Q&A: China expert Susan Shirk updates her view of Sino-US relations
Asia Times top writer George Koo recently interviewed Susan L. Shirk, the author of 2007’s acclaimed “China, Fragile Superpower.” Professor Shirk is an influential expert on Chinese politics who served as deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration. She was a guest speaker at a Feb. 18 forum in Palo Alto, Calif. hosted by the Committee of 100 and the Commonwealth Club to discuss “Why the UK sees China as a friend and the US doesn’t.” Shirk, who is currently a professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, was invited to address the US point of view. Koo moderated and afterwards spoke with Shirk in an exclusive interview for Asia Times.
Koo: Martin Jacques believes the UK sees China as vital to the UK’s economic future. Being the global hegemon, he further believes, is the major reason the US cannot see China the same way as the UK. That is, the US is more likely to see China as a competitor or even as an adversary than as a friend. What’s your view?
Shirk: It’s understandable that the US and UK would view China on the basis of their own interests. The UK is interested primarily in the commercial benefits China can bestow. The US values the economic relationship too, but has broader interests related to Asian regional security, human rights, nonproliferation, etc.
But what really bothers me about the UK’s current courtship of China is that it came about after China put its relationship with Britain in deep freeze for a year on account of the British prime minister meeting with the Dalai Lama. This kind of diplomatic and economic arm-twisting is unbecoming of an aspiring global power.
Both the UK and the US do not refute that Tibet is part of China. Of course, I am concerned about UK and US diverging in their approach to China, but most of all, I am concerned with Britain rewarding this kind of arm-twisting by China and thus encouraging Beijing to apply similar tactics in its dealings with other nations.
Koo: The Beijing government has recently launched several regional economic initiatives like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt One Road. What should be the US policy be towards these initiatives?
Shirk: My view is that the US should not have overeacted, which made us look pathetically insecure. Of course, China naturally wants to expand its regional influence, so shouldn’t we encourage China to channel its ambitions into economic and diplomatic initiatives rather than military ones? We should encourage China to make sure that its infrastructure investment projects conform to international norms such as financial transparency, environmental protection, and labor standards. But we made a mistake in appearing to be obstructionist.
Koo: How are China’s actions in the South China Sea and East China Sea affecting its relations with Asian neighbors? What should be the US role in these disputes?
Shirk: China is making these maritime territorial claims a higher priority than its own national security interests. Its actions in the South China Sea have raised alarms among its neighbors and left them wondering about Beijing’s long-term intentions for this region. It looks like Beijing is resolved to assert its expansive claims over the South China Sea even at the price of continuous friction with its neighbors. Many of its neighbors are seeking the protection of the US from what they now see as a China threat. China would like the US to reduce or even withdraw its military presence in Asia. But its artificial islands and military construction are having just the opposite result — bringing the US military in even more.
The US takes no position on the sovereignty disputes. Its primary concern is that the parties in the disputes settle their differences in a peaceful manner in accordance with international law and that none of the developments shall interfere with freedom of navigation. The US follows the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but hasn’t ratified it yet. Hopefully, the next Congress will finally act on it. We look ridiculous preaching about following international law when we haven’t formally agreed to it ourselves.
Koo: How does the domestic insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party leadership influence its foreign policy? Under Xi, are they feeling more or less secure? To what extent did the world financial crisis of 2008-9 alter China’s perception of the US?
Shirk: The CCP leaders are more insecure than ever. They continue to worry that their rule could end overnight like that of the communist party in the Soviet Union. Can a communist party continue to govern a society drastically changed by market reforms and opening to the world? Xi Jinping’s focus is much more on domestic threats than international ones. And now that economic growth is slowing and people could be facing real economic distress, the threat of public discontent looms larger. The big question is whether Xi Jinping will try to rally people around the CCP by stoking anti-foreign nationalism and even possibly try to distract them from domestic problems by provoking confrontations over maritime claims. It could work the other way, of course. He could behave more cautiously toward China’s neighbors and the US to keep a peaceful international context for China to address its domestic problems, which is what China did before 2008.
The 2008 global financial crisis changed Chinese views of the US, leading to the misperception that the US was in decline and discrediting the American model. Because China recovered fastest from the crisis, people in China felt a kind of premature triumphalism. The Chinese public and elites started to demand a more assertive foreign policy. The muscle-flexing that resulted has raised anxiety among the neighboring nations about China’s intentions. The net result is harmful to China’s own national interest.
Koo: In your book, you’ve spelled out various domestic pressures within China that could lead to unintentional but nevertheless deadly military conflict with the US — nationalism that gets out of hand being one of those. Do you see any parallel or analogy on the US side that could also lead to accidental conflict, such as for example in South China Sea?
Shirk: At the time I wrote my book, there was only one scenario then that we could imagine possibly bringing China and the US to blows, and that was Taiwan. Now there are four — namely the South China Sea disputes, China-Japan conflict over the East China Sea, and the violent collapse of North Korea, as well as a crisis in the Taiwan Strait.
I do not believe we have comparable conditions in the US. Here, we have politicians worried only about winning the next election, not politicians worried about the survival of the regime. American politicians try to appeal to voters by blaming China for our economic problems and exaggerating China as a threat, and thus we hear a lot of irresponsible statements during political campaigns. But campaign rhetoric has never reached the level of triggering military action. Furthermore, we are not at risk these days because the American people are weary of military conflict and are reluctant to commit our forces to any new international interventions.
Koo: At the time of your book, the South China Sea was relatively calm compared to now. How would you characterize China’s current relations with Vietnam, the Philippines and the US?
Shirk: Now the South China Sea has become one of the most serious points of contention between the US and China. The US and China’s neighbors are seeing it not just as a source of regional tension but China’s actions are raising questions about China’s long-term intentions.
A critical turning point could be the Philippines’ case against the PRC that is currently before the arbitration tribunal of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. If the court rules against China and China refuses to comply, how should the world react? Will there be any consequences for China for flouting international law? How can we motivate China to climb down from its overly expansive claims to the entire South China Sea to take a position in line with international law?
The US should avoid getting in the middle of the South China Sea disputes. Let’s also not exaggerate the risk to US security. It’s not the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a regional issue that should be addressed primarily by the claimants and by ASEAN. But the current situation is creating regional tension and therefore requires multilateral discussion in the ASEAN Regional Forum and other multilateral forums. In 1999 China did begin to discussions on a Code of Conduct with ASEAN, but negotiations bogged down and since then China has dragged its heels.
Koo: “The Chinese government has never adopted an Asian version of the Monroe Doctrine to keep the US out of its neighborhood”–a quote from your book. In light of recent developments since your book was published, to what extent is your statement still true or not so much?
Shirk: It is still true. It would be unrealistic for China to expect to dominate Asia the way the US as a rising power dominated the Caribbean and Latin America. The regions are very different. There are other large and powerful countries in Asia such as India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and therefore there can’t be only one regional hegemon. Even if the US forces weren’t in Asia, it wouldn’t be possible for China to recreate a regional hierarchy like that of the Qing Dynasty. China is going to have to find a way to work together on a more equal basis with other regional powers.
Koo: In your book, you described how China tried to convince neighboring countries that they are not a threat to anyone. Seems like they are still doing this; is China more or less effective now?
Shirk: The Chinese government continues to talk about the importance of having good relations with its neighbors. Xi Jinping last year held an unprecedented high-level meeting focused on what the Chinese call “periphery diplomacy,” a kind of good neighbor policy. And both the One Belt One Road initiative and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank reflect China’s efforts to show its benevolence toward its neighbors by generously investing in their economic development. But Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea undercut much of the good will it earns through these economic good deeds.
China would go a long way toward reducing regional worries about the China threat if it would work toward making regional multilateral institutions more binding instead of just talk shops. Showing a willingness to be bound by multilateral rules and norms is a good way to reassure other countries about your intentions.
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100 and a director of New America Media.