Insights and Analysis

China and the United States: A Conversation with David M. Lampton

July 29, 2015

David M. Lampton is Hyman Professor and Director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he also heads SAIS China, the school’s overall presence in the PRC. He joined The Asia Foundation’s Board of Trustees in 2006, and became Chairman of the Board in 2014. He is former president of the National Committee on United States-China Relations, and former Dean of Faculty at SAIS. He received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Stanford University. His newest book, Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, was published by UC Press in January 2014, and has recently been translated and published in Chinese in Taiwan.

Lampton 7-29-15

Senator Dianne Feinstein and Asia Foundation Chairman of the Board, David M. Lampton.

Prof. Lampton spoke with us recently in Beijing about current U.S.-China relations, in anticipation of the first state visit by China’s President Xi Jinping to the United States, later this fall. Here is an edited version of that conversation.

With rising tensions over issues like the South China Sea and cybersecurity, and increasingly negative rhetoric between the United States and China, how can the two sides find common ground and get their strategic relationship back on track?

We have to start from the premise that two big countries at different economic levels and with very different histories will never have perfectly smooth relations. Our aspiration has to be to manage this relationship well. We’ve effectively managed this relationship for 40 years, and I believe it can be managed for another 40 years if we have wise leaders in both countries.

There are a number of ways to manage this relationship. We’re China’s biggest export market; China’s our most rapidly growing large export market. We’re economically interdependent. We have to build our relationship on interdependence. One of the ways to do that is to invest more heavily in each other’s country. Under current circumstances, 200,000 to 400,000 Americans will be working in Chinese-owned manufacturing and other enterprises in the United States by 2020. When you employ people, they then have a personal stake in the relationship. I think the outward policy of China in investing in the United States is very good and should be encouraged. Many people have the impression that the United States is one of the biggest investors in China. That’s actually not true, so there’s a lot more room for investment in both directions.

Secondly, our leaders are already engaged in dialogue. They are now in regular, direct conversation. They are getting together on a regular basis – sometimes more than twice a year in meetings like APEC. So dialogue between top leaders is essential.

Many people will speak to the good news of increasing military exchanges. That’s true. But overall, the character of the military-to-military relationship is deteriorating. We need to do what we can to halt that. That brings us to the South China Sea. It’s a complicated issue, but the basic problem is that China’s neighbors are becoming increasingly anxious about China’s growing role in the region, military and otherwise. Somehow, China needs to reassure its neighbors and solve or shelve these maritime issues as earlier PRC leaders did.

While China has to be more reassuring to its neighbors, the United States has to be clear that it welcomes China having a greater voice in the world. China was poorer than Cambodia when Mao Zedong died. Now it’s the second largest economy in the world. And yet China’s voting share in the International Monetary Fund is only 3.8 percent. So the U.S. has to be more willing to make room for China in international organizations as appropriate to its status.

For both sides, domestic politics are at a very sensitive stage. In the U.S., we have presidential elections. In China, the 19th Party Congress is coming up. Five out of the seven Standing Committee members will retire. There will undoubtedly be some jockeying over what the complexion of the new government will be. There will be politics.

When there’s political competition, people talk tough when they’re talking about foreigners. You have two societies that don’t want to appear weak to their own people. That’s a problem. So we have to manage that. If we don’t manage it well, or tolerably well, then what’s the consequence of that? Having the world’s biggest economy fight with the second biggest economy is not a way to solve any problem. If we have rational leadership in both capitals, we’ll find a way through.

China’s President Xi Jinping is heading to Washington D.C. this fall for his first state visit to the United States. President Barack Obama’s trip to China last year resulted in a major climate agreement. Do you anticipate any key breakthroughs during Xi’s trip? In your view, what would make this a successful visit?

We make a mistake when we judge the success of a trip or any leadership interaction solely by the “deliverables,” or tangible agreements. It’s important to have some agreements, but they should be few in number, and important and strategic in character. More fundamentally, if you ask, “What’s the core problem of U.S.-China relations?” it’s basically that the two peoples don’t trust each other. That’s the beginning of the problem. So if that’s the undergirding problem, then you want to measure the trip by how it contributes to reducing that problem. Therefore, I would define the goal to be “make friends.”

This will be Xi Jinping’s first visit to the U.S. as head of state. But he came as vice president in February 2012. And he visited Muscatine, Iowa, in 1985. That was tremendously popular. First of all, it brought him into contact with real people. Secondly, local media paid a lot of attention. Frankly, national media are pretty critical all the time. But local media and local political figures are much more concerned with economic development, tourism, and exports of soybeans. So he could speak to issues that were intrinsically meaningful to the people he was speaking to. Beijing ought to define its job as how to relate in a meaningful way to our citizens. Of course, they have to talk to Congress, respective foreign ministries, etc. But they ought to give equal weight to simply trying to connect with people.

Photo/Matthew Pendergast

While China has to be more reassuring to its neighbors, the United States has to be clear that it welcomes China having a greater voice in the world. Photo/Matthew Pendergast

On a more substantive front, the upcoming summit, there will be an agreement to move further forward on climate change. That would be important. That will be one of the major security concerns of both countries for the next 50 to 100 years. I would expect that they would move forward with discussion of a bilateral investment treaty. The main issue for the United States is how many sectors of China’s economy will be declared open by definition.

They will probably agree to do more on military-to-military exchanges. That’s good and important. The fact is, however, that as long as Beijing and Tokyo have tension over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, that brings Washington into alignment with Japan, which worries China. And as long as China expands its presence in the South China Sea, that brings it into conflict with its neighbors and a U.S. that worries about coercion, navigation, and international law. For its part, Beijing is aggravated by significant U.S. surveillance close in to its shores. Until each side changes its behavior, you won’t see a genuinely improved U.S.-China military relationship.

You have publicly warned that the U.S.-China relationship is at a critical “tipping point.” From your perspective as a longtime China watcher, what do you think about the future trajectory of bilateral relations?

I said we were approaching a tipping point. I didn’t say we had gone off the cliff. I don’t know if we’re five feet, five yards, or five miles from that point, but we’re a lot closer to it than I’d like to be.

For the 40-plus years since Nixon went to China, and certainly since Deng Xiaoping came back to power in 1977, most Americans have seen China as going in the “right direction” in terms of foreign and domestic policy – with ups and downs, to be sure. 1989 raised questions. But Deng Xiaoping and George H. W. Bush got ties modestly back on track. China was opening up, investing in the world. Most Americans saw China as moving in the right direction. Conversely, most Chinese saw the U.S. as basically moving in the right direction in terms of policy towards China.

Somewhere around 2008 to 2010, each side began to wonder about the direction of the other. With the rise of South China Sea problems, Diaoyu, and anti-Japanese demonstrations, many Americans weren’t so sure China was going in the right direction, particularly during the global financial crisis. Americans were worried about their economic future. China had a very big trade surplus. It seemed that China was successful but at the same time was going the wrong way in terms of foreign and domestic policy. I think most Americans are approaching the point where they believe it’s going the wrong way for us. The election coming up is going to give voice to that.

In China, one of the first questions they ask is, “Why is the U.S. trying to keep China down or contain China?” One of the major things pushing this is: when you have positive expectations for the future, you then have positive policies and you subordinate frictions, because the long term is going to be better. But if you think the future is going to be worse, you fall into a threatening posture; you’re not willing to overlook current frictions. Mentally, where the two peoples currently are is not a healthy place.

We’re moving from a relationship that was trying to find partnership to one now of deterrence. And threats are a key part of that. China has one aircraft carrier, is building another one for sure, and maybe a third one. China is putting military capability on some of these island reclamation projects in the South China Sea. China’s recent military White Paper said the PRC was going to build a more seaworthy, power-projection navy. And the U.S., with the Pivot announcement in 2011, rotating troops – small forces – through Australia, and tightening up our alliance structure with Japan, all that creates anxiety in Beijing. Now we’ve got joint exercises with Australia, Japan, and the Philippines. These are worrisome developments for China. So what you see is that we’re each reacting to the other. The relationship is becoming fundamentally more competitive. My feeling about this tipping point is that psychologically, both our people are going in the wrong direction. And the underlying security relationship is deteriorating. My remarks on the tipping point weren’t so much to criticize one party or the other, but were more of a call to say, “Let’s address the real problem.”

As chairman of the board of The Asia Foundation, do you have any thoughts about how the Chinese government can effectively hold the nonprofit sector to account while enabling domestic and foreign NGOs to continue carrying out useful programs in China?

China should have a regulatory framework for organizations. The question is, how to regulate them? There are two mechanisms: (1) Auditing procedures. Everyone should be accountable for how they are spending their money, because, by nature, these are public service organizations, and, of course, spending should be for lawful, public purposes. The state has a legitimate function in ascertaining where NGOs are getting their money and where it’s going. (2) Governance of organizations. You should have a board of directors. They should be empowered to make a certain range of decisions, and be responsible for the broad performance of organizations within the bounds of legal, public purposes and fiduciary responsibility.

However, when you have too broad a definition of security and begin to infringe on all the programs, that’s going overboard. That will have the consequence of many organizations leaving China. It will harm the fabric of civil relations between our two countries – and with other foreign countries – and harm mutual understanding. The process of oversight shouldn’t be so complicated, intrusive, and exacting that organizations can’t function. You need a governance structure, an accountability structure, but don’t micromanage these organizations. If we look at the reaction to the draft overseas NGO law, the response from around the world has been one of disquiet, and I hope the Chinese government will listen.

David M. Lampton is chairman of the board of The Asia Foundation. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: China
Related programs: Regional and International Relations
Related topics: International Development


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