The PRC@LSE, Niall Ferguson and Me

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 6/30/2011 12:03:00 AM
From left to right: your humble IPE blogger (in need of a haircut), Li Fan who is Deputy Director of the Department of Policy Planning at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Niall Ferguson who is Philippe Roman Chair for 2010-2011

"Emmanuel, let's take a photo with Professor Ferguson before the LSE IDEAS sign!" said my colleague from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Dr Li Fan at our farewell party yesterday for The Ascent of Money guy. Despite being somewhat miffed at the Chinese government at the moment for largely unexplained strong-arm tactics over the South China Sea--or the West Philippine Sea as our local media now calls it--I couldn't begrudge the kindly Li Fan. Hence the photo. Having completed compulsory military training, I am of course subject to being called up to serve in the Armed Forces of the Philippines. While the prospects are remote, I have enduring anxieties about being sent to certain death defending Philippine interests in the Spratly Islands against the vastly superior PLA. I'm not keen on suicide missions.

At any rate, I am sure that I've mentioned that PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is an alumni of the LSE. Being ever so fond of his alma mater (or something to that effect), they send ministry officials to visit us as Chevening Programme Visiting Fellows every half a year or so. These fellowships are partly funded by HM Foreign and Commonwealth Office and they provide an opportunity for us to interact with the current batch of Chinese policymakers. Certainly, it lets us at LSE IDEAS--staffed as it is with former diplomats--understand our counterparts in the world's rising power that little bit better.

You would expect me to say this about my employers, but the basic idea underpinning our work here at LSE IDEAS is conceptually sound: by gathering academics, diplomats and policymakers under one roof, we are able to draw from a wider range of ideas in solving questions of diplomacy, strategy and international affairs. Oftentimes academia degenerates into something isolated and impractical with lots of number-crunching for its own sake but with few policy implications. We try to strike a balance: while we attract folks like Niall Ferguson who offer distinctive (if controversial) perspectives on various economic phenomena, we too welcome diplomats who actually *do* international relations.

Though he has his detractors, Henry Kissinger who Professor Ferguson is preparing a biography about could never be accused of being a bookish academic as he hosted the now-famous Harvard International Seminar which featured many names who would soon be a who's who of global leadership in the sixties. I wonder why Americans don't have a similar programme: instead of churning blood-curdling invectives against the PRC on a regular basis, why doesn't the US have a diplomatic outreach effort centred on academic exchange to learn more about those conducting foreign policy in China? If a second-string world power does it, why not America? Though I often am at odds with what Niall Ferguson writes, I fully agree that the US has no grand strategy at the present time which it used to have with Kissinger.

I've learned quite a lot from interacting with my PRC colleagues since they are seated right next to me. Although they are quite often quick to toe the (Chinese Communist) party line when in doubt, there are moments of candour which I value as a citizen of one of China's smaller neighbours.

The occasion for this photo is the impending departure of Niall Ferguson from our happy little camp in Holborn.The day before that, Li Fan explained "What China Wants" in compressed form as she too is leaving soon for Beijing. It should thus surprise no one that my time here is limited as well since I will depart for parts unknown in due course. There's a big world out there and I shall be taking the IPE Zone show on the road for the umpteenth time. But, it will be good to recall a time when I was at the centre of it all with diplomats from the world's rising power and the famously itinerant economic historian of our age, among others.