In Good Company

Will Xi Jinping run circles around Donald Trump?

China will go into summit fully prepared while Trump's administration doesn't even have a China policy: Expert

Anyone interested in China would sooner or later stumble upon the work of Professor David Shambaugh. A prolific writer, author of more than two dozen books on the mainland, and frequently tapped by the United States government for advice, the 64-year-old don is regarded as perhaps his nation's top expert on the rising power and putative challenger to America's global hegemony. Singapore is fortunate to have him on the island, where he is on sabbatical as a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

I sat down with Prof Shambaugh last week at his Orange Grove Road serviced apartment to discuss the approaching summit between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Mr Xi Jinping.

Few people could be better placed to speak on the subject. Prof Shambaugh's academic career has in some ways marched in lockstep with the relationship; starting out as a scholar of South Asia, he had switched to China studies in 1979, the year Washington switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.

Since then, he has not only lived in China but also visits the country several times a year. And he can speak Mandarin at home if he so chooses; wife Ingrid, whom he met when they were undergraduate students of Chinese, teaches the language to high school students.

While the upcoming summit meeting between the world's most important powers is a positive thing, especially against a background of recent friction, Prof Shambaugh's worry is that his country and its president are going into the talks without adequate preparation. Had he been consulted, he says, he would have advised a wait of at least six months since Mr Trump assumed the presidency.

Prof Shambaugh, who has been visiting China for 37 years and witnessing first-hand its extraordinary transformation, says he has become more cynical and sceptical about China's direction since 2009. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

"I am not sure it is strictly mature for the Americans to have a summit at this stage. It is not certain they have a global policy; certainly they don't have an Asia policy, much less a China policy. On the other hand, the Chinese will come into this fully prepared."

While national interests predominate, personal chemistry also matters when top people meet. In this case, the two could not be more different. One is a careless improviser, the other mechanical in presenting his talking points as Chinese leaders are prone to be.

"There is a danger this could go wrong from the American perspective," he says. "Trump is a very impatient individual. He likes the back and forth. A set-piece recitation is not likely to go down very well. He may change the subject or be spontaneous and that could lead to the atmosphere turning sour."

From Mr Trump's perspective three topics will top the agenda: the American economy, North Korea and defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It is a fair bet that Mr Xi will come prepared to pre-empt at least some of those concerns. For instance, China, looking to get Mr Trump's attention, could be expected to announce its intention to make huge infrastructure investments in the US, something they were prepared to do anyway.

On the other hand, there can be little "give" expected from it on the tricky North Korean question. Successive American administrations from that of Mr Bill Clinton on have tried in secret to engage China on discussing contingency plans for North Korea in the event of unrest or assassination, with little success.

Now, as Mr Trump and Mr Xi prepare to meet, Pyongyang is said to be planning another nuclear or ballistic missile test timed for the summit. The steadfast Chinese support for North Korea is a puzzle but Prof Shambaugh has an explanation.

"The Chinese are fed up with the North Korean regime but they just will not go the extra mile (on pressuring Pyongyang) because they fear it will lead to collapse of the regime," he says. "They don't want to contribute to the idea of regime collapse by even talking of the possibility."

Nevertheless, his worry is that Mr Trump may be prone to striking a grand bargain that could affect Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and other Asian allies of the US. The Chinese are smart and know what they want. Mr Trump does not, and could walk into traps that undermine American interests. As masters of realpolitik, the Chinese are adept at demanding concessions and once they have them, to ask for more. Once commitments are made, there can be no backtracking.

Two years ago, in an Opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal, Prof Shambaugh wrote that China's political system is badly broken and that Mr Xi's "despotism" is stressing China's system and society and edging it towards breaking point.

"The endgame of Chinese communist rule has now begun, I believe, and it has progressed further than many think," he wrote. "I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Mr Xi will be deposed in a power struggle or coup d'etat."

While he holds fast to that general line about the Chinese system, he acknowledges that Mr Xi has consolidated himself.

"China has lots of weakness in its domestic economy, politics and external diplomacy but having said that, Xi today has unprecedented power," he says. "Domestically, he has consolidated his position completely going into the party congress later this year. Regionally, China has never been stronger and part of that is because of the uncertainty that surrounds the US under Trump."

This, he says, has contributed to a South-east Asian gravitation to China's orbit. Still, while China is touted as the upholder of open trade, global governance and market economics, many of these mantras it does not practise at home. For this reason, he is not losing sleep over Chinese influence in Asia.

  • About David Leigh Shambaugh

  • David Leigh Shambaugh is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, DC, as well as a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

    He is the author of more than two dozen books, including China's Future (2016) and China Goes Global: The Partial Power (2013).

    Prof Shambaugh attained his PhD in 1989 from the University of Michigan.

    He has a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies and a Bachelor of Arts from George Washington University where he now teaches.

    Born in Chicago, Illinois, where his father was a famous ear surgeon, Prof Shambaugh is 64 years old. He is married to Ingrid Larsen, a high school teacher of Chinese. They met as undergraduates in Chinese class. The couple have two sons.

"The Chinese have a capacity to overreach and overstep and are their own worst enemies," he says. "The US had a tendency to do this too. Americans overemphasise the military component, Chinese their economic strength, but the Americans have a more active diplomatic component and much more cultural soft power. So, I call China a partial power."

Looking ahead, he sees Mr Xi's "hard authoritarianism" likely to continue and the sidelining of more reform-inclined leaders such as Premier Li Keqiang. Mr Li, he believes, will be shunted off to a largely ceremonial position after this October's 19th party congress.

Speculation that Mr Xi may adopt a softer approach in his second five-year term is "pure nonsense" he says. Mr Xi does not have a "single liberal gene in his body".

What are the prospects for China's ties with Japan and India, the two powers that bookend Asia?

Prof Shambaugh is not optimistic on Sino-Japanese ties, although he notes that the two sides seem to have worked out a modus vivendi in the past year to keep the differences from boiling over. The relationship is burdened by some heavy baggage; the Chinese simply do not trust Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while the Japanese public is deeply suspicious of China.

With India, the situation is a little different. On the surface, it is a more normal relationship than it used to be but underneath, there is suspicion, particularly on the Indian side. It miffs New Delhi considerably that the Chinese, unlike the Japanese and Asean states, tend not to take India seriously as a country or as a power. Unless China changes its attitude to India, there is not going to be a change in the Indian perspective.

Indeed, he says, China is in some ways the catalyst for the fast-strengthening India-US relationship. Ties between the world's biggest democracies are at an all-time high. And this is one nation that President Trump seems to favour totally.

Given his fondness for Chinese food, I asked Prof Shambaugh about his own feelings for China, which he has been visiting for 37 years and witnessing first-hand its extraordinary transformation.

Analysts, he told me, should not become sentimentally attached to the object of their study but remain as honest and objective as possible.

"If this means being critical of the object of their study, this is far better than being sympathetically unobjective," he says. "I continue to have high hopes for China's future and its relations with others in the world - but, like virtually every other long-time China specialist that I know, I have become more cynical and sceptical about China's direction since 2009. So, I must admit that my former optimism about China has waned in recent years."

Prof Shambaugh says he has had no significant problem settling into Singapore life. He has grown to like the old shophouses and black-and-white bungalows of the city, and particularly, the area around Tanjong Pagar. Singapore's museums and restaurants are also world class, he says.

Still, some attitudes of Singaporeans and their occasional inflexibility clearly bemuse him. At the lobby where he was being photographed against a water feature, a staff member came to inquire what was going on. A request for permission to use a visibly empty office room for the interview was turned down after a few minutes. Too refined to show anger, he smiled wryly as we made our way up to his apartment.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline Will Xi Jinping run circles around Donald Trump?. Subscribe