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Zhiqun Zhu: Focus on development. Do not get involved in great power rivalry

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Kamal Dev Bhattarai

Zhiqun Zhu: Focus on development. Do not get involved in great power rivalry

When the two great powers are competing ruthlessly, there is not much small countries can do

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent Taiwan trip has greatly strained US-China relations. Beijing has called the visit “irresponsible and irrational” and suspended all engagements with Washington on military, climate change and other crucial issues. What’s next for these two competing powers and how will their future relations affect the world order? Kamal Dev Bhattarai of ApEx talks to Zhiqun Zhu, professor of political science and international relations as well as the inaugural director of the China Institute, at Bucknell University, US.  

How did you see the US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan? 

It’s totally imprudent at a time US-China relations are in a terrible shape. She shrugged off repeated warnings from China and dismissed serious concerns from the Biden administration and many well-respected scholars and former government officials. She knew the risks associated with this trip, which is why she did not include Taiwan in her published itinerary and kept everyone guessing even after she had started the Asia trip. Despite the misgivings, she proceeded with the controversial visit. It was this irresponsible behavior that led to the current tensions in East Asia.

Has there of late been any shift in America’s ‘One China’ policy?  

The core of America’s ‘One China’ policy concerns Taiwan’s status. It is based on the three PRC-US joint communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act. The US acknowledges the Chinese position that Taiwan is part of China and only maintains unofficial relations with Taiwan. Recently, the US has added the Six Assurances—the Reagan administration’s principles on US-Taiwan relations—to its definition of ‘One China’. 

Both the Trump and Biden administrations upgraded US-Taiwan relations, such as signing the Taiwan Travel Act into law and lifting restrictions on interactions between US and Taiwan officials. The US government has also publicly admitted to the presence of a few dozen US troops in Taiwan. One doubts whether Washington still strictly follows its ‘One China’ policy or has moved to ‘One China, One Taiwan’ policy.

How do you see the growing competition between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific region? 

A rising tide lifts all boats. So a healthy competition is good. However, the US and China today are engaged in a zero-sum or even negative-sum competition in the Indo-Pacific.
China has become more assertive in foreign affairs as its power continues to grow.  It is more willing to use hard power to deal with disputes with other nations. The US, meanwhile, has formed new or strengthened existing multilateral groups to counter China, such as AUKUS, QUAD, and Five Eyes.

The US is also promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific and has launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, in which China is not included. This has raised concerns that the framework may be an anti-China group.

South Asian countries are feeling the heat of deepening US-China rivalry. What are your suggestions for smaller countries in the region?  

When the two great powers are competing ruthlessly, there is not much small countries can do. The best strategy for small countries in South Asia and elsewhere is perhaps to focus on domestic development. Do not get involved in the great power rivalry.  

And if some small countries prefer to be more vocal, perhaps they can learn from Singapore and tell the two great powers to not force them to choose sides, and resolve the differences peacefully.

What are the prospects of US-China relations? 

The US will do its utmost to maintain global supremacy and will push back any challengers. China is marching towards realizing the ‘Chinese Dream’ of restoring its historical status as a wealthy and powerful nation. China may not be interested in replacing the US as the global power, but its rise is threatening America’s dominance. Given the structural conflicts, the prospects of US-China relations are not promising. The only way out of this dilemma is to face the reality, respect each other’s legitimate rights and focus on areas of common interests. The two great powers will have to learn to co-exist peacefully while working together to tackle global challenges such as climate change.