USCNPM: An Interview with Michael D. Swaine

By Zhang Juan, US-China Perception Monitor
October, 2019

Michael D. Swaine is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a prominent international security analyst and scholar.  Read his full bio at:

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Do you think the July “China is not an enemy” open letter has achieved its designed impact?

I think in some respects, the letter has attained its desired impact; in other respects, it is too early to tell. With regards to the former, the letter has clearly shown that there is no single consensus in Washington and among foreign policy specialists, practitioners, and scholars.

The letter also clearly demonstrates (as it was intended to) that there is no single consensus behind the very hardline, zero-sum approach to China that is currently being endorsed by many in Washington­­––not just by those in the Trump administration but also by many on the Hill and elsewhere.

It is too soon to tell if the views expressed in the letter are going to have an impact on policy. I doubt they will have much impact on the Trump administration. The current administration does not really care much about what people outside the government think, except in a political sense that is, for instance, associated with Trump’s reelection.

However, I think the letter could have an effect on the Democratic candidates for President.  I have been told that the letter stimulated a certain amount of discussion within Democratic Party circles about developing a China policy that is not identical to that of the Trump administration. In that sense, I think it could influence thinking within the Democratic Party and among Democratic candidates in the primaries.  So far, candidates do not have much in the way of a clear, universal, or comprehensive policy approach towards China. Most of their comments about China are limited to a few statements about trade policy, maybe about Hong Kong, but there is not really an overarching strategy. I hope the letter will have some influence over their thinking.

The open letter gives some people hope that America’s China policy would go back to the old mingling of competition and engagement, if like-minded people like the authors and signers were able to be in charge of the China policy-making. As one of the lead authors in this open letter, do you think this is a possibility?

I think it will certainly be a possibility. There was recently an essay written by Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan, who are both foreign policy thinkers within Democratic Party circles. Even though Kurt Campbell has been very critical of past U.S. policy towards China, the actual recommendations put forth in his essay were pretty similar to that of an engagement policy. They put more emphasis on competing with China, but contrary to what the Trump administration has been doing, they certainly do not ignore or downplay cooperating with China where needed.

The Trump administration has simply mentioned cooperation and positive engagement with China as a throwaway line, not as something they take very seriously. Yet, I think that in Democratic Party circles, there is a recognition that [the U.S.] needs to have a balanced policy. I think there are chances that some versions of the arguments represented in the open letter will get reflected in Democratic Party circles in the future.

Given the current U.S. political climate in which both parties are hawkish to China, avoiding a military conflict in the Western Pacific seems even more urgent. Have you come up with a new idea in terms of how to avoid conflict in that region, or would your proposals in Creating a Stable Asia would still do the trick?

[Laughs] Well, I never argued that the arguments in Creating a Stable Asia would necessarily do the trick. I am realistic. I think the chances of fully implementing all of the elements of those arguments are not high, at least under current circumstances. Yet at the same time, I do believe very strongly that we are going to have a rough balance of power in Asia, in terms of political, economic, and military capabilities, at least in terms of economic and military capabilities.

In the future, the balance will be very different from the environment that has existed for decades since the end of World War II, where the U.S. was clearly the dominant military and in some respects, the dominant economic power in the Pacific. I think that predominance is now eroding. While I do not think China will replace the U.S. as the dominant power in the Western Pacific, I do think there will be some approximation, or some rough balance, between the U.S. and its allies on one hand and China on the other. We need to think about how to make that rough balance of power stable. I have presented some ideas about how we can achieve that stability, in terms of not only force structure but also political and economic agreements. I think it would be useful if there were serious debate about this, but neither China nor the U.S. are willing to have a serious conversation about how the balance of power would look over time.

I think during the Obama administration, there were efforts to initiate such a discussion, at least to talk about the future strategic environment, but the Trump administration has since completely stopped all of that. Right now, we do not have any real movement; if any, we are moving in the opposite direction––discussions on both sides are more polarizing as each side is trying to maintain or possibly achieve dominance. I think this is a losing proposition for both sides and for the region.

In the meantime, even if we do not have a serious debate, there needs to be a more concentrated effort to improve crisis management. We do have some crisis management mechanisms, but they are narrow and deal with military-to-military actions only at the operational level–– they do not encompass larger obstacles in managing a Sino-American crisis that involves civilian leaders as well. We need to have a serious, broadly-based dialogue at both the Track I and the Track II levels (i.e., at official and unofficial levels) in order to avoid crises. If the two powers get into a position of rough balance but they do not have a stable understanding of one another’s strategies, then the chances of having more serious crises will increase.

In other words, we need a mechanism or process that will minimize the chance that future likely crises escalate, particularly regarding Taiwan.

The 2019 Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy Report (IPSR) affirms Taiwan is part of the strategy. What does this mean to China and its long and firm desire to keep Taiwan?

If you are referring to the report, part of which makes reference to Taiwan as a state alongside other nations, and we conclude that this is what the Department of Defense (DoD) intended to make such a statement, the report is a clear violation of existing U.S. policy towards Taiwan. The United States does not recognize Taiwan as an independent state. The U.S. takes no legal position in the international system on the status of Taiwan, and the current view in some circles that Taiwan should be regarded as a strategic asset for the U.S. is disturbing, because it implies that Taiwan is of such a strategic value that the U.S. must act to prevent Taiwan from becoming part of mainland China.

According to this view, if Taiwan were to come under the influence of mainland China, then mainland China would be able to have a forward basing area in the Western Pacific, greater economic influence and power, and the ability to put greater pressure on Japan.

If this type of argument—implying that the long-standing U.S. One China policy is now obsolete—actually becomes U.S. government policy, there no longer will be a viable way of maintaining stability in the Western Pacific. This is because U.S. efforts to keep Taiwan separate from Mainland China would be a basic violation of the agreement reached between Washington and Beijing during the period of normalization.  At that time, China agreed to pursue a peaceful policy of reunification as a primary priority, and the U.S. agreed to accept that there is only one China, but it chose to neither endorse nor oppose the mainland position that Taiwan is part of China.

If the U.S. drops that position, then the basis for normalization and the basis for our relationship with China will be fundamentally challenged. China will not accept the U.S. tossing out the Taiwan policy. It will lead to greater Chinese pressure on Taiwan, and it will open up a real possibility of confrontation and conflict between the U.S. and China.

In my view, moving to consider Taiwan a strategic asset is an extremely reckless and dangerous view. Whether or not the DoD has accepted this argument, which I do not think they clearly have, despite the 2019 report, there are voices in Washington that are increasingly accepting this notion, and those voices need to be resisted.

What would you say to the Trump supporters—especially those in rural areas and blue color workers—to indicate that the China policy you advocated will be in their best interest?

I think it will be in their best interest. The China policy put forth in the open letter does not say that the U.S. should stop putting pressure on China regarding economic issues, such as the theft of intellectual property, or that the U.S. should abandon its pursuit of a more even-handed and reciprocal economic relationship with China. All of these are valid interests for the U.S. and any industry or administration should continue to pursue these interests. It is not as if the choice is between nothing in the economic area and the policy that the Trump administration is pursuing, which is a mindless effort to increase tariffs on Chinese goods in an attempt to get China to agree to American demands.

People in the Trump base should understand that there is a more responsible way to engage with China which will exert more pressure and gain the U.S. further advantage, and this will benefit them as well. It does not mean a simple return to the old engagement policy; it means we develop a policy that has a more effective and more focused basis for competition, with more leverage and a greater focus on correcting problems within the U.S. that create problems for Trump base supporters.

I think the single most important consideration with regards to competing with China is to increase our domestic capacity to compete. The U.S. needs to increase its ability to economically and politically influence China and the policies of other countries, so that we can better pursue a mutually beneficial relationship. It is apparent that politicians are not doing this. We are in a political deadlock with polarization.

There needs to be a serious effort made in a variety of areas to correct economic, social, and political problems domestically, and these corrections will ultimately make the U.S. more effective while also making it a more attractive partner for cooperation.

As one of the best international strategists in our time, I am wondering how you would explain the U.S.-China relations in major IR theories, if it applies to them at all. Is the current uneasy relationship between two countries a reflection of realism and realist strategy?

I do not think the current U.S.-China relationship is a simplistic reflection of one theory or another. I think trying to put the relationship into a simple theoretical model does not tell us a whole lot.

If I were to identify the factors that influence the relationship the most, I would say that the relationship reflects some realist assumptions about international relations combined with some assumptions of what is called political constructivism. Constructivism argues that it is not just human nature and power maximization between states that predict their behavior, as the offensive realist view would have you believe; countries also have their own political culture, their own assessments about power relations, their own views about what constitutes stability and instability, and their own unique personalities and histories that influence how they interact with other states, often decisively.

In the U.S. and China, we have all of these factors––differing personalities, histories and political cultures­­––all of which have a big effect on the Sino-U.S. relationship with both good and bad consequences. They can push the relationship in a positive direction, but they can also reinforce some of the negative assumptions of the realist approach and push relations in a more negative direction.

The challenges for leadership in the U.S. and China are 1) developing an understanding of these factors at the leadership level and 2) influencing culture and public perception in both countries such that we maximize the chance of reaching mutually beneficial understandings about a range of different issues.

IR theorists always like to put labels on everything. I also believe there is a basic need for the U.S. and China to strike a relationship in which the two sides can arrive at measured understandings regarding the most contentious issues. You can call it win-win, or call it what you want, but it is definitely not zero-sum. A zero-sum perspective and approach to such a complex issue of U.S.-China relations are simplistic, cartoonish, and counterproductive.

From an IR point of view, how would you see Trump’s America First slogan?

From an international relations point of view, the slogan takes a very simplistic and narrow interpretation of realpolitik and raises it up to an extreme level to basically say “the primary interest of the U.S., overshadowing everything else, is to serve American interests first and foremost through unilateral action.” This involves rather extreme political positions, protectionism, and the reduction of American engagement in certain parts of the world.

That kind of approach, which combines some aspects of realism and libertarianism, is very counterproductive for the U.S. It may sell politically in some circles because of certain American frustrations and a real lack of interest in America continuing to play a large military role in the world. Yet it also really distorts what responsible American leadership needs to do in order to remain competitive and influential in the 21st century, which, in many respects, is to continue the trend of globalization and multilateralism.

Among so many difficulties and deep distrust in the current bilateral relationship, such as trade disputes and slow downed science exchange, is there one area that concerns you greatly and will have a long-lasting impact toward the future of U.S.-China relations or to future generations?

If I could, I will point to two.

First, the trade wars between the U.S. and China and the very zero-sum outlook towards one another that is particularly evident on the U.S. side (but there is evidence on the China side as well). These will lead to a decoupling of the Chinese economy from the global economy and a decoupling of the U.S. economy from the Chinese economy. This decoupling effort, if taken to the extreme, will be severely destructive for the international system, for global growth, and for the interests of both the U.S. and China.

In many ways, decoupling is a ridiculous argument in the current world that we face, and it needs to be limited––if not dropped as a way of describing the goals of each side. It is certainly not a realistic option and not a useful option for the U.S. or China. If we do decouple, the effects will last for a long time. I doubt such efforts will succeed, but it will be disruptive in any event.

The second is the issue that I mentioned earlier––the emergence of a rough balance of power in Asia. Without a stabilization of that balance of power, the chance of crises will increase, such as one regarding Taiwan due to, for example, the desire to make Taiwan a strategic asset by one or another power. If these issues escalate to the point of a conflict, even if limited, they will have a long lasting and devastating effect on U.S.-China relations, the global environment, and certainly the environment in Asia.

Hence, avoiding these two things–– decoupling on one hand and crisis instability and escalation in Asia on the other ––is the greatest concern.

President Trump seems to have extraordinary patience when to deal with King Jong-un. How do you think his charming North Korea policy will end up?

Trump’s patience is basically born of his own political calculations; it is not born of reflection on the reality in U.S.-North Korea relations and U.S.-South Korea relations. Trump’s policy towards North Korea initially deliberately intensified confrontation, which the North Koreans in many ways aided, and then deflated that excessively inflated sense of threat by Trump initiating contact with Kim Jong Un. This contact gave the false impression that the situation was under greater control, and in some sense defused, but it has in no way resolved the basic problem of North Korea’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and the steady improvement of its ballistic missile capabilities.

We have seen the suspension by North Korea of its long-range missile tests and nuclear weapons tests. However, both of these would have almost certainly occurred even without Trump’s inflation of tensions and controversy, because North Korea had reached the point where it had a sufficient level of weapons capability to allow it to shift its emphasis from building missiles to getting some kind of economic concessions from the U.S. and other countries.

There needs to be a serious discussion between the U.S. and China, in consultation with Japan and South Korea, about how we should get out of a situation in which North Korea may employ nuclear threats or nuclear weapons. Substantially reducing this possibility is a first step towards improving the overall security environment on the Korean peninsula. Over time, and it will take time, these countries can get on a pathway to eventual denuclearization or retaining a very low level of nuclear capability, lower than today, as part of security assurances on all sides.

Such a discussion is highly unlikely to happen under the Trump administration, but it is possible under future administrations. It will certainly require a level of cooperation and coordination between the U.S. and its allies and China. This will not happen under the current conditions we are facing, in which the countries are increasingly suspicious towards each other. We are moving in the wrong direction under the Trump administration, and hopefully under a new administration, we will move towards a more realistic and less reckless way to resolve the North Korea problem.

This interview was transcribed by Michael B. Cerny.  Special thanks to Sylvie Zhang for her assistance in editing this transcript.