The Munk Debates: Is China a threat or an ally?

Highlights from the 2019 Munk Debates. H. R. McMaster and Michael Pillsbury argue that free and open societies must push back against Chinese Communist Party policies to preserve a rules-based international order. But Kishore Mahbubani and Huiyao Wang argue such an approach ignores the history and dynamics propelling China's peaceful rise to superpower status.

H.R. McMaster and Michael Pillsbury compete for audience votes against Kishore Mahbubani and Huiyao Wang

The 2019 Munk Debates asks: Is China a threat to the liberal international order? (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)

**Please be aware IDEAS will be pre-empted in the Atlantic and Eastern time zones due to the Federal Leaders Debate.

** Originally published on May 30, 2019.

Two prominent names in U.S. foreign policy argue that China is now a foe to the liberal international order. They say Beijing's vision of the world just doesn't work with the values of a country such as Canada. The disagreements on rule-of-law, press freedom, and open debate are wide—and now getting wider.

On the flip side, a one-time president of the UN Security Council joins the head of a major Chinese think-tank to paint Beijing as an ally to liberal internationalism, especially as the U.S. tacks toward an isolationist stance to the world.

Be it resolved, China is a threat to the liberal international order.

So goes the most recent edition of the Munk Debates, featuring H.R. McMaster and Michael Pillsbury competing for audience votes against Kishore Mahbubani and Huiyao Wang at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall.

Michael Pillsbury, H.R. McMaster, Kishore Muhbubani, and Huiyao Wang onstage at the most recent Munk Debate in Toronto. (©Kendall Townend/The Munk Debates)

Arguing for the resolution

The Chinese Communist Party is not only strengthening an internal system that stifles human freedom and extends its authoritarian control; it is exporting that model and undermining the liberal international order. – H.R. McMaster 

It's only fairly recently, the past decade or so, that China has shifted toward this threat. … The trends are in the wrong direction in China. – Michael Pillsbury

H.R. McMaster is a former presidential National Security Advisor. He followed Michael Flynn into that role, which he left in 2018 (to be replaced by John Bolton). A retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, he now teaches at Stanford University. He is the author of Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam and has written for many publications, including Foreign Affairs.

Michael Pillsbury is a top advisor to the White House on China. He's the author of three books on China, including The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. He's also the American Director of the Center on Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, a policy think-tank in Washington, D.C.

Arguing against the resolution

China is a great contributor to the liberal international order. It has actually committed to the Paris Accord. The U.S. has backed off. – Huiyao Wang

We don't disagree that China does not have a liberal democratic society… The paradox of our global system is that the biggest threat to the liberal international order is not a non-liberal society like China, but a liberal society like the United States of America. – Kishore Mahbubani

Huiyao (Henry) Wang is an advisor to the Chinese government, as well as to the World Bank and other international organizations. He runs the Center for China and Globalization, a think-tank in Beijing. He attended universities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and was a senior fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has published more than 70 books, including English-language titles such as the Handbook on China and Globalization, co-edited with Lu Miao.

Kishore Mahbubani served as president of the UN Security Council in 2001 and 2002, when he was also Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations. His many books include Can Asians Think: Understanding the Divide Between East and West, and Has the West Lost It? A Provocation. He received his Master's in Philosophy from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

** This episode was edited for broadcast by Tom Howell