Podcast 1: Asma Masood

In our first episode, Vaishnavi speaks to Asma Masood, the Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S). She is Founding Member and President of ‘Young Minds of C3S’. She has worked as an Independent Researcher on International Relations in the Asia-Pacific and interned at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She has an M.A. in International Studies, Stella Maris College, Chennai. Her areas of interest are China’s foreign policy and Dynamics of Soft Power. Her article on the Rohingya crisis was republished as an essay in the edited volume Genocide & Persecution: Burma, Greenhaven Press, U.S.A, 2015. Her chapter on ‘People-people contacts: For peace, progress & harmony in the region’ was published in the book Indo-ASEAN Trade & Investment: Historical and Contemporary Perspective, Institute of Objective Studies, Delhi, 2017. Her articles have appeared in IPCS, Foreign Policy Journal, C3S, Red Elephant Foundation, The Hindu, Mizzima Weekly and Myanmar Business Today.

Listen to the podcast here.
Read the transcript below.  

V: Thank You Ms. Asma for agreeing to do this interview. I want to begin by asking you how did you develop interest in International Relations and particularly in China studies.
A: Thank you, Vaishnavi. I began my studies, by studying Journalism in Chennai. I was not satisfied by learning only skills. I wanted knowledge of a particular field. To quote an example – there was a book on International Relations in the library which became my favorite book over there. It intrigued me – the world of international relations, its history, geopolitics, the power play, more over the opportunity for peace and way forward.  That prompted me to study my MA in IR at Stella Mary’s college and develop my research skills in my field. As for China,  I happened to be thinking about my research topic for my dissertation during my MA. It was suggested to me at that time rise of  China is a hot topic. Why not do something related to that. My thesis was on China and SE Asia an up and coming field at that time. After that I interned at Institute of Peace and Conflict studies (IPCS).  When I came back to Chennai, there was an opening at Chennai Center for China Studies (C3S). It happened to be a happy coincidence that my dissertation led to this field – China studies at C3S.
V: Can you tell us about your role at Institute of Peace and Conflict studies?
A: It was a wonderful experience. My mentor was Dr Subhas Chandra, Director of IPCS. Under him I learnt how to do research. I had come from a field of journalism. The way you write in journalism is different from the way you write in IR, the academic research writing. I had to turn my writing upside down and make it stand on its head to make sense to the academic world. That was very interesting. I was given lot of responsibilities there. It was my first job. It was not internship, it was a real job. I had to organize conferences; I learnt to work with the team, to edit, to design publications. Basically, you had to multi-task which is very important for any career today. I was a very good learning experience. It set a very good foundation for my career at C3S.
V: Do you think you have taken away any lessons with you about peace that you can possibly apply to your research at C3S?
A: When I was as IPCS, I had an opportunity to research about the Kachin conflict and Rohingya conflict in Myanmar. There I was learning about how a state conflicts with an ethnic group and how they are demanding for their rights. And interestingly, how a third party, China comes into the picture. I would say it still has a long way to go. But, I am an optimist. You ask me what are the takeaways for peace. I say that we have to make compromises. China wants to be a big power. With power comes responsibility. With responsibility comes compromises. In that way there has to be a middle ground for China to come forward and help the Rohingya crisis and the resolution matches the needs and wants of all parties involved.
V: China is generally perceived as more offensive kind of country, which is more active rather than passive. Do you think any kind of things you learnt about peace can be applied to China and do you think they will be able to be a little more docile?
A; First of all, I would not say China is very offensive. It is very subjective. It depends from person to person. Coming from my background where I was taught in my research to look at any country or any situation objectively, I would say China is a country, which is looking after its own national interests.  There was a time when the world feared China. It was called a sleeping dragon. Now China calls itself a benign Panda, ready to be friends with the entire world. As for China being docile, it always emphasized that it does not want to be hegemonic. It does not believe in a uni-polar world, but it believes in multi-polar world. China is making lot of people to people contacts via Confucius institutes and soft power measures. The question is whether the world is ready to receive China’s friendly overtures and accept it as a friend.
V: Perhaps, it’s more of a perception that people think of China as an offensive player.
A: Exactly. That is why as a soft power, the first line in their official statement is to build a better image of China. The keyword is image.
V: Given that the field of China studies is relatively unexplored, what are some of the challenges that you encountered in your career?
A: China studies is very big in India, especially in the North and Delhi. There are think tanks spread out in Delhi. We at C3S, try to go beyond the traditional issues of border dispute, trade deficit. We look at new fields such as domestic economy in China, the domestic politics of China, the culture, the soft power, which is not much looked at in the north. The biggest challenge is the language barrier. Unless you know the language, you can access firsthand resources, internal resources from China and what the Chinese scholars say about themselves. We have to rely on western resources, which may or may not be objective.
V: How do you overcome such challenges?
A: We look at both sides of the story. We always ask question – this is what this source is saying, what if the opposite is true, what if neither is true. We look at all angles of the story and we ask questions on the way forward. That helps us in overcoming the challenge posed by the language barrier by doing objective research. By filling in the gaps by talking to people. Best way to get information, despite the digital age we live ini, is by talking to people and experts in the field and getting first hand knowledge from them. Because they have seen first hand what is happening.
V: Who is your inspiration or mentor thus far?  Is there someone who inspired you to get into this field or there is someone who inspired you after you got into this field?
A: I will have to say it is my father. He is not just a doctor, he is also a scholar. He is very interested in history and international relations and politics. My grandfather is a doctor. He served in the army’s medical unit during the British colonial period. He has served in Burma as a medical officer in charge of Japanese POW camp. All these small snippets aroused my curiosity as to what was the world all about when it comes to dealing with one another. These two are major inspiration for me.  After I joined C3S, I must admit that Cmdr. Vasan is a great inspiration. He has given me freedom to carry out research in my chosen field of interest and to employ creativity when approaching the question of China and international relations. That has been a great boost for me in my career.
V: You have written numerous articles and papers for various publications. What has been your experience in the field of research and academic writing?
A: As I mentioned one is learning to write research articles, which is very different from writing journalistic articles or fiction. You have to ask right research questions. You have to ask why and why not.  Getting answers to these questions is the next hurdle, where you have to look for information from credible sources. That is very important. Here at C3S, I have the privilege of passing on the lessons I have learnt at IPCS and C3S to interns so that they can also apply the same in their research.
V: There is debate in India that there is a fight between India and China as to who is the next super power.  Indians would like to say it is India and others would think it is China. Do have any opinion on this? Do you think either of these countries can be the next super power?
A: Official line of both these countries is neither wants to be super power. But China’s behavior is showing a sign that it wants to be next super power.  The way it behaves in diplomatic field, in defense, in geopolitical fields and especially economy. It is controlling, some may call it is spreading its tentacles in economic aspects of several countries around the world. It is the biggest trade partner for several countries around the world.  India on the other hand has inherent good relations with other countries.  It has a good image, which China may be lacking in many cases. India has this advantage. What remains to be seen is which country uses which advantage to which extent it leverages the maximum. It depends on the leadership, on the will of the people, on the co-operation of all the divisions of the society involved. There are problems and challenges in both the countries. China is using authoritarian rule to solve these problems. We are not sure that is the best solution.  What we believe is people must be consulted. In India there many people who have different opinions. Coming together to carry forward the goal of the country, as a whole is a challenge. It is interesting to see how this plays out in the future.
V: Do you think India being a democracy gives it an advantage?
A: Definitely. Like I said it has a positive image, it is world’s largest democracy, it has good relations with all countries. Despite what some people say, I feel India is one of the best countries to live. I have freedom of expression right now. If I am not happy with something or if there is a bureaucratic problem or if there is an issue, I can speak about it. There is a freedom of press. There is freedom of expression. I would not say dissent,  but speaking frankly of ones opinions which is not the same case in China. When you discuss people come to a solution or reach a compromise and good things can happen.
V: How do you envisage the relations between India and China in the future?
A: India China relations in the future hopefully will take a turn for the better. What China believes is that the border issue and other contentious issues should be kept aside and we should move forward on other areas of co-operation. That essentially will employ a blinkered approach to such issues. But we in India believe very strongly about these areas of contention – China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), border issue, trade deficit. There are numerous other issues. For ex. We are blocked from getting a seat at UN Security council. We will not compromise on our national interest, neither will China. But we believe in friendly relations and good neighborliness.  Because we are neighbors and neighbors need each other whether or not they like what the other is doing.
V: What are the obstacles in pursuing a career goal in a niche area and in a social setup that does not have so many opportunities, which suit this specific sort of interest?
A: Can you clarify what do you mean by social setup?
V: For ex. In Chennai there are not many think tanks dedicated to IR.
A: I think it is all about the passion you have for the field. Apart from C3S and few others, there are not many think tanks in Chennai. My passion in this field and opportunities I get at C3S to explore China’s culture, soft power and foreign policy – I am not sure whether I will get this opportunity elsewhere. That drives me to carry forward my career here. That is a major help when it comes to overcoming the barrier and the challenge, which you have mentioned.
V: What would you see as the future of your work?
A: I am planning my PhD. on China Studies.  After that I would continue in this think tank.  I am also interested in teaching and considering teaching as a career. I had a wonderful experience of training the interns at C3S. I had a lot of positive feedback. I can carry forward that experience in my future career. Lets see how that pans out.
V: Lastly, What advice you give to aspiring IR students?
A: Read. There is substitute to reading. And publish. Publish or perish. Just keep writing. It may not be perfect in the beginning, but with practice you get perfection. Another piece of advise not just to students of IR, but anybody pursuing their field of interest is – it is not that you are not capable. It’s just that you do not know how to do it at present. All you have to do is learn. For that you need to ask. Don’t be shy to ask. How do I do this? How do I solve this problem? How do I bridge this gap in my present research skills or IR skills or any other skill for that matter?  People are happy to help. I welcome young scholars who are interested in IR to come to C3S. I will be happy to help them to start their career in IR and China Studies.
V: Thank You so much. Your answers are very insightful. We are very happy to have you on our pod cast.
A: Thank you Vaishnavi and congratulations to you and the Red Elephant Foundation for this initiative.

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