficult language to learn—monosyllabic and tonal. One can learn conversational Chinese after a few years, but it is very difficult to be able to read quickly. I do not know if China will be able to overcome the language barrier and the attendant difficulty in recruiting outside talent unless it makes English the dominant language, as Singapore has. Children there learn Chinese first. Then they learn English. They might go to the United States as a teenager and become fluent, but they have four thousand years of Chinese epigrams in their head.

China will inevitably catch up to the United States in absolute GDP. But its creativity may never match America’s, because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas. How else to explain how a country with four times as many people as America—and presumably four times as many talented people—does not come up with technological breakthroughs?

For answers to the following questions, see the complete article in the Feb. 4, 2013 international edition of Time:


  • How do China’s leaders see the US role in Asia changing as China becomes number one?
  • What impact is China’s rise having on its neighbors in Asia?
  • Will China become a democracy?
  • How should one assess Xi Jinping?

For similarly insightful, provocative answers to questions about the future of the United States, U.S.-China relations, India, and globalization, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World is available from MIT Press, at major bookstores, and from beginning Feb. 1, 2013.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Fraioli, Paul. “Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, and Ali Wyne on Lee Kuan Yew’s Predictions for China’s Future.” News, , January 30, 2013.