Is It Time to Stop Listening to David Shambaugh on China?


I usually discount China-bashing rhetoric pretty heavily.

But then I read a quote from David Shambaugh in the New York Times:

“This administration came in with one dominant idea: make China a global partner in facing global challenges,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University. “China failed to step up and play that role. Now, they realize they’re dealing with an increasingly narrow-minded, self-interested, truculent, hyper-nationalist and powerful country.”

When Dr. Shambaugh says something like that, one has to think about it.

Shambaugh is one of the deans of modern China political studies. I have appended his gigantic resume to the end of this post because it’s too long to include here.

Dr.Shambaugh definitely has the ear of the media, and I assume his counsels hold sway in the White House as well. Jeffrey Bader, the administration’s China man, and Shambaugh share membership in the same Brookings Institute boffin brotherhood.

And if the Chinese have lost David Shambaugh, the U.S. China policy is headed for the deep freeze.

The issue, as I see it, is that Shambaugh is a serious “responsible stakeholder” proponent and analyzes Chinese foreign policy in terms of its difficulties in conforming to the “responsible stakeholder” paradigm.

In June 2010, as China’s foreign policy problems snowballed, he wrote:

Another reason for Beijing’s tentativeness likely derives from China’s not sharing the liberal values and norms that underpin most international institutions and system, although China has benefited enormously from them. It is difficult to be a “responsible stakeholder” – to use Robert Zoellick’s famous phrase – in an international system with which one does not share and practice the operating values at home and was not “present at the creation” to shape the system in the first place.

Meaning that China is finding it difficult to live up to certain norms in order to be recognized as a member in good standing of the international system win the approval and active support of the United States for its geopolitical goals, playing ball on human rights, global warming, nuclear non-proliferation, trade, Iran…you get the picture.

Basically every area of U.S.-China disagreement.

Chinese editorial pages tend to harp on the deficiencies of the international system—two big wars and a global financial collapse in the last decade—and pontificate furiously on the subject of whether insisting that the Chinese acknowledge the universal validity of Western values and liberal democracy is borderline racist or maybe even misguided.

These arguments are usually dismissed in the West under the “Commies are afraid of democracy” rubric.

Let’s leave that question to the philosophers.

As a practical matter, Dr. Shambaugh’s ire towards China can, I think, be traced to his preference for “responsible stakeholderism” as the desirable alternative to a U.S. foreign policy of containment.

There is a significant military, national security, and political constituency for containment, especially within the United States.

I think Dr. Shambaugh is upset at China’s obstreperous non-stakeholderism because it is empowering the backwards-looking and destabilizing containment narrative.

His disappointment may be exacerbated if he himself was promoting that "one dominant idea” of responsible stakeholderism to the incoming Obama administration and takes its unraveling as a personal reproach.

The biggest problem is that some of our key allies don’t really follow these values either.

Again, I will leave the question of whether an idealist Hegelian construct like a global norm merely masks the continual and ineluctable pursuit of material interests to the philosophers.

Let’s just talk about the nitty-gritty of some of what’s been going on in the last year.

Narrow-minded? Self-interested? Truculent? Hyper-nationalist?

Pretty good descriptions of President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara of Japan.

You can also call them “aggressive, resourceful, and determined in advancing their national interests using the tools at hand”.

For Japan and South Korea to stand up to China to pursue their national interests, U.S. support is needed, whether it comes in the guise of anti-Communism, democratic solidarity, or “responsible stakeholderism”.

So, whatever the United States is selling this geopolitical season, Japan and South Korea have to be buying.

South Korea cares about reunification with North Korea on the most favorable terms possible.

Japan cares about having the United States as a credible and committed ally to counter China’s growing economic and military influence in East Asia.

In fact, I would argue that, especially for Japan, the U.S.-ally dynamic doesn’t represent shared commitment to advancing universal norms.

I think it’s just the opposite: national particularism on the model of Israel’s relations with the United States.

In 2009, the Obama administration tried to leverage a post-Bush perception of the United States as an honest broker with the Muslim world to deal directly with Tehran and craft a win-win resolution to the Iran stand-off.

However, the U.S. government was outmaneuvered by Israel and its allies inside the United States.

Instead, the U.S. has acquiesced to a narrative of the existential threat to Israel from Iran and its nuclear program, so nothing gets done in Middle East diplomacy without the a priori requirement of allaying Tel Aviv’s insatiable security concerns.

As a result, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative, its bedrock norm, if you will, nuclear non-proliferation, has been forced to take a back seat to Israel’s insistence that its nuclear arsenal not be acknowledged, let alone regularized within the structure of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

U.S. relations with Japan incorporate a similar dynamic.

The United States argues that its presence in the western Pacific is a necessary and highly desirable pre-emption of the Japanese government’s willingness to restore a regional role to its military and trigger an arms race with China.

Japan, like Israel, is deeply suspicious of U.S. staying power in the region and doesn’t want to be the helpless victim stuck holding the bag if Washington decides to cut a deal with its enemy for the sake of the global good.

So, this year, East Asia has seen a string of incidents that have forced the United States to acknowledge Japanese security concerns, while pitching China relations in the deep freeze.

On the issue of the Daioyutai/Senkaku Islands, the Obama administration notified Japan in August that it was not interested in explicitly supporting Japanese sovereignty over the islands.

One month later, Seiji Maehara took the deliberately provocative step of ordering the arrest and trial of a Chinese trawler captain under Japanese law for a collision in Diaoyutai territorial waters—over the reservations of his cabinet—and triggered an epic row with China.

The United States had no alternative but to stand with its main Pacific ally–albeit in ambiguous and unenthusiastic terms whose significance escaped the Western press.

It is safe to say that engagement with China by the United States on the Diaoyutai/Senkaku issue—and any possibility that the U.S. could be recognized by China as an honest broker on the other island issues, such as the Paracels—is dead as a doornail.

Also in 2010, South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak used the Cheonan outrage to reset the North Korea issue away from the China/Six Party Talks track onto a West vs. Kim Jung-il and China track.

To be fair, if North Korea did sink the Cheonan, as appears likely, Lee was responding to an identical Nork tactic: generating a polarizing incident that would force reluctant ally China to stand by Pyongyang.

In any event, after the U.S. backed South Korea’s desire to wave the Cheonan bloody shirt at the Security Council, Beijing doubled down on its support of Kim Jung Il.

The chances for the U.S. and China to get together, great-power style, to negotiate a North Korean endgame on terms that might please Beijing more than Seoul have presumably diminished significantly as a result.

Maybe the Obama administration entered office with the idea of “win-win” international system accommodating Chinese interests and aspirations but its allies have driven it into “zero-sum” territory.

It’s not just China.

The lesson is, national interest always trumps universal norms, for our allies as well as our enemies.

China, Japan, and South Korea are all “responsible stakeholders” in terms of their national interests…and “irresponsible stakeholders” in terms of the global norms that the Obama administration wants the world to uphold.

And the Obama administration is, I would assert, guilty of the same vice.

I think the Obama administration realizes it got punked by Maehara on Diaoyutai/Senkaku…but that didn’t prevent a repeat of the same pattern of Japanese provocation and U.S. escalation on the manufactured issue of China’s rare earth exports.

The criticisms of China may be unfair and hypocritical but Gosh, it is an election year in the United States and China-bashing sure is popular…

So I would say that to understand what’s going on, we should stop listening to the norms-based criticisms championed by David Shambaugh…and actually watch the national-interest related antics of the various parties involved.

Perhaps we should recognize that a foreign policy that primarily serves the national interests of the U.S. and its allies while using the rhetoric of global norms to deny China the same right to advance its interests is unlikely to be productive of anything except continued friction.

Actually, Dr. Shambaugh obliquely conceded the point in a thoughtful op-ed he wrote for China Daily in March 2010. Just substitute “United States” for “China”. And for “abroad”, “Many countries” and “world”, substitute “China”.

Does Chinese diplomacy offer a unique "model" in international affairs? Here, the answer is yes-at least rhetorically. ..Unfortunately, despite years – even decades -of promoting these concepts, they mainly fall on deaf ears abroad. Many countries do not wish to emulate and practice these concepts. The world is now more interested in what China does on the world stage, not what it says.

Dr. David Shambaugh’s cv:

Professor of Political Science and International Affairs
Director, China Policy Program, Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University

Professor Shambaugh is recognized internationally as an authority on contemporary Chinese affairs and the international politics and security of the Asia-Pacific region. He is a widely published author of numerous books, articles, book chapters and newspaper editorials. He has previously authored six and edited sixteen volumes. His newest books are China’s Communist Party: Atrophy & Adaptation; American and European Relations with China; and The International Relations of Asia (all published in 2008). Other recent books include Power Shift: China & Asia’s New Dynamics (2005); China Watching: Perspectives from Europe, Japan, and the United States (2007); China-Europe Relations (2007); Modernizing China’s Military (2003); The Odyssey of China’s Imperial Art Treasures (2005); and The Modern Chinese State (2000). Professor Shambaugh is a frequent commentator in international media, and has contributed to leading scholarly journals such as International Security, Foreign Affairs, The China Quarterly, and The China Journal.

Before joining the faculty at George Washington, he taught at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies, where he also served as Editor of The China Quarterly (the world’s leading scholarly journal of contemporary Chinese studies). He also served as Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (1985-86), as an analyst in the Department of State Bureau of Intelligence and Research (1976-1977) and the National Security Council (1977-78), and has been a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies Program at The Brookings Institution since 1998. He has received numerous research grants, awards, and fellowships — including being appointed as an Honorary Research Professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (2008- ), a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2002-2003), a Senior Fulbright Research Scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Institute of World Economics & Politics (2009-2010), and a visiting scholar at institutions in China, Germany, Japan, Hong Kong, Russia, Singapore, and Taiwan.

Professor Shambaugh has held a number of consultancies, including with various agencies of the U.S. Government, The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The RAND Corporation, The Library of Congress, and numerous private sector corporations. He serves on several editorial boards (including International Security, Journal of Strategic Studies, Current History, The China Quarterly, China Perspectives) and is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, National Committee on U.S. China Relations, the World Economic Forum, The Council on Foreign Relations, Pacific Council on International Policy, Committee on Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), The Asia Society, Association for Asian Studies, and International Studies Association.

Professor Shambaugh received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan, an M.A. in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies (SAIS), and B.A. in East Asian Studies from The Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. He also studied at Nankai University, Fudan University, and Peking University in China.

PETER LEE is a business man who has spent thirty years observing, analyzing, and writing on Asian affairs. Lee can be reached at peterrlee-2000@yahoo.


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