Epidemic, trade, governance issues test China, US ties: Singaporean scholar

Source:Global Times Published: 2020/2/12 19:43:10

Zheng Yongnian. Photo: Wang Wenwen/GT

Editor's Note: 

The beginning of 2020 saw China's nationwide fight against the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. It came after China and the US signed the hard-won phase one trade deal. Relations between the world's two major powers have evolved into a complex mix of intertwined economic interdependence and rival diplomacy. How will the virus outbreak affect bilateral ties? As the US tries to contain China's rise in all spectrums, which of the two countries holds the initiative in steering bilateral ties? Global Times (GT) reporters Wang Wenwen and Bai Yunyi talked to Zheng Yongnian (Zheng), professor at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, about these issues. Zheng delivered a speech about China-US relations at a recent event hosted by the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing.

GT: Some observers claim that the coronavirus epidemic will accelerate the decoupling of China and the US and even the de-globalization trend. What is your take?

The impact of the epidemic depends on how long it will last. If it can be brought under control very soon, then China-US  ties will not be affected much, because China can resume production and the US does not need to find alternative producers. But if the situation lasts longer, it will have a bigger impact because US companies will have to look for manufacturers outside of China.

GT: How do you evaluate the trade deal between China and the US?

It is the result of many endeavors by both sides. In the short term, China may have to pay for the costs of major adjustments, which, however, will do China good in the long run. In the deal, there are many requirements made by the US, but China is tasked to fulfill these requirements even without US requests, because these requirements are in line with China's reform goals. Some people are unhappy because it seems as if China does this only under US requirements, which I think is driven by nationalistic sentiments. No matter if the pressure comes from within or outside, as long as it is good for China's development, we don't have to worry about it.

Take State-owned enterprises. Any country would initially protect its own industries. Both the US and Germany did so. But as these enterprises mature, they cannot develop within a monopoly. The country must let them compete in the open market.

GT: Recently you opined that as long as China deals with the US in a calm and rational way, China-US relations would not go as hawkish Americans wish. Then in your view, which of the two countries holds the initiative in bilateral ties?

We can see that it was the US that launched the trade war against China. China will not take the initiative to launch any cold war or hot war against the US. Although China is in a passive position to cope with the current situation, it does not mean China has no initiatives. Now China and the US have signed the phase one deal, it shows that China has the ability to hold the rhythm of the negotiations. China-US relations are a result of interaction, and it is hard to say which side holds the initiative.

GT: The Trump administration has endorsed unilateralism and refused to provide any public goods by quitting the Paris Agreement and withdrawing from a number of UN agencies. But the paradox is that China-proposed plans such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have been met with skepticism by the US-led West. How can such a paradox be broken?

This is a big problem - the world will not have sufficient public goods for a long time. China is willing, and has the ability, to provide public goods, but it does so based on its own understanding of the international situation. The US also wants China to provide more public goods, but it wants China to do so according to the US demands, which, of course, China doesn't want to do. China and the US need to undergo a long adjustment period.

It took the US decades to become a world superpower. By 1890, it had emerged as the world's largest economy. Then after World War I and World War II, the US was gradually accepted as the global leader.

China's GDP per capita has just reached $10,000. It is trying to sustain its domestic development while opening up to the world. Just imagine when the GDP per capita of the Chinese mainland exceeds that of Taiwan, the lowest-ranking among Asia's "four little dragons," by 2035, there is still a long way to go. If China achieves that, it means China will have a huge market that the world needs.

GT: What changes do you see to the democratic system in the Western world?

I have been thinking what kind of political system is a good one. In the past, an authoritarian regime could be toppled. Nowadays, we have seen that democracy cannot solve all social woes.

We may expect what Aristotle termed as a "mixed regime" - power is centralized when needed and democracy is also applied. In this globalized world, national security and sovereignty is becoming more and more important, and we need centralization of power in these aspects. Meanwhile, in this internet era, the public has attached more importance to their rights, so a government needs to distribute power to its people. From a long-term perspective, such a mixed regime may be plausible. When it is applied to different countries, how power is centralized and distributed will be different.

From an economic point of view, most economies in the world are mixed economies. In France and many Northern European countries, state-owned companies take up a larger proportion than do those in China. Political metrics have to coincide with the economic pattern.

China will not adopt a US-style system, while the West's  "one person, one vote" system will not be abandoned by people. They may draw experience from each other's systems, and their own system will always be based on their national condition, culture and civilization.

China does not have to be afraid of competing with the US system. It is important when a system is sustainable. The Western system is applied only within its own borders and has not been successful when applied in the Middle East, Latin America or Africa. In theory, it has multi-party systems, constitutionalism, freedom, democracy and the rule of law, but in reality, this is not the case.

GT: What challenges does the internet pose to world order?

The foundation of international relations does not exist anymore. Now we have raised the notion of internet sovereignty. But from an academic point of view, the internet and sovereignty are contradictory - sovereignty has boundaries while the internet does not. But in the era of the internet, sovereignty is needed more than ever. Knowledge and capital can flow, but poverty and politics cannot. Now the elements that constitute a sovereign country begin to flow, which is a challenge not only to the West, but also to China. So far, there has been no solution.


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