The State of the World, Ep. 1: China
U.S.-China relations are defined by cooperation, competition, and—recently—tension. In this first episode of The State of the World, China experts Susan Shirk and Tai Ming Cheung, former and current IGCC directors (respectively), discuss the implications of domestic changes in China and elections in the United States for this complex and crucial relationship.
The State of the World is a special series on IGCC’s Talking Policy podcast that explores the biggest global challenges that will shape our future. The series is part of a suite of activities celebrating IGCC’s 40th anniversary.
This episode was recorded on October 16, 2023. The conversation was edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Talking Policy on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
A nation of more than 1.4 billion people.
The world’s second-largest economy.
And the United States’ most complex global relationship.
Over the years, the relationship has been characterized by trade and cooperation…
[clip: “The House of Representatives has granted President Bush’s request to keep normal trade ties with China”]
…conflict and competition…
[clip: “The American demand to label Communist China clearly as an aggressor is now supported by Britain, whose position previously had been uncertain” ]
…diplomacy, cooperation, and tension.
[clip: “We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy, the China virus”]
In recent decades, the U.S. and China have been able to find some common ground.
But as China’s power grows, so does the potential for divergence.
What can we expect from President Xi Jinping? How will China use its influence in the world? Will conflict ever erupt over Taiwan? Could the U.S. and China find themselves at war?
This is The State of the World, a series of five conversations hosted by the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. I’m Lindsay Morgan, Associate Director at IGCC. And in each episode of this series, I’ll talk with some of the best thinkers from across the University of California about the biggest global challenges that will shape our future.
Welcome to episode one: China.
Lindsay: For this conversation, I brought two longtime colleagues together. Susan Shirk is one of the most influential experts working on U.S.-China relations. She’s the founding chair of the 21st Century China Center, a research professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego, and director emeritus of IGCC.
Susan: Regrettably, [the] U.S. and China are in a downward spiral toward a very hostile relationship.
Lindsay: Tai Ming Cheung is the current director of IGCC, and a professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at UC San Diego. He is also a highly sought-after expert on Chinese security and technology policy.
Tai: I would agree with Susan’s characterization, although I think that, I would characterize it more as the early stages of a very long cold war and we’re in the opening stages.
Susan: People are very pessimistic on both sides. So, there’s a kind of cloud of fatalism over the overall relationship, which means that neither side has much hope of improving the situation. You’ll notice that on the U.S. side, we talk about trying to put a floor or guardrails on, and nobody ever talks about improving the relationship. Which is really a negative dynamic because it robs the Chinese side of any motivation to moderate their policy in order to improve the relationship.
Lindsay: Susan, I want to ask you about your book, which you published last year, called Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise. In it, you argue that China’s aggressive foreign policy actually started under Hu Jintao, which might be surprising to some, since Hu Jintao is considered the more moderate predecessor to President Xi Jinping. And I want to ask you to talk about that.
Where did the turn towards overreach begin? And how has it changed or accelerated under Xi Jinping?
Susan: Well, first of all, let’s make sure we understand what “overreach” means. It means to take things too far, to do them in an aggressive way, that then snaps back to harm yourself. So the argument in my book is that these actions are self-defeating, from the standpoint of China’s national interests.
And, yeah, I think it will be a big surprise to people who read the book to discover that it doesn’t start with Xi Jinping. Because right now we tend to vilify Xi, to blame him for all the negative behavior that’s going on in China.
But, you know, Tai, I think you’ll remember that when, as we were observing China’s actions back in the first term of Hu Jintao, that there were some surprising shifts in Chinese behavior. In particular in foreign policy, we saw in the South China Sea, which had not been the focal point of Chinese nationalism up until then, the focal point had been more Japan and Taiwan.
But in the South China Sea, China’s civilian maritime agencies started confronting the Southeast Asian claimants to the rocks and islets in the South China Sea. Fishing boat confrontations, energy drilling confrontations. [The] Chinese even provoked a fight with American naval vessels that were doing surveillance in the South China Sea. Which of course, from the standpoint of most countries, is viewed as international waters.
And so, that was really very puzzling. And then domestically, we also saw a crackdown on media content, the internet, and we saw that right before the Olympics. So, you know, I think we were all pretty puzzled by that.
And one hunch we had, [was] well, maybe this is just right before the Olympics. Because we often see a tightening up before major events in China, and then afterwards they loosen up and go back to normal. But in this case, they never loosened up.
And then under Xi Jinping, it’s just gotten more intense. We see that more concentrated leadership, really of a kind of dictatorial power, has very clearly led to overreach, and I can talk a little bit more about how that works later.
Lindsay: I want to ask you both about what you think China wants in terms of its role in the world. China has become a powerful force in global governance. It also acts as an important source of finance for many developing countries. And it is using this influence, not only to provide finance, but it is also providing a different model, outside of the Western capitalist democratic paradigm. What are the risks of this expansion? Susan, I’ll start with you.
Susan: Well, I think it’s totally understandable and even legitimate for China to be ambitious as its economy and its military and social capabilities improve. China’s a rising power and its ambitions are not surprising. And they’re not necessarily, in my view, a threat to the United States and other countries.
I mean, I think this anxiety America has about American primacy, you know, who’s number one, who’s number two, is really pretty silly. We can’t expect to be number one in everything. And it’s kind of like [a] playground fight, you know, it’s pretty immature.
What we should be concerned about is the preservation of peace. And that U.S. economic interests, our values and stuff, are not challenged in any serious way by the actions of other countries. So I think that in most cases China aspires to play a more active global role as well as being one of the leaders, if not the leader in the Asia-Pacific, but it doesn’t necessarily threaten the United States.
Lindsay: Tai, do you want to chime in on that?
Tai: I mean, I agree with Susan that, I mean, China, they don’t want to displace the U.S. They just want to find a way to be able to sort of like have room at the top table.
So, I mean, fundamentally, I think China is a more pragmatic player in that it wants to go into places, especially sort of for economic issues. I mean, in the Asia-Pacific, there’s more of a strategic, more of a military dimension.
But overall, I think China wants to play the long game, that it does see opportunities here and there. But I don’t think that Xi Jinping, and the rest of the Chinese leadership, thinks that they’re able to challenge the U.S. for global leadership anytime soon.
Lindsay: Tai, you’ve written a lot about how Xi Jinping has elevated the importance of national security in China’s overall set of national priorities. I want to ask you to explain: what is happening? And does this mean that China is preparing for war?
Tai: Previously, under previous administrations, economic development and national security, they were considered very separate. Sort of economic development had its own track; national security, defense modernization had its other track. And Xi Jinping says, we need to bring this together.
In the first two terms, a lot of it was talk and a lot of it was about preparing the foundations. How do we actually integrate the economy and the security apparatus and the defense apparatus? And they sort of began to develop the organizational frameworks, the institutional frameworks to prepare for that. And this was something that they called “military civil fusion.” But in the last few years, we’ve seen sort of a significant pickup on Xi Jinping’s calls to integrate the economy and the national security apparatus.
Originally it was a military-civil fusion. But there was a speech by Xi Jinping at the National People’s Congress in March when he talked about this notion of “national strategic integration.” Which to me is something more significant. It’s about how do you mobilize, how do you begin to militarize and to prepare not to actually go to war, but to be ready to fight and to engage in large-scale conflict.
Lindsay: Susan, do you want to add anything to that?
Susan: Of course the trend toward economic self-reliance in China is motivated by primarily a defensive attitude in which they anticipate that they might end up in a war with the United States – in part because of U.S. actions.
You know, and we talk now in the United States and the West about “de-risking,” it’s not just decoupling, it’s “de-risking,” but really it’s the same thing. And what we’re talking about is our dependence on China. For many things – for minerals, for consumer goods, even for seafood, for, you know, so many things. And the Chinese are trying to de-risk away from us.
So, for so long, we believed, all of us believed, that these two large economies are so interdependent that it would motivate them to be very cautious with one another. And it would be a foundation for a peaceful relationship. But now we see that both sides are kind of weaponizing this interdependence against one another; our sanctions, as well as Chinese economic coercion.
So, what this does then is you get this action-reaction cycle, and both sides are trying to prevent themselves from being manipulated by the other side. And because they’re so pessimistic about the future, they are, in a sense, kind of preparing for war, which is a very disturbing phenomenon.
Lindsay: Tai, you mentioned Taiwan, and there have been growing concerns recently about the potential for conflict between the U.S. and China over Taiwan. Do you think that the costs of Russia’s war in Ukraine has deterred China from making any moves in the Taiwan Strait?
Tai: I think it’s made the Chinese leadership, both Xi Jinping and the military, to be more cautious. Fundamentally, a decision to go to war against Taiwan is a political decision. It’s not a military decision. So even though the military is building up their capabilities, it all depends on what the political dynamics are. And the political dynamics right now, I think is still, it’s like, it’s a long way about going to war.
So if you just look at it in terms of the military balance in terms of the war games that are taking place, that really doesn’t tell us a great deal. It does tell us that the military is getting ready, and there’s a lot of saber-rattling itself.
I’m actually not pessimistic about the possibility of going to war between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, I think sort of like, it’s such a decision, and the Ukraine war has made it very clear, it’s– there’s so much tremendous cost. And Xi Jinping to me is not a big risk taker himself. He’s relatively cautious, despite what we see in the South China Sea and in other places. So I think we’re still a long ways to go before we might see a conflict.
Lindsay: Susan, you have anything to add there?
Susan: Well, it’s interesting that Tai thinks Xi Jinping is not a big risk-taker, and certainly all previous leaders in China have been very cautious about Taiwan, because they realize that if they try to absorb Taiwan through military action, and fail, that they would be at tremendous domestic risk, and that the party itself might fall. Because the nationalist public would rise up and bring down a regime that was so weak that it couldn’t even absorb Taiwan.
So, whenever we play these war games or simulations, we end up finding that Chinese leadership is self-deterred, primarily, by this domestic risk of trying and failing.
But now, given all the mistakes that Xi Jinping has made, you know, with zero COVID, with siding with Russia in the Ukraine war, with the crackdown on the private sector, trying to take the air out of the real estate bubble. Xi Jinping is showing a lot of poor judgments and arbitrary decisions that are not necessarily endorsed by other parts of the Chinese elite.
So that’s what I think really makes people in China and in the United States particularly worried. Because they no longer can count on the prudence of the leadership. And pretty much all of the experts in the United States think that this fear of war in the Taiwan Strait has been hyped up and exaggerated. They aren’t as worried as a lot of other people are. So the more knowledgeable people are, the less worried they are.
But again, that’s counting on… a historical pattern persisting into the future. We can’t really be sure about that with Xi Jinping.
Lindsay: Susan, you mentioned earlier in the interview that no one really talks about improving the relationship with China, and that there is this cloud of fatalism hanging over both sides.
Thinking about the next U.S. administration, what are the areas that you think offer the most promise for practical cooperation between the two countries that the next administration ought to prioritize?
Susan: Well, let me just say that, if Donald Trump returns to the White House, I really despair of the ability of a Trump administration to handle the China challenge. Because, um, [he] did a really poor job the first time around, alienated our friends and allies, which drastically weakened the United States, and reinforced the misperceptions on China’s part that America is on the decline.
So that’s why the Biden administration has invested so much effort in trying to restore these alliances and these kind of ad hoc coalitions, with our allies and friends.
Right now, we’re already in the election season, the campaign season, and it’s not just the presidential campaigns, but also members of Congress campaigning. And that’s always a really tough time, in terms of U. S. policy toward China. Because in America, typically, people want to flex muscles and stand up and talk about America as number one, and America has to be strong, and they focus on the external threat of China.
So it’s not a time when we are likely to see very sensible weighing of the costs and benefits of our own policies for the United States. So, we somehow have to try to get through it, but it’s going to be a very difficult time.
Tai: The next election is, as Susan points out, is going to be critical. The 2024 to 2028 period in terms of U.S.-China relations, I think that’s going to be a sort of a real defining point.
Do we see a major acceleration in terms of the fracturing of that relationship? What we’ve seen in the last few years is building up to that.
Or do we see sort of like an effort to find some long term stability? If there’s a Trump administration, all bets are off.
There’s also, I mean, as we see with Ukraine and now with what’s happening in the Middle East, there’s a real sense that the U. S. may be focused on so many issues. And so maybe leads China to be emboldened because the U.S. is distracted. They have this election. The geostrategic environment over the next few years is going to be increasingly complicated, increasingly blurred, and as Susan pointed out earlier, the potential for miscalculation, whether it’s by Xi Jinping or on the U.S. side, just gets increased.
Lindsay: We are all very influenced by the headlines and doom and gloom. A lot of my peers, my contemporaries might not even realize the history of cooperation between the two countries, that there actually is a lot of it. Can you give us like a sense for that?
And then, are there areas, is there anything, that is a practical thing that the next administration can start working on on Monday morning? Is it climate change? Is it research?
Susan: Well, I think there are a lot of areas and I’m really glad that you mentioned Lindsay, how the two countries managed to get along so well for decades, really. After Mao died, and Deng Xiaoping introduced economic market reforms, opened China up to the world. That really drastically changed Chinese society. People had the freedom to go abroad, travel abroad, tourists coming to the United States, students coming to the United States, Americans going to China – huge numbers of tourists going to China. And of course the integration of the two economies.
So, I’m really surprised at where we are today, you know, the fact that China’s taken this U-turn back to autocratic, dictatorial leadership, despite all of the efforts to establish a more responsive form of Communist Party governance in China. So, it did not have to turn out the way it turned out. And there was a lot of human agency involved.
It’s not simply a matter of China becoming stronger, more powerful. Right now, there’s a very widespread dissatisfaction with the Xi Jinping regime. At the elite level, and even, which is a surprise to me, at the mass level. You know, the mass support for Xi Jinping held up even through three years of zero COVID lockdowns. That was amazing. People still believed the central government and Xi Jinping was trying to protect their health and safety.
But after three years of that, and then this sudden abandonment of zero COVID with no preparation, not sufficient vaccinations, turning down offers of vaccines from abroad. You know, it’s just really tragic. Millions of people then die and the public has become quite disaffected and dissatisfied. We have large scale unemployment, especially of educated young people. People are worried about their real estate investments. So the costs of this over-concentration of power under Xi Jinping is really piling up. As a result, we cannot predict what will happen in the future.
You know, China’s still gonna be there after Xi Jinping. Xi could be in power for a long, long time to come, or he could be replaced even during his third term.
Tai: So on that point, it’s interesting that Xi Jinping has made no preparations for succession.
Tai: He’s still sort of relatively young when we look at sort of the ages, but there’s no guarantee that he’s going to be there longer. But it’s like, this lack of succession is a major Achilles heel and leads to the big question mark: what happens when he passes.
I want to emphasize as Susan points out: it’s human agency. And it could easily go back to becoming a responsible stakeholder, sort of like find ways to cooperate with the U.S.
A lot of the, um, the developments we see in sort of geo-economic and military developments, it’s all gestured towards a much more defensive posture.
Susan: How’s that for a little optimism, Lindsay? Little optimism there.
Lindsay: I still don’t know where we’re going to cooperate practically with China based on your answers.
But, uh, last question. You guys have worked on China for the length of your careers, and you have worked together for many years.
The world you’re describing is exceedingly grim. I’m curious what, you know, what your reflections are, about where things stand. How can we avoid fatalism, which you mentioned, Susan, in the beginning, that can become self fulfilling?
Susan: Well, as academics, policy-oriented academics, who are more active in making policy recommendations, trying to use our academic research in order to promote a peaceful world, we can’t give up, for goodness sake.
I mean, for one thing, we want to continue to engage in discussions with our Chinese counterparts. We want to invite them to visit UC San Diego. We want to have conferences with them. We ourselves want to go to China. I’ve been back to Hong Kong, but not to the mainland, but I am going in a month or so.
And, you know, I think we have to keep at it, because the future is very unpredictable. And, we have to remember that China is a complex of a lot of different types of people with different interests, different perspectives, coastal versus inland, rural, urban, intellectuals, blue collar. And, you know, it’s not a monolith. And also that, when we hear, when we say what does China want, let’s not just let Xi Jinping’s voice drown out all other voices. Of course, due to censorship, the voice we hear mostly is basically what Xi Jinping wants people to hear and what he himself says.
But I think we have to continue to show goodwill as well as putting pressure on China. Because we want to leave open the door to other decision-makers in China who want to go back to a more responsible, rising China.
Tai: Susan said most of what I wanted to say, but there’s two points I want to emphasize. And one that Susan, it what he said is that there’s an importance of dialogue. And Susan and I, we engage in something what we call the track 1.5, the quasi-official, where we have academics [and] government officials in their personal capacity. That’s become even more important.
And the other thing that’s really important is that there’s so much need for really detailed, nuanced, well evidenced China research within our own community, within the U. S. and amongst our allies. And the role as academics to do that detailed research and to provide it to the policy community is even more important, especially when there’s a lot of research that is like more about opinions. That’s like, that paints China in a particular way.
So [it’s] as important to talk within our own community as also to talk with our counterparts.
Lindsay: Tai Ming Cheung and Susan Shirk, thank you for being with us on Talking Policy.
Susan: Thanks Lindsay.
Tai: Thank you for having us.
Will China and the United States remain on this rocky trajectory? Will things change for the better? As Susan Shirk reminded us, human agency is what drives history. And that means that things can always be different. And change, of course, is inevitable. In our next episode, I’ll talk with two scholars of war and peace about how the meaning of security is shifting. And how, as the world becomes more interconnected, new technologies are starting to outpace old ways of thinking.
Thanks for listening to The State of the World, a special miniseries from Talking Policy. I’m your host, Lindsay Morgan.
This episode was produced by Anna Van Dine , with additional production from Tasha Lemley. Production manager, Gabriela Montequin. Mixing and sound design by Alex Brouwer. Our production partner for this series is CitizenRacecar.
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The UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) is a research network comprised of scholars from across the University of California and the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories that conducts policy-relevant research to mitigate conflict and promote a more peaceful world order. Our focus is on challenges that have the potential to lead to wide-scale conflict, and that can benefit from global cooperation to solve. Our portfolio includes both traditional security issues—defense innovation, strategy and deterrence, nuclear weapons policy, and security cooperation—and emerging and non-traditional challenges such as climate change, geoeconomics and great power competition, and threats to democracy. In each of these areas, IGCC builds diverse, multidisciplinary research teams that analyze the causes and consequences of global conflict—and help develop practical solutions.