Ex-U.N. Security Council President Kishore Mahbubani: 'The 21st Century Belongs to Asia'

As tensions between the United States and China come to a head, a new world order is emerging, he says, and it's going to be led by the new "CIA"-China, India, and the ASEAN.
IMAGE Beyond

MACAO—Much has been said and written about the tensions between the West and the East. In particular, this geopolitical sparring contest between the United States and China is only picking up steam in recent months and will likely continue to do so as the two countries battle for supremacy in the global socio-economic order.

A centuries-old pattern is reemerging with the issue, and we have to be ready for the paradox of certainty as we face an uncertain future, according to former United Nations Security Council President Kishore Mahbubani.

"There’s an Arab proverb which says, 'He who speaks about the future lies even when he tells the truth. 'And we all know that the future is unpredictable. I’m sure we all keep getting surprised," Mahbubani explained at the Beyond Expo 2023 in Macao. "And yet at the same time, the paradoxical thing about our world today is that the future, I assure you, is going to be very surprising, but there are still four certainties. That’s paradoxical."

Known today as a geopolitical advisor, Mahbubani authored the book The Asian 21st Century, in which he explored the various challenges and dilemmas facing the West and Asia communities. By way of a collection of personal essays, he argued that the continent is now in the process of reclaiming its former glory. The diplomat firmly believes that we are seeing the rise of a world power that is coming out of a rather unusual era in our history. He pointed out that over the last 2,000 years, the two largest economies in the world have always been those of China and India.


Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank President and Chair Liqun Jin photographed with Mahbubani during a panel discussion at Beyond Expo 2023.

Photo by Beyond.


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"The first certainty is that the 21st century will be the Asian century, just as the 19th century was the European century, the 20th century was the American century. The 21st century will be the Asian century, and that will be a return to the norm," he added. "So the return of China and India to the center stage is normal. The 200 years of Western domination of world history was abnormal."

We may argue that the world, in itself, is preparing for this cultural shift to Asia. Mahbubani says that this new world order will be driven primarily by what he refers to as the "new CIA," which happens to be China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). These territories, after all, make up 3.5 billion people, or nearly half of the world's population. For this shift to materialize, however, Mahbubani says that growth should be driven by the middle class.

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"By 2020, the number had grown to 1.5 billion and increased 10 times in 20 years," he said. "And by 2030 it will grow to three billion people," he noted.

Of course, this may come at the expense of foreign relations between the United States and China. "As you know, [the conflict] will gain momentum over the next 10 years," he continued. "It’s driven by an iron law of geopolitics, which tells us that whenever the world’s number one emerging power, which today is China, is about to overtake the world’s number one power, which today is the United States, the number one power will push down the world’s number one emerging power."

The ex-U.N. Security Council president further went on to say that the world is already starting to see this happening in real time. "You’ve seen the trade tariffs that have been imposed. You see the Chips Act that has been passed. And I confidently predict, sadly, that there will be other measures that will come."

"The big uncertainty is whether humanity is wise enough to realize that when we used to live in under 193 separate countries, it was as though we were living 193 separate boats—now all of humanity lives on one boat in 193 cabins on the same boat."

This is among Mahbubani's biggest concerns. Unfortunately, this geopolitical strain can be a difficult predicament given that some global issues, such as climate change and tech innovation almost certainly require much deeper collaboration. In theory, the world has gotten smarter. We've come to the best universities, studied the best theories and practices, and should be wiser and more capable because of them. But the diplomat says that the question remains: "Can we bring it all together to save our world and to save our planet?"


Even the Asia Research Institute fellow admits that he is still quite unsure how the world is going to move forward in a climate crisis. All Mahbubani knows is that, through science and technology, a great leap in how we understand the world and how we can contribute and facilitate this "era of great promise" is coming. This makes it all the more important that we prepare to foster a better concept of community with this shared future.

"The big uncertainty is whether humanity is wise enough to realize that when we used to live in under 193 separate countries, it was as though we were living 193 separate boats—now all of humanity lives on one boat in 193 cabins on the same boat," he said. "If you just take care of one of our cabins, we will not save the world. We have to take care of the world as a whole."

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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is a Filipino cultural critic, editor, and essayist. He writes about art, books, travel, people, current events, and all the magic in between. His past work in film and media can be found on PeopleAsia Magazine, The Philippine Star, MANILA BULLETIN, and IMDB.
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