Susan Shirk on the contemporary geopolitics of the U.S.-China relationship

Susan Shirk is research professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at the UC San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy. She previously served as deputy assistant secretary of state (1997-2000), responsible for U.S. policy toward China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia and she founded and continues to lead the Northeast Asia Cooperation Dialogue, an unofficial forum for discussions of security issues. In addition, Shirk has served as the Director emeritus and advisory board chair of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, the U.S. Defense Policy board, the board of governors for the East-West Center (Hawaii), the board of trustees of the U.S.-Japan Foundation and the board of directors of the National Committee on United States-China Relations. Professor Shirk spoke with Michael Grouskay '17 on October 7, 2016.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Professor Shirk

Professor Graham Allison from Harvard has written on the “Thucydides Trap” arguing that the geopolitical destabilization caused by China’s rise makes war between the United States and China “more likely than not.” Do you think Professor Allison is correct in this assessment?

No I don’t. He’s basically applying John Mearsheimer’s framework that rising capabilities of one country (China) sparks resistance and misperceptions of the incumbent power, and that military conflict is inevitable. I don’t think it’s inevitable. There are mitigating factors, and wise statesmanship and diplomacy can mitigate mechanical determinism. One factor is economic interdependence, which makes us more cautious of one another than countries like the United States and Soviet Union which were not economically interdependent during the Cold War. Additionally, there are domestic political factors, which can either aggravate or improve the relationship. I served in government, and I think that diplomacy matters. I don’t think we’re in a fatal situation, and I do think that U.S.-China relations can be managed diplomatically.

A recent report by the RAND Corporation argued that war between the United States and China is more likely to be an accident — the result of a mishandled crisis — than a planned act. In your opinion, how likely is it that the U.S. and China could accidentally find themselves at war, as a result of unintended escalation in South China Sea or elsewhere?

Accidents are more likely than planned attacks. I’ve heard from maritime specialists, however, that escalation from accidental collisions of fishing boats or coast guard frigates is quite rare. This kind of incident is very unlikely to escalate because it is very easy to maintain escalatory control over the situation. We had an instance of American and Chinese planes colliding in 2001, and that was managed through mutual compromise. The crew landed on Hainan Island, and there was a lot of rhetoric and anger, but the Chinese government controlled protests, and organized the crew’s release (although they wouldn’t allow the plane to fly out, instead it had to be removed in parts). I think accidents will happen, but we have decent command and control over possible escalation. 

How is the U.S. presidential election likely to affect the sense that a great-power rivalry is emerging between the United States and China?

I don’t think it’s going to have much impact, assuming Trump doesn’t win. If Donald Trump wins, then I assume that he will do some of the things that he has committed to doing. This includes instituting a massive tariff on Chinese goods, which would launch a damaging trade war, which in turn would spill over into all other aspects of the relationship. If he does not win, we’ll see more continuity. If we look over the last eight administrations (both Republican and Democrat) there has been a lot of continuity in our policy. 

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines recently stated that he would no longer cooperate with the United States to conduct war games that “China does not want.” Are we likely to see further instances of U.S. allies shifting their policies to be more favorable to China?

It’s not likely that we’ll hear anything like what we’re hearing from the Philippines now. It is a huge problem for us to have an ally who’s basically saying “I want to break up.” This has happened once before in the Philippines and we did break up, and we closed down our bases. We’ve worked hard to get back together and improve relations, but it may be that we end up breaking up again. I think we can get along without the Philippines, but having allies can be a mixed blessing. They help augment your influence, and ability to shape world affairs. But we don’t have complete control, and if they want to break up, then maybe we just have to break up.

What role do the forces of nationalism and populism play in the U.S.-China relationship? 

We always say about countries like China that they’re nationalist, and that we’re patriotic. The fact of the matter is that it’s basically the same sentiment, and when it becomes anti-foreign, we usually call it nationalism. If you listen to Donald Trump’s rhetoric, that’s nationalism, nativism and populism. In China, besides anti-foreign nationalism (which is mostly focused on Japan rather than the U.S.), populism (a sense of resentment that the interests of the public are not being accounted for by politicians, and a huge gap between the elites and the public) is not as strong as it is in the United States. It’s true that trade with China and foreign trade in general have had an impact on job loss in the United States. Right now, the manifestation of populism in the United States is an opposition to trade agreements and protectionism. This is really dangerous because although in the short term, foreign trade can hurt groups, by and large it’s good for the economy. For many years, we’ve managed to maintain an open trading environment, despite the occasional tendency of people to favor protectionist policies. It really remains to be seen whether or not we’re able to prevent this kind of populist protectionism from interfering with U.S. open trade policies. That is a big concern, and it wouldn’t just be focused on China. Recent surveys show that Republican voters who used to be more pro-trade than democratic voters (perhaps because Donald Trump has legitimated a very protectionist line) are turning against foreign trade. 

How does the Chinese government view internal anti-foreign sentiment? Are there distinctions between anti-U.S. and anti-Japanese sentiment?

The strongest anti-foreign nationalism is directed against Japan, and that’s because of the bitter experience of the Japanese occupation of China, and the fact that Japan is also a very powerful and important country in Asia that China feels competitive with. Chinese government has reinforced anti-Japanese sentiment through school textbooks, movies, and celebration of days of historical humiliation. They’ve tried to reinforce anti-Japanese nationalism as a way of reinforcing popular support for the Chinese government. They’ve done that less-so with the United States, but recently there is a more hostile framing of suspicion towards U.S. intentions as trying to subvert the stability of the Chinese government. This is potentially very damaging to Sino-U.S. relations. I hope that it won’t continue because it could really have a very harmful impact on Chinese public opinion towards the United States and the ability of the two countries to cooperate with one another. 

What role does cultural exchange play as a counterbalance to anti-foreign sentiment in China?

People-to-people ties of various sorts are very numerous and thick. For example, look at the number of tourists, foreign students, businesses, marriage, movie making, etc. It’s extremely important for stabilizing the relationship and preventing the fate of the Thucydides Trap. That’s why I worry when the Chinese government starts to put barriers up between our two cultures and societies. 

Michael Grouskay CMC '17Student Journalist
Featured Image Source: "20121219-OSEC-LSC-0142" by U.S. Department of Agriculture — Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —
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