Accident could spark military showdown between US and China – David Shambaugh

With territorial disputes between China and its neighbors heating up, the threat of military conflict in the Asia Pacific is becoming real. As China ramps up its defenses, the US and its allies are sending battleships to patrol the South China Sea. With the competition between the two superpowers growing, what will it take to avoid military confrontation? What happens if the hawks take over the White House? And as the US continues its pivot to Asia, can it find a way to engage China instead of opposing it? We ask the Director of the China Policy Program at George Washington University, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Dr. David Shambaugh.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Director of the China Policy Program at the George Washington University, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution , Dr. David Shambaugh, it's really great to have you with us today. Now, President Obama has gone on his last visit to China as a head of state last month. His term has seen the declaration of the ‘pivot to Asia’. Eight years on, can you call Obama’s China policy a success or a failure?

David Shambaugh: I would call Obama's Asia policy a success and his China policy a relative success. I think it's unquestionable that the American position in Asia today, at the end of his presidency is certainly stronger than it has been since he started his presidency, but I would say it's the strongest position the U.S. had going all the way back to George Bush Sr. - America's relations with every country in the region, with the exception of North Korea, are stronger, and some of them are considerably stronger, and that means all the way from India to Japan, down to New Zealand. So, on the Asian front, broadly speaking, I give the Obama Administration a very high mark. China policy - less so. There are a lot of reasons that we're going to talk about, Sophie, why the U.S.-China relationship was troubled. I think the Obama Administration has actually held on the relationship the best it could, given the troubles. So, maybe, give them A- on that, but definitely A or an A+ on Asia policy broadly speaking.

SS: China has laid claims on waters in the South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade passes every year. Those claims have been challenged by China’s neighbours in an international tribunal - and the court has ruled against China. Beijing has rejected the ruling - and this seems like a stalemate, so what happens now?

DS: You're quite right: Beijing has rejected the ruling of the UN Court of Arbitration and therefore, international law, and it simply selected not to adhere to the ruling and the decision, and the decision was definitive, by the way - it was not a mixed decision in any way. The court backed the Philippines which was the one country that brought the case. There are, you're quite right, Sophie - six countries altogether that contest the islands in the South China Sea. So, the court backed the Philippines' claims, concerning the island that they jointly dispute, but it also rejected in total China's so-called "nine-dash-line", this big loop that goes down through the China Sea that China claims almost all the way to Indonesia. So, "where do we go now?" is your question... Since the ruling - it's interesting - the situation has been actually relatively calm. The Chinese have not increased, as far as we can tell, their building of harbours, rails, airstrips and the militarisation of these islands: they're trying to turn rocks into islands, first of all. They also claim islands that exist and they also try to fortify those islands. So they have slowed that work down, the construction work, and the U.S., on its part, has also reduced their so-called Freedom of Navigation ship operations in the area. So, in fact, in a month or two months now since the ruling, the situation is actually calmer that it was before the ruling.

SS: It has reduced, but the U.S. Navy still continues to dispatch warships near disputed islands in the South China - it says it’s ensuring freedom of navigation, but are its deployment risking an escalation of the conflict?

DS: U.S. is going to continue to carry out its Freedom of Navigation operation. The U.S. does not regard China's claim to these rocks, first of all, and China's claim that there's a territorial zone around these rocks that they're building into islands. So, the ruling of the Court of Arbitration sustained that finding, so the U.S. Navy, and, indeed, perhaps, other navies are going to continue to sail through those waters. But, your question is a good one - you know, the chances of escalation, and I would say, chances of an accident, not so much escalation - chances of an accident are real. You know, if the Chinese side decides to fire on an American ship or an American airplane or an Australian ship or Australian airplane, or Vietnamese ship or Vietnamese airplane, or Japanese ship or Japanese airplane - all these countries, by the way, are going to continue to press their patrols through this area - there could be an accident, and accidents can escalate very quickly. So that's what concerns analysts, although I would say that the Obama Administration, one of its accomplishments actually with China in the last couple of years, was to sign two Crisis Management accords for exactly these kinds of potential incidents, one in the air and one at sea. So, in theory, we now have in place, between the U.S. and China, protocols, communication channels and other means - so that, if there's an accident, it will not escalate out of control. That's the whole point.

SS: Like you've said, China is still ramping up defences, building artificial islands in the South China Sea, holding its own military drills. But can you blame it for feeling threatened, when the U.S. is patrolling the area from air and sea?

DS: I'm not going to speak for the Chinese, that's a self-perception. I wouldn't say that their building on these islands or rocks into islands and the fortification of them reflects the sense of threat. Quite to the contrary. So, I'm not going to put myself in the place of the Chinese and try to estimate how they feel.

SS: Right. Dr. Shambaugh, we started this interview by saying that America's influence in Asian region is the strongest it has probably been dating back to George Bush Sr., and you also brought up Philippines - Philippines was traditionally America’s closest ally in the region, it used to take part in U.S. patrols of the South China Sea, but since then the country’s President said he doesn’t want to “be involved in a hostile act” and announced a shift towards what he called ‘an independent policy’. Would you say that America is losing its influence over the Philippines?

DS: First of all I have to dispute your claim that the Philippines is the strongest American ally in Asia - that's not the case. Japan is and always has been and always will be. I would say South Korea is probably second to Japan. The Philippines along with Thailand are the two Southeast Asian allies. So, their current president, you're right, Duterte, he has indicated that he would like to open a very broad relationship with China and perhaps to abandon the relationship with the United States. He has not yet said he wants to abandon the alliance with the United States. - so we're going to have to see how this plays out. This is, obviously, a big change, certainly from his predecessor, but I would say also a hundred years - one hundred years of Filipino policy and close alliance with the United States. So, this man, the new president, is really striking out in a very new ways and we're going to have to continue to watch it.

SS: But I just wonder, what you make of it, your perception. Because, announcing this shift in defence policy, the president said the Philippines will now be buying arms from China and Russia - “where there are no strings attached and it is transparent.” - whatever that means. What kind of obligations did Philippines have to follow in return for American-supplied weapons?

DS: Again, I'll wait and see. When China and Russia will begin to sell weapons to the Philippines, if it happens, we're going to have to monitor that. There's going to be an incongruence I would say between the existing Filipino weaponry in military, whether it's ground force, air force, or navy, because those are American weapons. The weapons that Russia manufactures and have transferred to China, and Chinese weapons are, essentially, clones of Russian weapons - they don't fit together. The technologies don't fit, the parts don't fit, the weapons don't fit. So, if Duterte wants to overhaul the Philippines' defensive establishment, first of all, he's got to pay for it, unless your country and China wants to give him all of this weaponry. But, even if they get the weaponry, you know, it's gonna require a very long-term overhaul of the Filipino military. So, again, I'm sceptical this is going to go forward, and I'm just going to monitor it.

SS: Considering the fact that it was the Philippines who won the international tribunal case against China, why are we seeing the radical change of policy? China and the the Philippines agreed recently to boost economic, financial ties, Manila said it wants to join the Chinese-led Asia infrastructure and investment bank. This tilt towards China - does it upset  America’s strategy in Asia? Does it worry America?

DS: No, you're fishing for reaction that I'm not going to give you, Sophie. The U.S. is simply monitoring the situation. Every country in Asia, in Southeast Asia does business with China and it does business with the United States. The United States' financial footprint in Southeast Asia, is, in fact, far larger that China. The United States invests more - three times more - in South-East Asia, than does China. The point is that these countries, they are ten member states of ASEAN, they all trade with China, they all trade with the United States, they all receive investment from both. So it's not an "either/or" situation. Now, you ask me, is the U.S. upset by the Filipino president's flirtation with, or perhaps, pivot to China - we're simply watching it. And we'll have to see how it goes. But, I would remind you that the Philippines has been long-time, century-plus, ally of the U.S. and there are many Filipinos who know that very well. So, in other words, the population in the Philippines may not agree with their President.

SS: A recent study by a leading American think-tank - RAND corporation called “War with China” plans for a military conflict with China. The report was commissioned by the U.S. Army. Is it planning for an actual war with China? Why was this report commissioned?

DS: Well, glad you're aware of the report, I'm aware of the report, but frankly I myself have not read the report and I'm sure it was commissioned by the U.S. Army - RAND corporation does all its contract work for the U.S. airforce, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and so forth. The American military, like the Russian military, like the Chinese military are constantly doing contingency planning for various possibilities in the world affairs and in international security. China, it’s no secret, is a serious contingency for the United States, there's many... and that's not a new story, in fact in goes back for probably 60 years, the United States military has been preparing for the contingencies against China since 1949. Those, in recent years, have mainly to do with Taiwan, but now, increasingly, they have to do with the South China Sea and broader Western Pacific, because the Chinese Navy's capabilities are going further and further into the Western Pacific, their so-called Area of Operation is expanding even into the Indian Ocean, and they're modernising their nuclear weapons. So, the Chinese military capabilities have improved considerably, and they have improved considerably thanks to Russian aid and sales - so this is a concern to the United States and a concern to Japan and other countries in Asia, so the RAND corporation is simply doing the report that the U.S. Army asked it to do on this possibility of contingencies. There's nothing unusual.

SS: Generally speaking, what's so bad about China's influence in the region that the U.S. feels the need to resist?

DS: I don't think the United States feels the need to resist China's influence in the region. This is China's region, China lives there. The U.S. welcomes China's peaceful rise, it's peaceful coexistence with its neighbors, including with Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. We, the United States, does not want aggression from China, doesn't want confrontation with China. So, that's the kind of Asian future the U.S. is working towards. This is not an anti-China policy; it's very much a policy to include China in a broader network of relationships the United States. maintains in the region.

SS: A lot of people in this part of the world do feel like, you know, America wants to resist Chinese influence and they feel like the America wants to resist Chinese influence, and they feel like the American line on China, the pivot to Asia has failed to stop Beijing's ambitions in the region so far. Do you think the policy will toughen up even more, and does the U.S. have enough resources to move the pivot beyond the symbolic steps and statements?

DS: The pivot, first of all, is about Asia, it's not about China. It's a recognition of Asia as the most important region of the world's - most important economically and now most important strategically, even though the Middle East, of course, is very volatile and it affects Russian, American and other interests. But: the pivot, as original pivot, was not about China. Secondly, your question is good - will it be sustained? And your third question, will it be adequately resourced? - is an even better question. It will be sustained. Of course, we don't know whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is going to win the election on November 8th although the polls indicate that Secretary Clinton will become the next President, and if she does, she certainly going to continue the pivot. She was the author of the pivot, when she rolled it out as a Secretary of State in the first place. So, yes, the policy will continue, it will deepen, but I think your question about resourcing is a really good one - I'm not sure the U.S. has... well, first of all, has not resourced the pivot adequately during the second four years of the Obama Administration, and it's going to have to really dig deep in its pockets to find money to resource it into another Clinton administration. So, I think that's a fair question.

SS: Do you think there's a way Washington can engage Beijing? Work together on all of it with it instead of opposing it?

DS: Absolutely. The U.S. tries to engage China on a regular basis, on global issues and on regional issues and on bilateral issues. We have regular dialogues with very senior Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping about the Asia-Pacific region, things that we can be doing together, such as disaster relief, sea lane security. So, this is not an adversarial relationship. Both countries, China and the U.S., are trying to keep it from becoming an adversarial relationship. Your line of questioning seems to assume that it's already in adversarial relationship - I would dispute that, that is not the case. The United States doesn't need a conflict with China, China certainly doesn't need war with the United States, so, yes, there's competition, there's strategic competition and there are some disagreements on issues like North Korea, what to do about North Korea, but the U.S. and China are not in, confrontational, adversarial relationship.

SS: The American-led Trans Pacific Partnership deal - a massive trade pact between Pacific rim nations that aims to exclude China from the deal- is that a realistic goal? To isolate the second-largest world economy from that deal?

DS: No, it's not, and the deal, the TPP if it were to be passed by the United States and the other initial, first-tier states, would be open to China and every other country in the Asia-Pacific region, including Russia to join. The U.S. has never said that China cannot apply for and meet the standards of the TPP. There are many countries, South Korea, for example, even Taiwan who are already in the queue for the second round of applications. China, we would hope would be in that round as well. So, yeah, China's very welcome into the TPP, but they have to join the TPP, the TPP is not going to join China.

SS: Yeah, because a lot of people pursue this as a division of the region into American economic and China's economic zones. Do you know what I mean? I mean, China has it's own answer to TPP - the RCEP, I'm sure you know about it too - a deal that will include China and India, which makes a lot of sense for the region. Do you think the U.S. will resist it? Can this divide the region into American economic and China economic zones?

DS: RCEP? No... These two trade pacts, if they both go through, for that's a big "if", they can be complementary. I, again, don't see them as competitive. They have different member-states, they have different standards, the way they operate is different. But both of them are yet to take place. So, in a sense, Sophie, we're speculating about things that have not happened yet, but I would not be surprised if India joins TPP and I would hope that China joins TPP.

SS: What's your bet? The TPP is very controversial, it’s drawn a lot of criticism over the power it gives to big business, it’s presumed to cause the loss of jobs in the U.S. and Congress is reluctant to let it pass - even with someone who favours it living in the White House. Do you think it can take off the ground - and should it?

DS: I have my doubts, actually. There's a great backlash against trade agreements during this election campaign and, indeed, across Europe. This is a part of a pan-western, at least, reaction to globalisation. So, TPP has really taken a beating during the Presidential election campaign. It's one of the few issues, frankly, that has actually been debated and discussed - the presidential campaign has been consumed by personalities rather than issues. But, there seems to be a pretty much of a bi-partisan consensus now against TPP. President Obama is doing his best, along with the Republicans, interestingly, Republicans in Congress, to get it passed before Obama leaves office during the so-called "lame-duck" session. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, and Hillary Clinton has said very explicitly that she no longer supports it. That's a reversal, of course, of her previous position. If she is elected President, we'll have to wait and see - I mean, she could return, she could fiddle with the agreement and some of its terms, but there's enough resistance now to trade agreements in the U.S., that I'll be very surprised if it gets through Congress.

SS: You've said that if Hillary Clinton is elected - will that be bad news for U.S.-China relationship? Or will pragmatism prevail?

DS: I think there will be more frictions, actually, if she's elected President. Not so much because of her, but because the issues between the two countries are getting more and more difficult, and she is less indulgent of China than President Obama has been, I think. She has a long record, it goes way back to her time as First Lady, when she went to Women's Conference in Beijing in 1992. She is not so friendly towards China. How that will manifest in policy - we're going to have to wait and see, but she has a different disposition, a tougher disposition towards China than President Obama has had.

SS: Trump’s stance on China.. how should I put it? It is a little more chaotic - he has called for new tariffs on Chinese goods and containing ‘Chinese adventurism’, but at the same time talked about ‘making deals’ with China, and building a better relationship. What's your take? Who would be ‘better’for the China-U.S. dynamic - Trump or Clinton?

DS: Undoubtedly Clinton. She understands international affairs, she understands the issues in the U.S.-China relationship, she knows the people on the other side, she's met and dealt with China's leaders now for a very long time. So, undoubtedly she would be the more professional, the more experienced, more calm. We need, actually, a calm president in dealing with both Russia and China - because these relationships, for the Americans, are increasingly fraught, and there's increasing tension in both of them. So, you don't want a president in situations like that, who is unpredictable and I think Donald Trump has already proven how unpredictable... you used the word "chaotic", I think that's a very good one. So, heaven forbid that he should be in the White House, dealing both with Moscow and Beijing and having his finger on a nuclear button.

SS: China is building up a competitive space capability. Its sent a manned mission into orbit recently and has plans to land on the moon before the end of this decade. U.S. believes there’s a military aspect to China’s space programme - and NASA is banned from cooperating with China, that's a 2011 law. Given the huge lead the U.S. enjoys in the industry - should it be worried?

DS: You're right about the 2011 law, banning NASA cooperation with China, but actually NASA officials and Chinese space officials do meet together, it's just that the Americans can't technically cooperate and participate - although American satellites are launched on Chinese rockets from China, and the Chinese space program is progressing very quickly, and that's fine - it's a civilian space program run by the military, actually. If anybody knows anything about the Chinese space program, knows the PLA Second Artillery, they're called "Strategic Rocket Force", administers the space program. But, it's a civilian space program, they have a space station, they want to put a man on the Moon, as you say, by 2025 - that's fine, no problem. Americans are not concerned about that. China's putting an increased number of satellites into space - that's natural for a power of its size and its military aspirations. So, I don't think there's a great deal of concern in the U.S. about the Chinese space program, no.

SS:Alright, Dr. Shambaugh. Thank you very much for this interview, we were talking to Dr. David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Program at the George Washington University, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, discussing the complications of the U.S.-China relations and the effect they will have on the whole Pacific region. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.