Shen Dingli is a professor and associate dean at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies and the vice president of the Chinese Association of South Asian Studies, the Shanghai Association of International Studies, the Shanghai Association of American Studies, and the Shanghai UN Research Association. He is on the Global Council of the Asia Society and was appointed by the Shanghai Municipality as Shanghai’s Convention Ambassador. He has co-edited 17 books and published some 2000 papers and articles worldwide.
How would you describe U.S.-China relations in its current state, from a Chinese perspective?
It is an ever maturing but complex relationship. There is vast cooperation, but increasing numbers of skirmishes, mutual suspicion and, I will not say confrontation, but competition. So it’s complex.
Has the strategy of the current Chinese leadership towards U.S.-China relations differed from the previous one?
I would not say the strategy has been different. The past approach was dependent upon past need. The need was development, so we balanced our security interests and development interests, which was zhaoshang yinzi (招商引资) – to introduce foreign capital, technology and exports. And for this we downplayed other interests, such as Taiwan, Tibet and other territorial interests. But we stuck to some basic interests. For instance, for China and the U.S. to have normal relations, the U.S. had to withdraw armed forces from Taiwan. But we know that the U.S. has since put non-uniformed military personnel in Taiwan. As long as they were not in uniform, we pretend not to know, because if we know they are in uniform, we would not continue the current relationship. The U.S. receives Taiwanese officials in America, but not in [official] federal buildings. The meetings occur and we pretend not to know. But if this were to happen inside a federal building, the relationship cannot be sustained. That is our approach. We have not fundamentally changed this approach. If the U.S. government were to receive Tsai Ing-wen in the U.S. officially, that would be a big problem. But we are not able to stop the U.S. from selling weapons to Taiwan.
We saw the U.S. reinterpreting the U.S.-Japan 1960 security agreement, which commits the U.S. to defend Japan wherever the U.S. recognizes Japan is entitled to sovereignty. There was one area, the Diaoyu Islands, where the U.S. had been vague. The U.S. position was that the U.S. has no position on who has sovereignty over it. The U.S. only gave Japan the right to exercise jurisdiction over the island. The U.S. has no sovereignty over the island. The U.S. has no right to give sovereignty to any particular entity. Therefore the U.S. was unsure until two years ago, until April 2014, when Obama changed that position. It no longer mattered whether or not Japan has ownership over the Diaoyu Islands, the U.S.-Japan alliance would oblige America to defend it. That’s where the U.S. changed position. China’s position is zhuquan guiwo, gezhi zhengyi, gongtong kaifa (主权归我、搁置争议、共同开发) – I have sovereignty, let us shelve differences and seek joint development. China would not exercise jurisdiction over it as long as Japan does not either. So let’s co-fish, co-develop. But Japan unilaterally changed their position. Initially, Japan had a tacit verbal agreement with China over this sharing dispute. But in 2012, Japan openly nationalized the three major islands of the Diaoyu Islands. That is not maintaining the status quo.
The U.S. tried but failed to stop Japan from changing the status quo. The U.S. tried but failed to prevent China from deviating from the status quo. We didn’t want to change, but we were forced to change because Japan changed. So in one sense, yes, China changed. We announced the East China Sea ADIZ [Air Defense Identification Zone] and we sent official vessels, our own coast guard vessels, into the territorial waters of the islands. And on one occasion, an official plane flew into the territorial space. Second, only noting that China has changed is not enough. American hegemony in the region is in jeopardy. America cannot control Japan, and Japan failed to predict that China would not continue Deng Xiaoping’s strategy.
And what was Deng Xiaoping’s strategy?
Deng Xiaoping’s strategy was that a world war would most likely not take place, and therefore we have time to develop. If we develop, we have a better chance to shape future peace. For us to develop, we are willing to make compromises – compromises that are low-key, compromises with a smile. The compromise was we knew Japan took jurisdiction over the Diaoyu Islands, but we pretended not to see. Now we no longer pretend because they announced nationalization over it, and now everyone can see.
This happens once every four years. We are accustomed to seeing changes. I have been working on U.S.-China relations for over 20 years, so I saw the changing of the U.S. administration from George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama. Each said something different from the previous president. Even if the candidate was from the same party, they said different things.
Donald Trump says he would immediately abolish the TPP. That would hurt the confidence of those partner states or other U.S. friends and allies and would significantly diminish the legacy of Obama and Hillary Clinton. But in the end, he may not abolish it. When he is in power, he may be surrounded by many previous government officials who would advise him on how to revise and adjust the TPP.
So we just watch. We cannot control, we will not intervene. And every change or non-change will bring some positive impact or negative impact on China. As long as China is mature, China will not manipulate the currency exchange rate. As long as China is an innovative country that often has new technologies emerging, China will not hurt our ecological sustainability. Why would we worry about the TPP? We should take advantage of the TPP’s not having become effective, take advantage of the TPP’s taking time to negotiate, by lifting our own competence. This is just like when we negotiated for 10 years to join the WTO. When China joined in December 2001, the country was far more competent than when it started those negotiations. Since joining the WTO, 15 years have passed. China is more competent. While being pressed by the TPP’s negotiations for three or four years now, China has become more competent. And it would have still taken time for all 12 member countries to ratify. Democracy takes time, so China still has time.
Do you expect China to change its strategic approach to its relations with the U.S. now that Trump will be president?
China will change no strategic approach regardless of who is elected. China will cooperate with the U.S. wherever that is possible and will defend its legitimate interests whenever that is necessary.
How do you think Trump will preside over U.S.-China relations? He is viewed as being unpredictable and has made incendiary remarks against China in the past.
He will behave no differently than any of his predecessors in defending American values, economy and security. He will be predictable in dealing with China-U.S. relations – defending the American view of human rights, promoting American trade and investment interests with China, and working with allies to assure that China complies with international laws.
With the TPP unlikely to pass and Trump appearing to withdraw from international cooperation, such as the Paris Climate deal, is this an opportunity for China to step into a bigger leadership role? Is it ready to?
No. The TPP is the direction of a higher standard of international trade. It can push China to speed up its national program of innovation, turning China into a first-rate country faster. Without the TPP, China will lose external pressures to domestically reform. For the Paris Agreement on climate change, since both China and the U.S. have over-committed to some extent to tasks that they can never accomplish, China will be able to take a breath, since the U.S. under the Trump administration may be unwilling to work with the Agreement. It is unnecessary for China to take leadership to fulfill a task that has been over-committed.
During the presidential run Trump expressed protectionist views. Do you expect trade between China and the U.S. to be affected by his presidency?
No. Every day, the U.S. has protectionism. On trade, the U.S. would bring China to the WTO court. And China may lose seven out of 10 suits. China would say the ruling was wrong, but in reality China follows. That has been the practice. China still has protectionism, too; everybody has. One benefit is to give more security to your own workers. Second is to make these workers vote for you. Then you have to weigh those benefits against the cost. You have to be ready to run some risk – affordable risk. That is the art of balancing.
China succeeded in its 10-year negotiations to join the WTO. China suspected it could win a lot by exporting with low tariffs and lose a lot by creating low tariffs for foreign products to enter China. In the end, China became the number one material goods exporter, and the U.S. declined to number two. The U.S. wants to have the TPP to make America number one again. That may give China more pressure to run the country towards a TPP model in five to 10 years. So China will lose the number one position for five years but pick up the number one position again after five years. At that time, China will be far more competent than it is now. The U.S. may regret pressuring China to be so competent. So why do it? Because it doesn’t want its current workers to lose. But the next generation of American workers may lose. And then the next president will find some other inappropriate business patterns of China’s. So that’s how we constantly have a peaceful competition.
Lots of presidential candidates say China manipulates the currency. But once they become president, they say that was my campaign language. It takes time for my new administration to investigate. And then they will say, well, China has problems, but China is improving. Let’s give China more time. So far this is the case. This is the China-U.S. ever maturing relationship. You say I have a problem; we smile. And before you take action, I make some progress. And you say that’s good, but not good enough. Then eight years later, you change your president. Don’t worry. China-U.S. relations will have an ever mature cooperation and increasingly competitive partnership.
Which candidate do you think the Chinese leadership would have preferred: Trump or Clinton?
I don’t know. I guess that they may prefer Donald Trump, for many good reasons. First, we know he is smart in making money. When you are pro-money, pro-development, pro-efficiency and probably pro-free trade, then you are my friend. We are pro-development, pro-efficiency, but we’re not pro-ideology. Xi Jinping said mingyun gongtongti (命运共同体) – we are in the same “fate community.” We don’t want to change the U.S. system to liberate workers, peasants, so that they should occupy the White House. We changed our ideology. But we find that some Democrats are very ideological: human rights, bailing Chen Guangcheng out, and telling China, why don’t you follow internationally recognized human rights standards? We are improving, but not perfectly. Could you encourage us and say something good about us? Then tell us this privately. When we dine, tell us. Don’t openly make an announcement.
Some see Trump’s protocol-breaking phone call and subsequent provocative tweets on China as thoughtless actions by an inexperienced president-elect. Others think it’s part of a strategy to be tougher on China, as he has promised in his campaign. What is your view and how might China respond if things continue down this line?
It is not a problem now because he is a private citizen. But if such contacts continue after Inauguration Day, China should end diplomatic relations with the United States. I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats.