Skip to main content

The Political Economy of Great Power Competition: An Interview with James Lee

July 30, 2020
James Lee


In this interview, James Lee, a postdoctoral research associate at IGCC, talks with IGCC associate director Lindsay Shingler about U.S.-China relations, Taiwan’s position in the region, and the implications of China’s new security law for Hong Kong. Lee received his Ph.D. in Politics from Princeton University in 2018, and was a fellow in the Max Weber Program for Postdoctoral Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. The interview has been edited for length.

One of your colleagues described you as one-part historian, one-part scholar of international relations. How’d you get here?

I’m interested in applying history to contemporary issues and public policy. I wrote my dissertation on how the U.S. responded to the challenges of great power competition in the first 20 years of the Cold War, with a focus on how U.S.-China rivalry led the United States to support the creation of developmental states in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. There is a lot of debate today about great power competition and the U.S.-China relationship. I’m interested in looking at how the history of the Peloponnesian War and the Cold War can shed light on current issues facing the United States and China.

In a recent interview with Susan Shirk, who is emeritus director of IGCC and a leading China expert, she said that U.S.-China relations are the worst they have ever been. Do you agree?

I wouldn’t say that this is the worst period of U.S.-China relations. Susan was probably referring to U.S.-China relations since normalization. During the Cold War, you had the Korean War and U.S. soldiers and Chinese soldiers actually fighting each other. But if we start the clock in 1979, then yes, what we are experiencing now is the worst period in U.S.-China relations.

Tai Ming Cheung, the director of IGCC, said in an interview in March, that Taiwan is the biggest flashpoint between China and its external interests. What do you think?

I think we are entering into a potentially dangerous period in the management of the Taiwan question because this is the first time since the founding of the PRC that we’ve had a combination of three factors: the rise of China, U.S.-China great power competition, and Taiwan’s aversion to the One-China principle. With the One China principle having such little appeal among Taiwan’s people, and the U.S.-China relationship deteriorating so quickly, the United States faces a formidable challenge in trying to support Taiwan’s security without seeming to support Taiwan’s independence.

Of all the important issues in Northeast Asia—North Korea and the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and the South China Sea—Taiwan is the one most likely to lead to military confrontation.

Has COVID-19 affected Taiwan’s position?

It’s raised the question of Taiwan’s exclusion from international organizations much more prominently. Taiwan has been effectively excluded from the WHO because Beijing makes Taiwan’s ability to participate, even as an observer, conditional on Taiwan accepting the One China principle, which Taiwan is not willing to do. COVID-19 has raised the question of whether (or not) it’s legitimate to continue excluding Taiwan from international organizations.

In June, China enacted an extraordinary new security law that effectively guts Hong Kong’s legal system, in addition to impacting the media and education. What are the implications for residents and for U.S. foreign policy?

The U.S. used to pursue a different trade and export-control policy toward Hong Kong from what it pursued toward mainland China because the U.S. recognized the “one country, two systems” framework. Now the U.S. is treating Hong Kong the same way that it treats the mainland, which is significant.

Another concerning aspect of the Hong Kong security law, in addition to all these vague assertions of extraterritoriality, is the question of what it means for Taiwan. For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that Beijing wouldn’t adopt extreme measures towards Hong Kong or seriously undermine “one country, two systems” because Hong Kong was supposed to be an example of what reunification with China would look like for Taiwan. The fact that the PRC has decided to impose these laws on Hong Kong raises the question: has the PRC given up on the notion that Taiwan will reunify peacefully, and if so, has the PRC’s long-term strategy toward Taiwan fundamentally changed?

Your work on the Marshall Plan shows how economic power was used to the geostrategic advantage of the U.S. after World War II. How do you think this is playing out today as the U.S. and China compete in the same areas? Is the U.S. engaging and capable, as it was in that earlier era, or is the U.S. weakened and withdrawing from the world?

The U.S. is still engaged in Europe and in East Asia and recently there has been more of an attempt by U.S. officials to encourage European allies to think about China as a common great power competitor of the United States and Europe. They’ve actually raised the example of the Marshall Plan quite a lot to point to the history of European and American cooperation. The challenge the U.S. faces in Europe and in East Asia now is actually less complex than what it faced in the Marshall Plan era and the Cold War generally. During the Cold War, the United States had to not only think about military issues but also engage in the reconstruction and development of entire regions. There were monumental challenges in terms of state-building.

We have a lot of stable, healthy, strong democracies in Europe and East Asia today, and so the U.S. strategy is resting on a much more stable foundation than it did during the Cold War. When people talk about the “new Cold War,” I like to look back in history and say that the previous Cold War was much more challenging.

Do heightened tensions between the U.S. and China motivate you—or just make you worry?

It makes me worried. But it’s also an area where an understanding of history can help address some of these issues and potentially shed light on ways that the U.S. and China can manage the tensions between them. I think history offers some warning signs for how relations between great powers can deteriorate.

What are some of those lessons?

One important lesson from Thucydides is that the deterioration of relations between Athens and Sparta resulted from the belief that conflict was inevitable and that they had to prepare for the coming war instead of taking measures to preserve the peace. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On a related point, there were certainly many problems with U.S. strategy in East Asia during the Cold War, but one of the positive aspects of U.S. strategy was that American officials never assumed that conflict with the PRC was inevitable. Even at the height of Cold War tensions, they never ruled out the possibility that relations might someday improve. That left the window open for the PRC to realign with the United States against the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

Looking at U.S.-China relations today, even though the two countries don’t face a common great power adversary, they do face common challenges that underscore the need to keep the door open for cooperation. For example, climate change is a threat to national security, and the United States and China need to work together and with other countries to meet this challenge. If they don’t leave the door open to eventual cooperation, they may well fall into the tragic situation that Thucydides described in his account of the war between Athens and Sparta: “they damaged their own interests competing in the heat of the moment.”