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Q&A with IGCC Director Tai Ming Cheung

March 05, 2020
Tai Ming Cheung


Since 1982, the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation has addressed global challenges to peace and prosperity through rigorous, policy-relevant research, training the next generation, and engagement on international security, economic development and the environment. In this interview, IGCC director Tai Ming Cheung shares his vision for the next chapter of IGCC’s history, his forecast for what to watch in Northeast Asia in the coming year, and his take on how journalists and academics see the world differently.

Since 2013, you have served as Director of the UC Institute of Global Cooperation and Conflict, where you lead work on science, technology, and innovation with a special emphasis on China. How did you get here?

Academia is my third career. When I was finishing undergrad, I decided that I wanted to see the world, so I became a journalist. My first job was as a foreign correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review based in Hong Kong. One of my first assignments was in Beijing in the spring of 1989—I was in Tiananmen Square when the Chinese authorities sent in the troops in early June. After that, I was posted as a China correspondent, and a defense correspondent, which involved reporting on the end of the Cold War in East Asia.

Next, I went into the business world as an analyst for political risk companies and stock brokerages. This provided me with another perspective of looking at how the world works from the vantage point of the relationship between power, finance, and development. But my long-term passion was always academia. I went back to school in my late 30s, and earned a doctorate in the UK in War Studies. From there I eventually ended up at IGCC and UC San Diego.

There is a saying that “journalism is the first draft of history.” How do academics and journalists look at the world differently?

Journalists are drawn by what is happening on a particular day, or week, or month, and conveying that to a general audience. In journalism, you don’t want to focus too much on the complexity, just on the most important details. You’re painting in black and white. As an academic, you’re much more focused on the underlining issues, the context, and many other details. You’re painting in a much more colorful hue, but you’re painting for a more specialized audience. The best journalists and academics try to balance these different perspectives.

Your research at IGCC centers on innovation, defense, and technology, and in particular on China. In your chapter on China in a forthcoming volume on defense and innovation, you write that “China has transformed itself since the 1990s from a struggling military technological laggard to being part of the ranks of the global elite of innovation leaders,” and has done it on a scale and pace that is incredibly impressive. How has China done it?

China is still in the midst of doing this, but it’s done so by getting the sequence right. The Chinese authorities focused on economic development first, which spilled over into human talent development, science, and technology development, which has also led to military development. The foundation for China was creating a vibrant economic system. The Chinese political system has also played a very important role. As a centralized, top-down authoritarian system, they decide what are the key priorities, and then they pour resources into those areas.

China, in other words, has not only advanced in terms of its military might, but also in terms of other dimensions of power, like economics—is that right?

The motto of the 21st century is integrated cooperation and competition, where there is considerable overlap between the economic, civil, and commercial sectors, and the strategic and military domains. This is very much the competition that China and the U.S. are engaged in right now.

In the context of power competition between the U.S. and China, China is often viewed primarily as a threat. Is that framing appropriate?

Before the mid-2010s, the U.S. and China had a very close relationship—economically, strategically, even militarily. Then the political and strategic consensus in the U.S. changed, and the narrative now is that the U.S. was hoodwinked, and that we must see this relationship mainly in terms of competition. Indeed, there are clear signs that, on the military and strategic technology side, the relationship between the U.S. and China is increasingly adversarial.

But that accounts for a pretty small part of the overall economic, social, and strategic relationship between the U.S. and China—the two countries are a lot more interdependent than is commonly assumed.

The key challenge now is: how can the U.S. and China protect the key crown jewels of their strategic, their military, and their economic competitiveness, and at the same time, allow the relationship to prosper? Both Washington and Beijing still recognize that it’s better to work together than to be walled off and fighting each other. But politically, there’s very strong nationalist and protectionist sentiments on both sides and not enough political will to be able to focus on that engagement.

Tai Ming Cheung, Susan Shirk, and attendees at the 2019 NEACD meeting

Is the moment we’re living in different than what has come before? Or do you think what we’re seeing now is part of patterns and that we can learn from history?

When we look at it from an international relations perspective, the international system remains pretty much as it has been. Countries still have their own interests at heart, but there are rules of the game, even though those may be changing with technological, social and political changes. But despite fads, the structure of the system remains unchanged. The nation-state remains central. There is still no world government, so it’s still anarchic in that sense. But countries are still by and large reluctant to go to war.

Although the statistics show that a lot more people have died through political violence, it’s been much more in terms of the civil war. As someone who’s studied the nature of war, actual warfighting between states has been much more limited. For example, although there is a lot of tension between the US and China, I don’t think that the actual chances of the two countries going to war are higher than it has always been. There are potential flashpoints, but there is a whole range of mechanisms to prevent war, like confidence-building mechanisms, dialogues, international organizations—all things that have helped make all-out conflict much less common.

In this context, how does IGCC make a difference in the world?

A key part of our contribution is the research we do, which provides academically rigorous and independent evidence on the global challenges we face. We also use this research as the foundation for our policy engagement. For example, since 1993, we’ve conducted the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue (NEACD), which was begun by my predecessor, Susan Shirk. A major focus of this dialogue has been engaging regularly with North Korea, and the five other major players in the region, on a Track 1.5, which is a mix of non-official and official representatives coming together in on an unofficial capacity. NEACD has been one of the very few mechanisms that has allowed the North Koreans to meet with their counterparts.

What are the key things to watch in 2020 in Northeast Asia?

One is what is going on in the Taiwan Strait, especially after the presidential and legislative elections in Taiwan this past January. Taiwan is the biggest flashpoint between China and its external interests. How will the U.S. and Congress engage? Will they strengthen ties with Taiwan? The military forces of China, Taiwan, and the U.S. are increasingly operating in close proximity with each other, so the risks of accidents is rising. This makes the potential for political and strategic escalation between Beijing, Taipei, and the U.S. significant, if there are misunderstandings, miscalculations, or missteps. So far, everyone’s been fairly careful, but the underlying dynamics are worrisome.

Also important is Xi Jinping’s planned visit to Japan this spring, which will be the first major summit between the two most important countries in the Asia Pacific for many years. They’ve had a very frosty relationship since the late 2000s, so looking at how they deal with things like territory issues in the East China Sea will be important. If Japan and China are able to get along and build upon these frosty but improving relations between them, that would be a very important help for the region.

And then of course, the November presidential election in the U.S. is key, because the U.S. still plays a critical role in Asian security. Under the Trump administration, the status and reputation of the U.S. in the region has declined. If things continue in the same way over another four years, then the credibility and power of the U.S. may continue to be eroded, which will allow China to stake its leadership in the region.

What would you like IGCC to be doing five years from now?

I take it a year at a time. I hope that IGCC will be in a position to fund a significant number of graduate students, as well as faculty research programs and conferences. Funding for research has been under threat as foundations in the U.S. have cut back, so this is a very important role that IGCC plays.

And then there’s the research—I’d like to be able to develop a lot of new areas of research. The international system is in the midst of major strategic, technological, and geo-economic transformations and there’s a need for new ways of things, new perspectives, and new ideas for meeting new challenges.

Preparing the next generation will also continue to be at the heart of what we do at IGCC. A lot of students are interested in international relations, and now is a very, very exciting—as well as scary—time to be in the business. There’s a need for new skill sets that go beyond what a lot of the traditional training has been. Students need to have a much broader perspective, to bring in economics and domestic issues, and new methodological approaches. It’s daunting, but also very exciting.

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