David Shambaugh is a professor of political science & international affairs and the founding director of the China Policy Program in the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. He has written or edited 30 books, including China Goes Global: The Partial Power (2013 and selected by The Economist, Foreign Affairs, and Bloomberg News as one of the “Best Books of the Year”). His new book China’s Future (2016 by Polity Press) was released earlier this year.
How would you describe the U.S.-China relationship prior to the election?
I would say that U.S.-China relations were their usual mix of cooperation and competition – but the overall trend during the Obama administration had been shrinking cooperation and increasing competition and discord. Some of the sharper frictions – such as corporate cyber hacking by Chinese government and military affiliated entities of American corporations and NGOs – has seemingly slightly ameliorated over the past year. But other issues and factors continue to strain the relationship: severe constrictions on U.S. businesses in China; strategic distrust among government officials and military officers; rising negative perceptions and distrust among both American and Chinese publics; the severe clampdown on foreign NGOs and repression more broadly in China’s civil society and “public sphere”; growing suspicions in the U.S. of Chinese investments in an ever-widening spectrum of industries and sectors, some of which impact American comparative advantages and thus national security; and other issues. Yes, there has been some bilateral cooperation – the climate change accord stands out – but, overall, the trajectory of U.S.-China relations (from the American perspective) has been steadily downward in recent years.
Could you talk about how China’s leadership has behaved toward Democrat versus Republican presidents in the past, and how do you think its current leadership will react to a Trump presidency?
Traditionally, the Chinese government has tended to respect Republican presidents more and have worked better with their administrations in the past – while they have tended to distrust and dismiss Democratic administrations in general. At least that is my personal perception. This is because Republican administrations tend to be more pragmatic and transactional, from the Chinese perspective, and less ideological and interventionist in the human rights domain (as they find the Democrats to be).
In terms of a Trump presidency, I think the initial reactions from Chinese commentators (which may or may not reflect government views) is that they can work with Trump. They see him as a businessman first and foremost – and businesspeople are pragmatic and do deals (they think). Hence these Chinese commentators have tended to downplay Trump’s campaign threats (such as 45% tariffs), but they are equally of the view that Trump’s rhetoric about possibly drawing back from East Asian alliances, combined with no mention by Trump of China as a strategic/military threat, means that American strategic pressure on China will decline and China will have a much more open set of opportunities to expand its influence in Asia. I think this may be a profound misreading of what the Trump administration may actually think and do if you look at two things: first, candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric about rebuilding the U.S. military (and adding 100 ships, which would mainly go to the Pacific theater); second, the very hardline neo-conservative orientation of many of his prospective national security and Asia advisors. It is still early days, and we will have to wait and see how this plays out, but I think the Chinese may find the exact opposite of what they anticipate—a much more confrontational America.
Will China change its strategic approach to its relations with the U.S. following Trump’s election victory?
China’s strategic approach towards the United States, in my view, has been to “freeze” the Americans in a relationship consumed by the process of bilateral governmental exchange – while doing everything China can every day of the year to build its influence around Asia and the world. In other words, China’s America strategy is to undermine America’s global preeminence by expanding their own commercial and strategic ties all over the planet – while temporizing Washington with the illusion of “engagement.” The Chinese are playing a globally competitive game with the United States, and the U.S. is hardly aware of it. The U.S. is being “played” by Beijing in ways that Sun Zi would have admired.
If Trump pursues the protectionist economic policies of his electoral platform, and the TPP is not passed, what does this mean for the U.S. pivot to Asia?
The failure of TPP, which now seems a dead duck in the U.S. Senate, is an enormous blow to American prestige in Asia and the world. It was the central plank of the comprehensive “rebalance” or pivot policy of the Obama administration – without it Washington’s regional policy remains overly weighted to the military domain. Of course, U.S. companies can continue to operate throughout the region – and the American commercial footprint in Asia is wide and deep – but TPP was as much a diplomatic signal as an economic one. I do not think the U.S. position in the region is mortally wounded, but it is certainly damaged by the failure of TPP. Further protectionist trade policies by the Trump administration will only add to this trend.
Some countries in the region have already begun to redefine their relationship with Washington. If Trump was to reduce U.S. military and alliance commitments in the region, will other countries follow their example?
I do not think that Trump will follow through on such rhetoric about a pull-back from America’s Asian alliances. He may succeed in getting them to pay more of the “burden sharing” costs, which is probably appropriate, but he and his administration are not about to sever longstanding alliances of 60-70 years. No nation in Asia is looking to Beijing as a security guarantor – they all want close defense and security ties (some more formalized than others) with Washington, precisely because they do not trust China and do not wish to live under a 21st century version of the ancient “tribute system.” All Asian states want to maintain simultaneously strong economic ties to China and the United States, but when it comes to security, they look only to Washington. I do not think that is going to change.
Taiwan has enjoyed a close relationship with the U.S. What options does it have if Trump does scale back the U.S. military presence in the region?
Again, I do not foresee a U.S. “pullback,” as you put it, or reduction of the American strategic presence in the region. Quite to the contrary. As for Taiwan, the U.S. relationship with the island should continue to be guided by the same principles of the past eight administrations – which includes continuing security assistance. This said, I (and other observers) all anticipate cross-strait tensions to flare again in the coming years now that Tsai Ing-wen is in office. The mainland has already begun to step up the economic pressure on the island. The “Taiwan issue” is by no means stable, which is a real reason for continued American military deployments in the region and maintenance of regional alliances.
Regardless of U.S. foreign policy, do you believe that China will continue its island building activity in the South China Sea?
Yes. And the United States will be shown to have been impotent in the face of such provocations.
As China moves closer to having the military capability to protect its perceived interests in Asia, will the U.S. have to accept a weakened role in the region?
China’s increased military power-projection capabilities and growing footprint in the East Asian littoral will only continue to expand (although we should note that it still remains very limited in terms of air power) – but that does not ipso facto result in a “weakened,” as you put it, role or position for the U.S. military in the region. Indeed, I would assume that U.S. capabilities are going to continue to increase and be enhanced. Together with U.S. allies, the strategic balance-of-power will remain strongly in the American favor and not tilt towards China.
There will be a large reshuffle of China’s Politburo in 2017. Do you expect this to affect U.S.-China relations? Could it lead to an even more robust Chinese foreign policy?
The changeover of personnel at the top of the Chinese system next year at the 19th CCP Congress could well affect both internal and external policies and behavior. Normally, such congresses do not substantially alter China’s macro direction, but this one could conceivably do so. Generally speaking, if a reformist coalition gains the majority of Politburo seats, it could force Xi Jinping’s hands and have the effect of kick-starting internal economic reforms (which have badly stalled) and becoming more conciliatory towards the U.S. and others. But if Xi succeeds in stacking the Politburo with his acolytes, we will likely continue to see more of the same – stagnation and repression internally combined with assertiveness abroad. It’s an odd combination – internal insecurity and external assertion – but that is frequently the behavior of insecure people.