USCNPM: Interview with Professor David M. Lampton

David M. Lampton is Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow, Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University, and Professor Emeritus, Johns Hopkins–SAIS.

1, President Trump warned that it will be harder for the United States to reach a trade deal with Beijing if there is violence in Hong Kong. Vice President Pence repeated this message on Monday. It seems the White House ratcheted up its stance regarding Hong Kong protests. Is this the kind of moderating force you recommended in your article in SCMP?

“In my SCMP piece I was arguing that the Trump Administration needed to avoid an error I felt that it was making.  That error was to signal that if Beijing were to reach a trade deal with Washington that America would keep quiet regarding Hong Kong and defer to China’s actions. It initially seemed Trump was saying that if he got a trade deal his interest in Hong Kong was limited. Now, the new statements seems to make it clearer that if force is used in Hong Kong, it will make the resolution of trade problems more difficult. That is objectively true and stating it publicly encourages some restraint in Beijing, I presume. Further, whether or not it encourages restraint in Beijing, as a matter of cold reality, Congress and the American pubic (particularly in the context of an upcoming general election) will respond to a PRC use of force by retaliating across the entire range of issues in US-China relations, including trade. Moreover, trade is an issue where Congress has particular constitutional prerogatives. So, yes the recent statements move in the right direction, but could go further. I would think future statements all ought to be designed to describe objectively what would be the consequence of a use of outside force in Hong Kong–not threats, but objective descriptions. The PRC use of force would not only set back trade negotiations, but jeopardize Hong Kong’s special status under US law. The use of force also would scare all of China’s neighbors, it would be the death knell for One Country Two Systems, and would drive Taiwan further into the US embrace, not to mention that it would poison public opinion in the US and Europe for years, if not decades. AT THE SAME TIME, I would like to see the U.S. Administration  urge demonstrators in  Hong Kong to refrain from violence, vandalizing public property, and interfering with the smooth operation of municipal and civilian functions in the city.”

2, The trade talks between the two countries have slowly resumed recently albeit haltingly. But Trump suggested he wasn’t ready to sign a trade deal. How much weight does the US-China trade war would carry with respect to the coming election?

“Frankly, the U.S. president has said so much, one is at a loss to discern core beliefs. The key thing to keep one’s eyes on in order to predict Trump’s behavior is the performance of the U.S. economy itself. If the U.S. economy performs well despite the trade war, the pressure on the president to get a deal with Beijing will be reduced. Conversely, if the U.S. economy really begins to slip, Trump will feel obliged to do something he can claim as victory in trade with China to bolster his election prospects by strengthening markets, getting farm incomes up, and boosting US exports. His political base is sufficiently small that he simply cannot afford to lose many of his potential voters. So, I would pay less attention to what Trump says for the moment and look more at what the real US economy does and how his opponents can use the trade war against him. If Trump is driven to make a deal, at its core it probably will involve China buying lots of American `stuff’ and little or no structural reform in the PRC economy. He could have had this kind of deal more than a year ago.”

3, There is a recent Washington Post article Cooperation or Confrontation. It said “an emerging generation of China policy experts is advocating a much sharper tone and approach to Beijing, in contrast with a number of veteran China hands whose careers were shaped by the promise and tradition of engagement”. As one of the most distinguished “veteran China hands”, do you agree with this assessment?  Could you elaborate to us why the young generation tends to advocate a tougher stance?

“I think there is a germ of truth in that Post article. That is, the “China field” is now divided at a level of intensity I don’t recall going back to the 1950s.  Also, I think it is true, as a general statement, but not true of each individual, that scholars and policy makers who navigated during the Engagement Era are generally somewhat more supportive of engagement than those who came into their own as engagement began to recede as the dominant concept. But, there are lots of exceptions. Take former Ambassador Winston Lord, for example, who worked with Kissinger, was ambassador to Beijing, and then after Tiananmen fundamentally became more critical–there are many such examples.  The overriding reality is that when engagement started, “the China field” was very small and everyone was reacting to the Sino-Soviet split and the Vietnam War as well as the unlimited possibilities. Now, after forty years of engagement, however, the field is very much larger and infinitely more heterogeneous. There are people from the business world, a much bigger NGO and think tank world, and China affects almost every aspect of our society. So, it is much harder to get consensus now. And finally, the older generation saw the costs of war with China (Korea and indirectly Vietnam) and the younger people came of age when these costs of conflict were long forgotten. I sometimes think some younger people, in both China and the United States, do not fully appreciate what conflict between our two countries actually could means. I could also add that public opinion polls show generally young people in both countries have more positive views toward each country than older people. So, yes, things are quite different in the China field now–but the world is different too.”

4,In your famous “Tipping Point” article several years ago, you said “Fundamentally, America has to rethink its objective of primacy and China must recalibrate its own sense of strength and what that entitles it to“. Can this prescription still apply to the current bilateral relations, and guide two countries out of this low point?

“Yes, I think applies with even greater force now. In some sense, all the U.S. talk about the need to have a coalition of like-minded countries in the Asia-Pacific is a reflection, indirectly, of the recognition that America needs friends, and simply does not have the national strength or will to go it alone.  BUT the actual behavior of the current Administration in Washington is to assertively alienate our friends, whether in Korea, Japan, and so on.  So, we need policy execution that matches the realization that resources are limited and friends are needed. As to China, Beijing, by its assertive behavior is alienating friends. No less than in Deng Xiaoping’s era, China needs a secure external environment to manage its delicate internal circumstances.  However, what we have in both the US and China are more populist leaders who seek to gain internal support through nationalistic foreign policies which, intrinsically, alienate others. I think both China and America need to be less impressed by their respective power and more impressed by their own necessities for cooperation with each other and the need for friends.”

5, In response to the open letter  “China is not an enemy” which you signed, a group of US hawks wrote a letter to President Trump, urging a  more confrontational China policy. Is this an indicator that the future of US-China relations is still far from settled?

“Saying that U.S. (negative) policy is `settled’ is not the right way to look at it, in my view. Most fundamentally, little is ever ‘settled’ in the US system, because interest groups wax and wane, perceptions of China change, and leaders and conditions change.  That engagement with China lasted four decades is the surprise. Now that `engagement’ as the guiding policy star is gone, there is a struggle over what new conception should guide policy.  Can China and the United States reach some consensus on a productive way forward? Right now, the likelihood of a new, productive, consensus in the U.S., or between China and the U.S., is slim. Right now, most of the dialogue channels between our two countries at the national level are non-functional.  In that sense, I am afraid we are in for a negative and costly period of uncertain duration going forward; a change in political parties would not totally change that.”

6, Among many challenges that face to the bilateral relations, which has the most destructive force to U.S.-China relations?

“The most dangerous development has been the growing belief in both capitals, and among many citizens in the two countries, that each side, as a matter of national policy, is trying to make the life of the other country more difficult. Good intentions are no longer assumed in either China or America.”

7, We noticed that you have moved back to Stanford University where you studied when you were young. What does it look like to work in California as a China expert? Do you feel any difference in terms of the overall feelings toward China on the West Coast as it compared to the East Coast?

“By virtue of proximity to Asia and the presence of so many citizens and visitors with Asian heritage, America’s West Coast is highly attuned to, and interested in, developments in Asia. But in terms of the content of views, I see pretty much the same range of views here that I saw in Washington. What is absent in California is the kind of political struggle and vitriol that animates discussion in our national political capital. It is possible to have discussions less freighted by self-interest and bureaucratic politics. This is one reason I am a proponent of vigorous local-level exchanges and interaction, especially when our national capitals cannot get along. “