TANG PRIZE/New cold war between U.S., China unlikely: Tang Prize laureate

11/22/2021 03:14 PM
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Wang Gungwu. CNA photo Nov. 22, 2021
Wang Gungwu. CNA photo Nov. 22, 2021

Singapore, Nov. 22 (CNA) A new cold war between the United States and China resembling that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the 20th century is unlikely, but a rivalry could be unavoidable, Wang Gungwu (王賡武), the Tang Prize laureate in Sinology, said recently.

The U.S. could be tempted to follow the same 20th century strategy to counter China, but it will recognize that the world has changed, leading to a new approach short of a cold war, the 91-year-old Wang predicted in an interview with CNA.

The Indonesian-born Singaporean historian, sinologist and writer was named the 2020 Tang Prize laureate in Sinology in June 2020 for his research on the Chinese world order, overseas Chinese and the Chinese migration experience.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the Tang prize award ceremony was not held until Saturday.

When asked about the state of U.S.-China relations and their potential impact on the global order, Wang said the Joe Biden administration has decided to seek alliances similar to those used to defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

That "old formula" was successful in the past, but "it's like 'old wine in new bottle,'" Wang said, referring to China as the new bottle and the Cold War strategy as the old wine.

"The temptation to use the strategy to defeat China is strong. If that temptation is followed through, you could have a cold war situation," Wang said.

There seems to be "hesitation from the White House about firming up on this policy" and going too far with the old method, however, in part because of how different China is from the Soviet Union, especially in economic terms, he argued.

The U.S. will need to think of a different way of approaching China because it is a different kind of power, an approach that "is more cooperative, competitive by all means but that avoids being an adversary, avoids making an enemy of China," Wang suggested.

There may not be a cold war, but "there will be competition, (and) rivalry could be unavoidable."

The 'China dream'

What the U.S.' China strategies will look like and how they will affect the global order is hard to say at present, he said.

"What is obvious is that the West, led by the U.S., would like to preserve the present order as it is, to defend what it called the rule-based international order, free market economy, and would watch to make sure that the Chinese do not undermine it and replace the current world order."

China has trumpeted the concept of a "China dream" that some in the West have interpreted as Beijing's bid to dominate the world, but Wang does not see it that way.

He said overseas Chinese would be very content to feel secure, feel respected and have confidence restored in Chinese culture and values and that China is right to preserve the traditions of the past and make them more appreciated by others.

"I would imagine the 'China dream' doesn't go beyond that. If you can have the world look to China with respect and admiration, that would satisfy the 'China dream,'" Wang argued.

Winning the Tang Prize

Wang was born in Surabaya in the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia) in 1930 to scholarly Chinese parents, and educated in British Malaya and London. That shaped the scholar and the fields for which he won the Sinology award.

"Since the late 1950s, Wang Gungwu has been publishing pioneering works on the history of imperial China, China and Southeast Asia, and the changing identities of Chinese in Southeast Asia," according to the Tang Prize Foundation.

"As the leading historian on Sino-Southeast Asian relations, he develops a unique approach to understanding China by scrutinizing its long and complex relation with its southern neighbors," the foundation said.

Wang told CNA he was honored to receive the prize, and praised Tang Prize founder Samuel Yin (尹衍樑) for recognizing Sinology as an important field of work and the foundation for taking a broader view of Sinology.

Sinology, or Chinese studies, covers not only literature, history and philosophy but also other aspects of the Chinese tradition of governance, new governance methods, new kinds of families, new kinds of societies, and China's industrial revolution, he said.

"Given that, [Sinology] cannot be just limited to what is in the past and belongs to museums. You want it to cover something alive, dynamic, changing. You need a different kind of [Sinology]."

The Tang Prize is a biennial award established in 2012 by Yin, chairman of the Ruentex Group, to honor people who have made prominent contributions in four categories -- sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Sinology and rule of law.

(By Elaine Hou and Elizabeth Hsu)

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Video: Tang Prize Foundation
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