Generating Knowledge for a Multipolar World: Ooi Kee Beng in conversation with Danny Quah (Part 2)

By Ooi Kee Beng

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PENANG MONTHLY continues its interview with Penang boy, Danny Quah, recognised by Stanford University to be among the 100 most influential academics in government in the world. He studies “the supply and demand of world order, i.e. on the one hand, what international system the world’s superpowers provide, and on the other, what world order the global community needs”. (For more details about his exciting career and body of writings, visit, or Google Scholar).

Part One of this interview was published in January 2023.


OKB: How has the change from working in the West and working in the East been, in general?

DQ: I’ll tell you one of the things that is the most difficult. I was at a conference, recently, and a friend of mine from one of the top economics programmes in the US – in the world, in fact – came up to me and said, “Oh, so you’ve decided to leave us for Asia. You’ve retired from intellectual life, it seems?” That made me think about how the West actually thinks: “We are the centre, and if you’re outside, off the continental shelf, then you’re off the map.”

My first reaction was about the arrogance of this person, but then I very quickly thought of the utter ignorance of this person, who cannot recognise that we are developing a narrative in academia and intellectual research in Asia that is completely new, fresh and exciting, based on many wonderful, new ideas. They cannot see that.

OKB: Every civilisation is its own “Middle Kingdom”.

DQ: Yes, I can construct a map, but it has no impact on them, except for maybe International Relations scholars and historians. Here, you and I, we continue our scholarly writing, we do a combination of different things.

I’ve done technical work on income inequality and in geopolitics, both of which I’m very excited about. But if American scholars cannot recognise that there can be good work done outside of their institutions, then it’s a sorry statement about the state of academia. At the same time, it’s a sorry statement about things that I myself believed in – 25 years ago, that was exactly what I would have said.

OKB: Yeah, we were that westernised.

DQ: We acculturated to a frightening degree. And I think – and I want to be very clear on this – the more knowledgeable and thoughtful scholars in the West do see their weaknesses. They do see how, for instance, the continued emphasis on publications in top five-star journals, meaning their journals, is actually a problem. It’s a problem for them, because there’s no way they can fit the entire world’s output into their journals.

It’s a problem for us as well because, in Asia, we haven’t figured out the right, trusted accreditation schemes. We’re free-riding on their accreditation schemes, and it doesn’t do us any good. It doesn’t do them any good. We’ve got to figure out – you and I and other scholars around us who are doing fine, scholarly research – the right institutions to get the world to rebalance properly, to get the world to see that there’s space for diversity.

OKB: I agree fully with that. While at ISEAS, I made it a point to create new publications. And then when I came here to Penang Institute, I did the same thing. That is all a reaction to that limited publication space.

DQ: Exactly. We need to get those of a similar understanding everywhere, both in Asia and in the West, to see a way forward so that we can create a truly global academia, not one that is just based on five-star journals, whatever the field.

OKB: What I hear is that the student population in universities in the UK tend to be more and more multi-ethnic.

DQ: That’s right. England can be very international. I used to joke at LSE that we had students from all the nations that appear in the IMF balance of payments statistics.

But, to be sure, and certainly in my field in technical economics, there is still a circling of the wagons. It is these four institutions in the US that count, and everywhere else is just sort of on the fringes.

OKB: I could talk to you all day, but let me ask one last question, based partly on what you were saying earlier at the conference – about the zero-sum game that we have fallen into. Now, luckily for us who lived through the Cold War, it didn’t end with a huge conflict. The Soviet Union sort of collapsed. To be sure, we’re now not convinced that the Cold War did end; but this emerging one, where China has been identified by the West as the opponent, can that end violently, do you think?

DQ: Before I give a direct answer to that, we can consider the Cold War ending to the extent that the Soviet Union collapsed. But even at its peak – although some revisionist historians are arguing that the Soviet Union was actually far richer and more powerful than commonly thought, which I suspect, to an extent, to be accurate — the Soviet Union was no match for the US.

I mean, the Soviet Union may have had nuclear weapons – today Moscow has nuclear weapons – but there are reasons why we think of Putin’s Russia as a gas station with nuclear weapons. It’s not a large economy or significant. It is tiny – just one-seventh the size of the US’s; one-ninth the size of China’s. There isn’t a single manufacturing champion from there. Conversely, China’s economic prowess matches the US’s. In 11 areas in frontier technologies, China’s ahead in 10 of them. So there is a marked difference.

Now, this does not mean that we won’t see the kind of cooling off like in the Cold War, but it does not mean that it will necessarily end in violence. There are scholars who think of the Thucydides Trap, like in the well-known book by Graham Allison, who believes that the probability is high. Weighed against that is China’s current narrative, which includes proclamations like: the Chinese have peace in their genes; we don’t fight wars; China does not exercise hegemony over others. However inaccurate all that is, that’s their narrative.

There is a flashpoint, however, that is Taiwan. It is a no-go area. As far as China is concerned, if Taiwan declares independence, that sets off everything. All bets are off.

America should really stop egging China on; it is playing a very dangerous game. But when I say America, I should be careful because scholars tell me that America does not do that – Pompeo and the State Department do that [laughs]. But you know, it’s a dangerous game. Now, if we step back from those details, and the possibility of it being a historical inevitability because of the Thucydides Trap, what are the realistic chances of confrontation?

I think, no. Even though America continues to tell the story that it is the guardian of the rules-based liberal order. It wants to convince its own people, Western Europe and other like-minded nations that China is revisionist, seeking to undermine the international system. And when China succeeds, it will exercise veto authority over other nations’ economic and political plans. That narrative is very harmful. That is the zero-sum game.

The reality is that China and the US are far more similar to each other than they are different. I mean, the access to liberal democracy is a huge difference. If we keep focusing on that, we will always be in the zero-sum game.

But does China undermine the international system? China supports the United Nations, national sovereignty and territorial integrity; it supports pretty much everything that’s in the Westphalian Treaty, which underlies the way in which the modern world has been built. Meanwhile, America is set against huge chunks of the United Nations agenda and undermines the international courts of justice; China, to some degree, does as well.

America and China were both late in the game of safeguarding human rights. I know Americans can’t quite believe that. But, you know, in practice, slavery continued in the US long after the rest of Western Europe had stopped.

America and China have, for so long, said to the rest of the world that they are peripheral: “We don’t really want to get engaged with the rest of you, you do your business, we mind our own.” They are both hugely nationalistic. And both of them are now telling a story of nationalist exceptionalism: “We are different from everybody else.”

So, on a scale of zero to 100%, where does that leave the possibility for conflict? If we bring Taiwan into the equation — let’s hope nothing happens, but if something does happen — then we’re talking 70 to 80%. But outside of that, I would say 10 to 15% probability.

OKB: If I put things another way, are we seeing the painful birth of multi-polarity in the world?

DQ: Well, I hope we are. Not the pain part, but the birth part. Yeah, that we can’t avoid. Certainly.

India could potentially be a spoiler for those who think that it’s just going to be a bipolarity. If you look only at the US and China, then obviously. But what about other large players? You cannot rule out Western Europe or India. America wants to think that India is on its side; it puts it in all its alliances. But India does not see things the same way.

OKB: No, it’s not trying to be like the West.

DQ: Absolutely.

OKB: But it’s about Europe really, right? About whether the West is one pole or two poles.

DQ: For the longest time, I thought that America’s obsession with being number one, being the defender, having national exceptionalism – all that put it directly head-on for confrontation with China. The theory about America seeking to stay number one at all costs fit all the facts of the growing conflict for me… at least until Europe started to go the way of America as well. The position in Europe has grown harder, more hardline against China now. Are they convinced by America’s accusations of human rights violations? Perhaps, but none of that is particularly new. I mean, Europe was already well aware of all of these things.

And when you think about this, Kee Beng, I mean, 50 years ago, China was a dangerous, violent place. The Cultural Revolution executed and caused the violent deaths of tens of millions of Chinese. There was even open documentation of cannibalism in parts of China. It was exporting socialist revolution to us here in Southeast Asia.

China does not do this now. Despite that, the world now seems set against China. Back then, Richard Nixon told China that the planet was too small for them to continue living in angry isolation, nourishing their fantasies, cherishing their hates, threatening their neighbours... Let’s come away from that. Let’s be friends. Let’s begin by playing table tennis.

And they did, and that produced the last five decades of glorious economic prosperity, starting from a point when China was actually dangerous.

OKB: It has actually gone the way the Americans wanted. Too well, perhaps. But I think we need to stop now, Danny. Lunch is waiting for us.

DQ: It’s been brilliant chatting with you.

OKB: Let’s talk more in the future. Thank you.

Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: