Kishore Mahbubani's latest book, The Great Convergence, offers political, strategic and economic analysis on the grandest scale. The book was inspired by FT columnist Martin Wolf's opinion piece from 2011, which argued that 'far and away the biggest single fact about our world' is that developing economies are catching up with the developed world.
The Great Convergence is a strikingly optimistic book about the massive strides humanity has made since World War II to improve all aspects of human welfare. But it's also a warning that our global governance arrangements are worryingly out of step with these advances, and are holding back progress.
Below is the first installment in a short interview series I am conducting with Mahbubani, formerly a senior Singaporean diplomat and now a sought-after writer and commentator on international affairs.
SR: I'd like to begin with the Obama-Xi summit in California last weekend, and ask you about how you interpret this event in light of the arguments you make in your latest book. On one level, the summit felt very retro – it had a similar sense of occasion and historical significance to that which once surrounded US-Soviet summitry. There was also the inevitable 'G2' symbolism and Xi's call for a 'new kind of great power relationship', all of which combined to create the sense that these two leaders were gathering to move the chess pieces of world order around in much the same way that European statesmen of the 19th century did.
But I gather from what you argue in The Great Convergence that you would see this as an excessively realist reading of the summit. How would you interpret the events at Sunnylands?
KM: The Sunnylands Summit between Obama and Xi confirmed that a great convergence is happening in the world.
Very soon we will see a major symbolic shift of power. In 1980, in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) terms, the US share the global GNP was 25% when China's was only 2.2%. By 2017, the US share will diminish to 17.6% while China's will rise to 18%. Hence, in PPP terms, China will become the number one economy and the US will become the number two economy.
Traditionally, for almost two thousand years of history, when one great power is about to surpass the number one power, there has always been rising tension between the number one power and the emerging power. Hence, we should be seeing rising tension between the US and China today. Instead, as the Sunnylands Summit demonstrated very clearly, we are seeing diminishing tension. Why?
The simple answer is that the converging common interests between the US and China are actually greater than the competing interests. Both Obama and Xi want to focus on economic growth and development as their legacies will be defined by the amount of economic growth that they deliver and not by the number of wars that they have won with each other. In short, there has been a fundamental change in the grain of human history.
Geopolitical competition will continue between the US and China in the coming decades. Each will take advantage of the mistakes made by the other. Yet, there will be no direct wars and indeed there will be rising collaboration in many areas. For example, they have agreed to work together on North Korea and on climate change. All this is part of the great convergence that the world is experiencing.
SR: So are you arguing that the world has outgrown traditional power politics? China and the US disagree on a number of issues, perhaps most important being that the US seems to want to retain its predominant military status in the Pacific, while China would presumably want a role in Asia Pacific affairs commensurate with its size and strategic weight. Will these status considerations be subsumed by converging economic interests?
Geopolitics has been around for over two thousand years. It will be around for a long time more, as long as we have great powers. The geopolitical games will continue but the nature of the games will change. I can predict with great certainty that no two great powers will go to direct war with each other. The Great Convergence explains why. However, while there will be no wars, there will be competition. Let me cite an obvious example. The US is pushing the TPP process. China is pushing the RCEP process. In theory, they are pushing trade agreements. In practice, they are competing for influence. Such competition will continue.