By: Kishore Mahbubani

Reviewed by: Djallel Khechib

Book Review/ July 2023


  1. False Images
  2. A Peaceful Traditional History
  3. China Will Not Imitate Examples of Expansionists
  4. How Do We Explain Contemporary Chinese Defensive Measures?
  5. Will the Coming Decades Witness a War Between China and Its Neighbors? Taiwan Issue and the South China Sea Tensions

In his book, “Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy”, Kishore Mahbubani presents a non-Western perspective of the Chinese rise, with a very different narrative compared to that which dominates Western writings on this topic. The author devotes the fourth chapter of the book to discuss one of the most frequently asked questions among the Anglo-Saxon scholars: “Can China rise peacefully?” Responding to this question, American international relations scholars (especially Realists and Liberalists) as well as decision-makers within the White House, the State Department, and the US Congress almost all agree that the rise of China will never be peaceful, presenting in this regard many arguments which combine subjectivity and objectivity, personal interests and the high interests of state.

In the fourth chapter, Mahbubani poses the same question in another way: “Is China Expansionist?” Responding to that, he provides various arguments denying the expansionist power of China and refuting much of what he describes as poor readings of American scholarship and lying by decision-makers about China, its history, intentions, and external behavior in its regional neighborhood and the world.

The chapter consists of 23 pages in a medium size book of 236 pages issued in English by Public Affairs Publishing House – New York in April 2020.


Keywords: China, Peaceful Rise, Expansionist Power, Historical Evidence, the US Primacy

False Images:

At the beginning of this chapter, the author presents his explanation of the reasons behind the spread of a false image about China in the Western world, in particular, referring to two main factors.

First, lies have been spread for decades in the Anglo-Saxon world on a large scale about China, created by a unique environment in which the best intelligence services and newspapers around the world are involved. Specifically, five major countries of the Anglo-Saxon world—America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—share among themselves with great confidence huge intelligence on China. They also share intel from time to time with leading Western newspapers, but do not provide the full picture of the truth. For instance, Western newspapers reported that the Chinese army intensified its activities in the Spratly Islands in 2015 after China suggested the non-militarization of these Islands, but failed to report the “missing truth” that the provocation of the US Navy through its patrols triggered a military reaction by the Chinese army, such that Obama had wasted the opportunity at that time for a Chinese-American consensus regarding the tense situation in those islands.

The second factor returns to the inertia that characterizes the Chinese political regime. Historically, China has not been adept at explaining or defending its views. Today, it is difficult to find a good spokesperson who can—with humor and sharp insights—effectively explain the Chinese perspective.



A Peaceful Traditional History:

The author examines in detail the set of arguments that enable China to prove that it is not an inherently expansionist military power as claimed. Chinese history provides the most prominent argument in this context. If China was a military civilization by nature, signs of that would have appeared long ago. Over the past two thousand years, China was the single most powerful civilization in the Eurasian bloc, but it did not invade regions abroad as European powers did in the past. Australia, for example, was occupied by the distant British navy forces, not China, which is geographically close to it, although China had a huge maritime power since the 15th century AD (even before the Europeans began to occupy the world since the 16th century AD) as its geographical discoveries reached the African continent.

Moreover, the author argues that the Chinese were reluctant to send military forces abroad, as well as that the Han Chinese people were basically agricultural people who spread across the lands of China where they found suitable agricultural soil; the rugged terrain was the limit for this spread.

As for the Chinese territorial expansion throughout history, in the regions of Inner Mongolia or Xinjiang, it was under the rule of foreign dynasties that ruled China, such as the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) or the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Accordingly, it was not caused by the peaceful Han Chinese people. As for Tibet, the story is more complicated. The region was invaded by China while it was under the rule of the Mongols in 1244, then it enjoyed “great independence” under the rule of the Yuan dynasty. In the centuries following the initial invasion, conflicts arose over the issue of controlling Tibet by the various Chinese governments until the region was officially incorporated within the People’s Republic of China in 1950.

In short, over the past two thousand years, the Han Chinese were neither militaristic nor expansionist, despite their maritime or demographic strength. It suffices to compare them to their Mongol neighbors, for example, who invaded ancient Asia and threatened Europe too. The Chinese did not imitate the example of the Mongols and were not influenced by their military culture despite the great cultural mixing between the two races. The opposite happened, as the Mongols were influenced by the calm and patient Chinese Confucian philosophy.



China Will Not Imitate Examples of Expansionists:

The author provides these historical comparisons in order to refute the arguments of American scholars who claim that China will tend to imitate the United States in its global expansionist behavior, which has increased since the end of the nineteenth century after it dominated its Caribbean regional neighborhood. Mahbubani believes that when China becomes more powerful, it – like all major powers – will assert its power and influence. Just as the United States’ neighbors in Latin America have had to adapt to American power since the end of the nineteenth century, so will China’s neighbors also have to adapt to China’s power.

However, China will not resort to military means as the first expression of its strength. First, because its two-thousand-year history clearly proves that it differs fundamentally from America, as it is always reluctant to use the military option. For the last 40 years, China has not fought a major war, nor has a bullet been fired across its borders for 30 years, and this reflects the effect of its deep civilized motives. Here, the author points out the Chinese’s bewilderment regarding America’s involvement in unnecessary wars in regions that do not serve its vital interests, such as in Libya and Syria. He believes that the Chinese learned a wise lesson from Americans—to refrain from getting involved in unnecessary battles—after it saw from this the folly of extravagant US military interventions.

Secondly, China does not believe that it has a “global mission” (like America) to promote Chinese culture and encourage humanity to imitate its example as the Americans do. The Chinese believe the exact opposite, that no one but them is capable of being Chinese in culture, values, and aesthetics.



How Do We Explain Contemporary Chinese Defensive Measures?

In another part of this chapter, the author explains the Chinese defensive behaviors in its regional neighborhood, which the US uses as an excuse to justify the aggressive image it promotes about China and that its politicians use to make the unanimously (official) claim today that China represents a “threat” to the American lifestyle and American national security.

Mahbubani argues that Chinese defensive behavior (in the form of securing national borders and sovereignty) is an affirmation of contemporary Chinese military sovereignty and supremacy, and he refers to the ingrained defense mentality of contemporary China that dates back to the strategic historical memory, where Chinese national security has been threatened since the earlier centuries by neighboring countries (the Mongols, the Manchurians, the Japanese, then the threat of the Western imperialist powers later). The Chinese also learned from history that purely defensive measures were not always successful, as the Great Wall of China failed in the past to prevent foreign invasion. For this reason, contemporary Chinese strategic thought mixes different military, political, commercial, and economic approaches in dealing with neighboring countries (the Bank Asian Infrastructure Investment, the Belt and Road Initiative, Shanghai Cooperation Organization …).

Thus, what American thinkers describe as Chinese expansionism can be explained more precisely by China’s obsession—guided by its long and painful history of humiliation and conquest—in securing its borders through “the consolidation of its relations with the neighboring countries.”



Will the Coming Decades Witness a War Between China and Its Neighbors? Taiwan Issue and the South China Sea Tensions:

The author precludes this possibility given that all of China’s immediate neighbors have lived next door to it for thousands of years and have developed subtle instincts about how to manage relations with a rising China, as well as that the Chinese elite (unlike their American counterparts), have a deep understanding of its long history with neighbors.

However, Mahbubani excludes Taiwan from this context, considering it the only exceptional reason for a war in which China can be involved, as it is the only issue in which the Chinese are unable to bow and compromise despite the great political flexibility of Chinese political leaders.

The main reason behind this is what is known to the Chinese as the “century of humiliation” that China suffered from the period between the First Opium War in 1839 to the establishment of the Republic in 1949. After that, China removed all the historical remains of that century, including the issue of Hong Kong and Macau. Taiwan is the only one that has remained. All were Chinese territories until China was forced to hand them over to Japan after the humiliating defeat in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). China was repeatedly disappointed by the Western powers, after many false promises that they would return Taiwan to it if China cooperated against enemies of Western powers in some regions, such as against Germany in Europe.

Therefore, any US or Western move today to support Taiwan’s secession from China will restore—directly or indirectly—this historical memory and provoke a strong and ruthless nationalist reaction that would impede any Chinese leader who might try to search for some room to maneuver.

Mahbubani notes that it is wrong for any American to claim that Beijing’s rights regarding Taiwan are evidence proving the expansionist nature of the country as long as both Taiwan and China agree that they belong to the same country.

He also indicates that some American administrations, especially the Trump administration, have deliberately provoked China by rhetoric and behavior to make it anger and push it to take military action across the Taiwan Strait, because the Americans realize that any Chinese leader is politically vulnerable if his people or the ruling party elites view him as a weak leader regarding Taiwan. So, to protect his political position, he may have no choice but to take some military action.

Furthermore, the author mentions the existence of two types of restrictions that prevent China from invading Taiwan unilaterally and without provocation. First, the legal US commitment to absolutely guarantee Taiwan’s security by all means. Second, Taiwan’s existence is of Chinese national interest, as its imposed status allows it to act as a continuation of the social and political laboratory to help Beijing know how Chinese society operates under the rule of a different political regime, as China can learn far-reaching lessons from Taiwan about how the Chinese deal with democracy. It is also in America’s long-term interest to have a well-functioning democratic society in Taiwan. Thus, the author sees that there is a convergence of interests between China and the United States with regard to Taiwan.

Mahbubani urges the US to change its perception toward Taiwan if it wants to reach a close agreement with China, and to start by first of all changing the metaphors it uses to describe Taiwan, as the Americans usually describe it as “an unsinkable American aircraft carrier stationed in the flank of the Chinese opponent” (when they want to escalate with China), while it is preferable to describe it as “a healthy virus that can stimulate the political body of Chinese society” (as the Americans do when they want to calm with China).

Besides Taiwan, the issues of the South China Sea have generated military tensions and a potential collision between the US and Chinese navies. The manner in which the US navy patrols there is provocative as it is only 12 miles from the shores of China. He notes that the Chinese navy doesn’t patrol the sea within 12 miles of California or New York’s shores. The US claims that it is doing so in order to protect the general global good, that is, “freedom of navigation on the high seas.” Ironically, China is the biggest beneficiary of this claim, as it trades with the rest of the world more than America does, and it is not in its interest at all to impede this freedom as the Americans accuse it. The author states that China controls only a few disputed rocks and reefs within the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, far less compared to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Nevertheless, there is only talk about “China’s militarization of these waters and the threat of neighbors.”


Finally, Mahbubani raises a series of questions regarding the future of Sino-American relations, the nature of the competition between them, and what are the best ways to resolve the differences in their perspectives regarding the South China Sea and other issues, calling for Washington to seize the opportunities presented by China to calm the situation in the South China Sea and Taiwan, instead of dealing arrogantly and provocatively with it by military means. He concludes this chapter by asking: “If the real competition between America and China will not take place in the military sphere, is it wise for America to focus on enhancing its military capabilities when the real contest will be in the nonmilitary sphere? Is it time, therefore, for Washington, DC, to change its strategic consensus on China?”

The article was first published in Geopolitical Bridges (GPB), published by the Center for Islam Studies and Global Affairs (CIGA), Volume 1, Issue 1, Winter 2023.

Kishore Mahbubani:

He has been Distinguished Fellow at ARI since 1 July 2019. He was with the Singapore Foreign Service for 33 years (1971–2004), where he served twice as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations and as Permanent Secretary of the Foreign Ministry from 1993–1998. He was also the Founding Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy from 2004–2017. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and author of seven books, including Can Asians Think? (2018), Can Singapore Survive? (2021). His research interests include the resurgence of Asia, ASEAN, public policies in Singapore, global geo-politics and global governance. 

Djallel Khechib:

He has been Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), affiliated with Istanbul Zaim University –Türkiye since December 2019.  His main fields of interest are Geopolitics, IR theory, Political Philosophy, Great Power Politics and International System, Geopolitics of North Africa, Eurasia, and the South China Sea, Turkish Foreign Policy, and Algerian Foreign Policy. He is the author of many books, studies, translations, and academic summaries published in Arabic and English. His books include: “The Liberal International Order: Rise or Fall? John Ikenberry VS John Mearsheimer”. (2021), “The Struggle for Independent Will: The Effects of International System Changes on Turkish Foreign Policy”, (2017), “The Prospects for Democratic Transition in Russia, a Critical Study for Structures and Challenges”, (2015).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *