Today, most international relations analysts and experts consider China as the world’s second political and economic power after the United States. China came second in the International Monetary Fund’s 2011 ranking of countries by GDP (nominal) and is one of the main producers of agricultural products and industrial commodities and the world’s number one exporter. China is also the United States’ first trading partner, and at the same time, it’s major economic and political competitor.

The politics of China are thoroughly complicated. National interests define the limits of China’s foreign policy while some traces of opposition to the Western world in general, and the United States in particular, can always be found in China’s attitude toward international affairs.

In order to learn more about the intricacies of China’s predominantly growing economy, its foreign policy, and its relations with the United States and the Middle Eastern nations, I’ve interviewed Zhiqun Zhu, associate professor of international relations at the Bucknell University, who specializes in Chinese politics and foreign policy and East Asian international relations.

Prof. Zhu is the author of “U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century” and “China’s New Diplomacy.”

Mr. Zhu answered my questions regarding China’s human rights record, its oscillating relations with the United States, its position on the independence of Taiwan, and its ties with the EU and Middle East countries.

Kourosh Ziabari: Dear Prof. Zhu; to the ordinary people, it seems that the United States and China are constantly in a state of rivalry that sometimes amounts to animosity and hostility. What’s the main reason behind this continued rivalry and competition? Does the U.S. consider China a threat to its economic and political supremacy? Does China believe that the U.S. wants to derail its political establishment?

Zhiqun Zhu: The conflict between the US and China is structural. The U.S. is the dominant global power, and China is a rising power.  The dominant power always feels uneasy if a new power is challenging its status. This structural conflict marks the current dynamics in U.S.-China relations.

However, I do not think the U.S. government considers China as a threat. China is a challenge, especially economically and militarily.  The U.S. welcomes China’s peaceful development, and has actually contributed to China’s rise in the past 30 years. China also considers its relationship with the US as the most important one in its foreign policy. Of course, in both U.S. and China, there are conservative and nationalistic scholars and politicians who consider each other as the enemy, but that is not the official policy of the two governments. Even the two militaries are friendly and are conducting regular exchanges now.

So in the future, the U.S. and China will continue to cooperate on many international, regional and bilateral issues. At the same time, they will also compete for resources and influence globally such as in the Middle East and Africa. And in Asia, they will compete for power and leadership.  Competition and cooperation are the hallmarks of this relationship.

KZ: Chinese goods and commodities have almost dominated the whole global market. In Iran, at least, we can find a Chinese counterpart for every commodity which the people need; from the foodstuff, medical equipments, and handicrafts to industrial accouterments and automobiles. But the people always complain that the quality of Chinese goods is not commendable. Is there any political reason behind this? Is this a large-scale policy of the Chinese government to export low-quality goods to developing countries such as Iran and export the high-quality commodities to its major trade partners such as Canada and EU?

ZZ: In fact, you can hear complains everywhere, including developed countries and within China itself, about the poor-quality of Chinese goods. I do not think China has an agenda here to differentiate its exports. The real challenge for China is to upgrade its industrial structure and improve the quality of its products. China has to climb up the technology ladder and promote innovation and quality control. Perhaps by learning from Japan and South Korea, China can eventually make more high-quality products for export and for domestic consumption.

KZ: As to what I’ve noted, the meetings of the U.S. and European officials with the 14th Dalai Lama have usually spurred anger and irritation by the Chinese officials. Has there ever been any effort to settle the dispute between the Chinese government and the separationists of Tibet led by Dalai Lama?

ZZ: Deep suspicion and distrust still exist between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.  The two sides talked to each other in the past, but the gap remains huge between the two sides.  They see Tibet’s history, culture, and current political and economic status very differently.  China’s strategy appears to be waiting for the Dalai Lama to pass away.  Like elsewhere inside China, China’s current priority in Tibet is to maintain stability while promoting growth.

The government does not consider it a priority now to negotiate with the Dalai Lama or his representatives to narrow the differences between the two sides. Of course the danger of such a wait-and-see strategy is that the Dalai Lama’s successors may be more violent and radical and even less willing to cooperate with the Communist Party.

KZ: Today, China is the world’s second largest economy and it’s possible that it may surpass the United States very soon, as it has done in some areas such as agricultural productions, Forex reserves or exports. What factors have contributed to these outstanding and remarkable achievements? How has China reached to this point?

ZZ: China’s economy started to take off in the late 1970s when Deng Xiaoping introduced economic and political reforms. Deng is considered the architect of China’s reform and opening-up. Quite a few factors contributed to China’s impressive development, such as political stability at home, a mostly peaceful regional environment, China’s ability and willingness to adjust its policies and to learn from others, FDI from major powers, strong work ethic of the Chinese, efficient decision-making by competent Chinese leaders. Very interestingly, these leaders are not elected democratically, but most of them happen to be very competent and committed.

Of course, despite the impressive achievements, China remains largely a developing nation, with tremendous domestic challenges such as a worsening environment, a growing income gap, rampant corruption, and rising social protests.

KZ: The United States and China have long fought over the independence of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and finally settled the dispute with the declaration of the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations which was signed in January, 1979. What’s the current position of the United States over the Taiwan question? What’s the stance of the Chinese government? Does Beijing still object to countries which maintain diplomatic or economic relations with Taipei?

ZZ: The U.S. does not have official relations with Taiwan, but it maintains a robust “unofficial” relationship with Taiwan under the Taiwan Relations Act passed by US Congress in 1979.  The U.S. treats Taiwan as a sovereign political entity and continues to sell weapons to Taiwan for defensive purposes.  Of course China considers this as an intervention in its internal affairs.

China does not oppose other countries maintaining economic and cultural relations with Taiwan, but formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan are not tolerated by Beijing.  The long-term objective of the Chinese government is to unify with Taiwan, but in the short run, it can live with the status quo.  In recent years, cross-Taiwan Strait relations have drastically improved, with the two economies becoming highly interdependent.

KZ: Since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the United States and its European allies have usually criticized China’s human rights record. What’s your take on that? Contrary to its economic and political indicators, China doesn’t have good rankings in press freedom and human rights. Do you agree?

ZZ: Yes, China still has lots of human rights problems despite the progress in the past 30 years.  The Chinese government does not like foreign countries to criticize China, especially its human rights record, but many people both in and outside of China know that there is much to be desired in human rights conditions in China. Recent events such as Chen Guangcheng show how basic human rights of ordinary citizens are still not well protected in China.

KZ: What’s your evaluation of China’s current relations with the European Union? Has it been affected by the recent economic recession in the Eurozone? Which countries are the most important partners of China in the EU?

ZZ: Political and economic relations between China and EU have been stable and close.  Eurozone countries are looking to China for help to overcome the debt crisis. China has good relations with almost all European countries.  Economically, Germany and France are major partners.

Of course, European countries, just like the U.S., are critical of China’s human rights policies.  And China has complained about EU’s reluctance to lift arms embargo to China.  The embargo was imposed on China following the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. China has complained about it, but EU countries have not reached a consensus on this, and the U.S. also opposes EU’s potential lifting of sanctions against China.

KZ: China is a major importer of oil from Iran. Moreover, it exports a huge amount of goods to Iran and has practically dominated Iran’s market. However, it gave green light to four rounds of U.S.-directed sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council. Many Iranians were disappointed at the fact that China joined the U.S., U.K. and France in imposing economic sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program as they expected that China should veto the resolutions. Why do you think China has made such a decision to give way to the anti-Iranian sanctions? Overall, what’s in your view the stance of China over Iran’s nuclear program?

ZZ: China is under heavy pressure to behave responsibly as a major power now. I think China is not opposed to Iran’s development of nuclear program for peaceful purposes. But remarks by some Iranian leaders that Iran should wipe out Israel from the map [Editor’s note: the claim that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map is a propaganda fabrication] and Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons to defend itself [Editor’s note: The Iranian government has always denied that it is pursuing nuclear weapons and in fact the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has issued a fatwa banning Iranian acquisition of such; there is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program] make China and the international community very uneasy and nervous.

China is in a dilemma. China is opposed to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  Developing nuclear weapons has become very destabilizing for the regions involved. Though China has good relations with both Iran and North Korea, it wants to join the international community and put some pressure on them. This is a responsible behavior by a great power.

On the other hand, China has strong economic interests in Iran and it will not cut its economic relations with Iran. China considers Iran a major economic partner and has encouraged investment in Iran.  So China’s Iran policy is very illustrative of the contradictions and dilemmas in China’s foreign policy.

KZ: And finally, does China accompany the United States in its efforts to pressure Syria over the year-long conflict and unrest in the country? Russia has categorically rejected sanctions and military intervention in Syria. What’s the position of China? It seems that China has preferred to keep a low profile regarding the revolutions of the Middle East because of its close economic ties to the regional countries. What’s your idea?

ZZ: In principle, China wishes to keep a low-profile in international affairs and it is opposed to the use of force in international relations. So I think China will join Russia in the Syria case.

China is one of the very few powers that maintain good relations with all countries in the Middle East, so apparently the expectations are high for China, and China can and probably should contribute more to the peaceful settlement of problems in the Middle East.