The U.S.’s relationship with China, fraught with friction and rising competition, will most likely not improve under President-elect Donald Trump, according to David Shambaugh, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who spoke at the Ford School of Public Policy Thursday.
About 60 people gathered to listen to Shambaugh discuss his views on the state of U.S.-China relations today and their projected evolution over coming decades. His lecture is the first of several organized by the Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies on U.S.-China relations over the next year in the context of the U.S. election, as well as upcoming changes in Chinese leadership next fall.
Shambaugh began his talk by noting that there is friction between the two nations, especially regarding the past and present U.S. presidents’ wishes to hold China accountable as a world power. Though Shambaugh said the Obama administration implemented policy generally continuous with actions of the Bush administration, Obama’s more left-leaning, internationally based policies lead to greater mistrust from the Chinese government.
“If there was a shift from Bush to Obama, it was Obama’s even greater embrace of the global governance dimension of the relationship,” he said.
However, Shambaugh added that though it is important to recognize the fraught nature of the U.S.-China relationship, there are also several positive dimensions and interdependencies that act as buffers between the competitive countries — such as billions of dollars in two-way trade, investments and export markets. He also emphasized the strong relationship between Michigan and cities in China.
“We’ve got sister city and sister state relationships, including Michigan’s own long-standing relationships in China,” Shambaugh said. “Governor Snyder’s done a great deal to increase that, but it goes back, in fact, to when I was a student here.”
But despite relationships between specific provinces and states, Shambaugh said two-thirds of the public in both countries view each other with mutual distrust due in part to the countries’ differing ideologies, as well as China’s rapidly growing commercial and political presence. He stated multiple times throughout the talk that the tension between the two countries should be seen as a new normal.
“While regrettable, this negativity, I think, is to be expected,” he said. “We China specialists, or social scientists, should not be surprised by this, and moreover, I think it’s the new normal. We have to get used to it. This is the natural paradigm, not some sort of false, cooperative, harmonious paradigm.”
Shambaugh also discussed how Trump’s presidency will affect U.S.-China relations. Though Trump has called for increased tariffs on Chinese goods and the labeling of China as a currency manipulator, Shambaugh noted that the president-elect has offered little in terms of other foreign policy. Despite Trump’s isolationist rhetoric, he said he doubts the president-elect will walk away from a trade deal like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump said he may do during his campaign.
“I would highly doubt a Trump admin will walk away from these alliances,” Shambaugh said. “Isolationist rhetoric would meet resistance, if he wanted to pull away from Asia and NATO.”
Though Shambaugh noted multiple variables behind the increasing tensions between the United States and China, such as rising Chinese national identity and the United States’ position in the Asian-Pacific region, he ended his discussion on a lighter note.
“This is a transitional time; the relationship is categorized by rising competition and predominant competition, secondary cooperation but it’s not about to go off the cliff,” he said. “Since 1972, and through nine American presidents and eight Chinese leaders, this is not the first time we have had frictions. We have had them in the past, and the relationship has continued to endure and grow to both societies’ benefit.”
Rackham student Ding He said she felt the talk made a variety of perspectives on the U.S.-China relationship more clear.
“I think because I read a lot of articles about the relationship between America and China, so this one is like how the people from the policy committees think about the relationship,” He said. “So actually I’ve heard these kinds of opinions in China a lot, so this is just to confirm some of the ideas and information that I have taken from before.”