Former UN Security Council President Talks China

Former United Nations Security Council president and Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani argued that the U.S. needs to begin considering a world in which China is the primary superpower at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum’s annual Albert H. Gordon lecture Wednesday night.

In the address—titled “What Happens When China Becomes Number One?”—Mahbubani drew on his personal experience in diplomacy to discuss the U.S.-China relationship and the future of international politics in light of China’s political and economic rise. He said the U.S. must start acting more responsibly in the international arena to prevent China from acting recklessly in the future.

“It’s time for the U.S. to think about a world in which it is No. 2 and how its interests will change. If the U.S. wants China to act in line within international rules, the best way to do that is through your deeds,” he said. “The question is, would the U.S. feel comfortable living in a world where China behaves as the U.S. behaves when it’s the sole superpower?”

Mahbubani said talking to an American audience about his criticisms of American foreign policy and the possibility of decline relative to China initially daunted him. 

“The hard part here is to tell an American audience that the rest of the world often sees the U.S. acting in its own interest at the expense of global interest,” he said. “The U.S. has been unwise in undermining global institutions because every action the U.S. takes to undermine these institutions will be copied by China.”


Mahbubani also speculated that, unlike the U.S., China will not seek to spread its form of government to other countries if it becomes a primary superpower.

“The Chinese don’t have the aspiration to prove that communism’s right. They would just like to revive Chinese civilization,” he said. “The heart of aspirations of Chinese people is to move away from an era of humiliation to an era of being proud of what Chinese civilization can accomplish.”

Despite his criticisms of U.S. and Chinese foreign policy, Mahbubani praised both countries for maintaining stability in their relationship.

“The U.S. has been remarkably benign toward China. Even after Tiananmen in 1989, when the U.S.-China relationship could have taken a nosedive, it didn’t,” he said. “Historians will ask in the future why the U.S. was so generous to the number one emerging power.”

—Staff writer Michael Avi-Yonah can be reached at


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