BY LEE KUAN YEW
THAT English has become a dominant world language is a consequence of history.
The British Empire spread English to many parts of the globe, first through colonisation in the 17th and 18th centuries and then through its leadership in the Industrial Revolution.
The US’ subsequent economic superiority and political leadership secured English as the first or second language of many countries today.
For countries to shift to any other major language, such as French or Spanish, would be extremely complicated and problematic. I can see no circumstances under which Mandarin (China’s official language) would displace English as the world’s most important language.
Although Mandarin has the largest number of native speakers, virtually all are in China. The Chinese historically weren’t colonisers, so there are no far-flung former Chinese colonies speaking Mandarin today, the way the former colonies of England, France and Spain still speak the languages of those countries.
In any event, Mandarin would be a very difficult language for the rest of the world to learn and master.
Even if you put Chinese words into pinyin form (Roman characters), there are four tones to each character (often monosyllabic) that clarify the meaning.
Regardless, I don’t see the Chinese discarding their Mandarin characters and converting entirely to pinyin as they are proud of their language, which has survived more than 5,000 years.
Chinese totally differs from most other languages in use today as it consists of pictographs and ideographs, without any spelling or symbols to indicate which of the four tones for each character is intended.
There isn’t much bilingualism among people from different regions in China because the dialects are so different. Bilingualism among Europeans is much more common because so many of Europe’s languages have Latin roots.
A small bicultural elite has formed in China and Singapore made up of people who are fluent in their mother tongue and have acquired, to varying degrees, fluency in English.
This has happened in large part to facilitate trade and business. However, it’s difficult to find people who are equally competent in both languages.
China’s announcement that it has placed an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over most of the East China Sea is the result of its need to define its immediate regional environment.
This ADIZ is controversial partly because when it was first promulgated it established additional requirements beyond those normally imposed.
It also covers contested maritime areas, including the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and overlaps with an ADIZ that Japan had already established.
This has created the potential for conflicting instructions being issued from different control agencies when commercial aircraft fly through the overlapping zones.
Fundamentally, ADIZs can’t impinge on freedom of navigation across all oceans and air space
– an accepted rule of international law and one that’s in the interest of an increasingly interconnected world.
I don’t see that changing.
However, I can’t see a major power like China ever subordinating itself to decisions made by the International Court of Justice, even though arbitration or adjudication would be preferable to armed conflict should bilateral negotiations fail.
With China’s population of 1.3 billion – versus the US’ 300 million – and its growing economy, it’s inevitable that China’s GDP will eclipse America’s during this century. With such a shift in power there could be changes in where the dividing line of the US’ influence in the Pacific Ocean falls, somewhere between Guam and Hawaii.
The US has many friends and allies in Asia, but it must keep in mind that China’s interests and influence in the region are growing.
China is the largest trading partner of many Asian countries that also want to remain friends with the US. As its companies internationalise, China is also investing abroad, because it needs access to minerals and other natural resources. China has also declared its intention to become a maritime power.
Therefore, it is crucial that the US strengthen its ties with Asia. The Obama administration’s “rebalancing” toward Asia is a step in the right direction, but it must be sustained over the long term.
This article appears in the July 2014 issue of Forbes Asia.