27 July 2020
Dr Zhiqun Zhu, a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the Bucknell University, is an American academic who is considered an authority when it comes to examining China’s foreign policy and its interactions with rest of the world. The author of many scholarly books on world politics believes “MCC and IPS are closely connected” and fears that should India and China not learn to work hand in globe then the “Asian Century” may well remain a mere idea.
Prof Zhu responds to Purushottam Poudel’s questions on some of contemporary world’s most relevant and pressing matters including MCC and China-India conflict.
Prof Zhu, how do you view world politics under these precarious times?
The world is experiencing great transformations right now. COVID-19, the biggest public health crisis in a century, is ravaging the world. The United States, with Donald Trump as the president, is not playing the responsible leadership role. Meanwhile, China is quickly emerging as a global power. But China’s assertive policies have created lots of concerns around the world. US-China rivalry has added to global anxiety. In addition, the world economy is experiencing biggest problem in decades. All these combined, it is not surprising that we have entered a period of great uncertainty.
Coronavirus pandemic has triggered discussions about a “change in world order”. As a political science and international relations expert, do you believe so?
Yes, the world order is being reformed and rebuilt. The US-led unipolar system is giving way to a new multipolar system, with several new poles such as China, EU, Russia, Japan, and India emerging as more active and important powers in the international system. The US decline as a global leader has expedited under President Trump.
How would you describe 9/11 and ongoing epidemic – two events that no doubt would go down as 21st century’s greatest catastrophes – and their repercussions?
They are defining moments and turning points in world history. Both 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic have long-lasting impact on world politics, economics, and our way of life for generations to come.
While some nations are handling the pandemic more efficiently, others are struggling and appear to be on the verge of a total healthcare failure. How rational is it to connect a nation’s success in its fight against the pandemic with the ideology it follows?
Whether a country is handling the pandemic efficiently or not has little to do with the country’s political ideology or political system. Some democracies have handled it well such as New Zealand, and some have done poorly such as the United States. Likewise, some authoritarian governments such as China have been more successful and some such as Russia have been less successful. Governance, leadership, and culture are more important factors to determine the outcome.
Amid the conundrum of coronavirus, one hears more about the concept of “decoupling” which is basically a reduced dependence on China. Is it practical or is it purely a matter for public consumption?
To a large extent, “decoupling” is already taking place between the United States and China, and between China and some other countries. Many countries realize that they should not be too depend on China in everything, from toys to medicines. This trend will continue, although the world will remain interdependent in many aspects.
You have written extensively about Chinese politics and foreign policy for many years. Where is China-America relation heading?
The US-China relationship is entering a period of great uncertainty and instability. China has become more powerful, more confident and sometimes more assertive. The United States wants to maintain its global dominance and does not like to be challenged by a rival, especially a non-democratic one. So US-China relations will be full of competition and conflicts, but hopefully leaders on both sides and the two societies will be cool-headed to avoid confrontation.
It is said that the founding father of America’s aggressiveness was T. Roosevelt, when it comes to China, people say it’s Xi Jinping. Have you tried to make any comparative analysis between the two?
I think the two leaders are from very different historical periods, facing different domestic and international challenges. Their backgrounds and environments are also very different. There is not much to compare between the two.
It is largely believed that the ongoing ‘Trade War’ between China and America is connected to 5G network and the Chinese tech company Huawei. During the Cold War, the race was for space while now it is for cyber technology. Is there anything more to it?
The trade war is not just about trade, it is about technology and the future. I would be careful to compare today’s competition between China and the US to that between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. Despite some “decoupling”, the interactions between the US and China are much more dynamic and extensive, and the exchanges between the two societies are deep-seated. There will be a lot of competition and rivalry between the US and China, but I do not think they intend to annihilate each other. They have to learn how to co-exist with each other peacefully.
Recently American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Yang Jiechi, director of the CCP Foreign Affairs Commission, had a meeting in the US. Issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan and trade relations were some of the pertinent topics at the meeting. How do you assess this much-awaited meeting?
I think face-to-face meetings help the communication channels open between the two governments. To jaw jaw is better than to war war, as Winston Churchill reportedly said. The Pompeo-Yang meeting did not achieve any tangible results; it shows that the two sides understand they have very different perspectives on many issues, but they are willing to keep in touch and maintain the working relationship. This is important, otherwise misunderstanding and miscommunication may lead to disastrous results.
In her recent book, War by other Means, Jennifer M Harris opines that the word geo-strategic is substituted by geo-economic. Do you agree?
I think both geo-strategic and geo-economic issues are important and serve a nation’s interests. And in international political economy, it is really not so easy to distinguish between geo-strategic and geo-economic issues.
America has withdrawn its financial support to the WHO amid the pandemic. America is slowly but cautiously trying to alienate itself from some war prone zones like Afghanistan for instance. The world may have a power vacuum very soon. How possible is it for China to lead the world in this given condition?
I don’t think China has the capability or willingness to lead the world. China is still a large developing nation, and its focus is on domestic development. China will be more active in international affairs since its trade and economic interests have expanded to every corner of the earth and it needs to defend its growing interests. But I don’t think China intends to replace the US as the global leader.
America is dislocating its army from Germany to South China Sea. What does it signify?
This is part of America’s “pivot” to Asia to counter China’s rise. The South China Sea has become a highly dangerous area where US-China rivalry is growing.
China and India, which have a trade relationship of hundreds of billions of dollars per annum, are in a war of silhouettes. How do you see the recent issue between these two countries, both of which desire to revive the grandeur of Asian Century?
It is very unfortunate for China and India to engage in a border clash. They have more common interests than differences. The priority of both countries is to combat poverty at home and promote economic growth. The so-called “Asian Century” will not become a reality if India and China do not work together.
What could be the effect on China when the world is cornering it and blaming it for spreading the COVID-19?
China could have done a better job at the beginning when the coronavirus first broke out. It could have been more transparent and shared more information about the virus with other countries early. But blaming China for the pandemic around the world now will not solve the problem. Some politicians blame China because they failed to control the virus at home and want to shift all responsibilities to China. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, the international community needs to cooperate to control the virus and develop a vaccine as soon as possible.
Just before the pandemic broke out, American President Trump was on his state visit to India in November. During his visit it is said that he had urged India to be a part of the Blue Dot Network (BDN) to which India has always been reluctant. Do you think the present skirmish would change India’s position on its previous decision? If it did what could be its repercussion to China?
Nationalism is running very high in India after the border clash with China in June and there are calls inside India to join the US against China. The US has been enticing India to be part of the anti-China camp for a while, but India has been very cautious. It is almost certain that US-India relations will grow in the years ahead, but whether India will join the US in a new cold war against China is hard to predict. I think India will need to make its own decision and balance its relations with China and the United States.
India has been hypersensitive when it comes South Asian issues, claiming it as its ‘Area of Influence’. In the past few years China has become an active player in the region. How have you seen this matter?
Yes, India tends to see South Asia as its traditional sphere of influence. But China’s rise is a reality. Other countries in South Asia welcome China’s investment through the Belt and Road Initiative. India and China are stuck in a security dilemma here. I hope they can find a way to work together to promote peace and prosperity in the region together.
Any discussions on China won’t be complete without a mention of BRI. Many western media as well as some nation states are skeptical of President Xi’s brainchild – the BRI. What’s your expert understanding of the matter?
The BRI is controversial even inside China since many argue that China needs to invest more at home, not overseas. On the other hand, the BRI has promoted trade and infrastructure for many developing countries, which see it as an opportunity for development. In order to have a more balanced and comprehensive understanding of the BRI, we need to hear perspectives from all sides, not just from Western media, which are often biased and have limited knowledge about Asia.
The BRI at times was compared with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and now with the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS). It is also said to be the Marshall Plan of China. This is confusing. Why is the BRI compared with such a variety of programmes?
I guess we do not fully understand what the BRI is and how it will affect global politics and economics. People are trying to use concepts they are more familiar with such as the Marshall Plan to explain the BRI. But again, this is something new and still unfolding. The comparisons may or may not help to dispel the mystery surrounding the BRI.
Is Millennium Challenge Corporation and IPS connected to each other? Y/N, how?
Yes. The IPS was first laid out by Mike Pompeo in 2018 and focuses on three aspects: economics, governance and security, while the MCC is a foreign aid programme established in 2004. In terms of promoting development and combating poverty in the Indo-Pacific region, the MCC and IPS are closely connected.
Based in Kathmandu, Purushottam Poudel is a student of International Relations.