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The Future of US-Sino Relations: Professor Shen Dingli


 Shen Dingli is a professor and associate dean at Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, to discuss the future of Sino-US relations. Professor Shen Dingli is Vice President of the Chinese Association of South Asian Studies, the Shanghai Association of International Studies, and the Shanghai Association of American Studies.  He received his PhD in physics from Fudan in 1989 and did post-doctoral research in arms control at Princeton University from 1989 to 1991.

Mr. Dingli is one of the thought leaders participating in Ideapod’s launch, promoting the “big idea” of US-Sino Relations. Sign up for the waiting list at to share ideas with Mr Dingli. 

What do you see as the major challenge we have to address if we are to build a more secure international environment over the next decade and beyond?

The major challenge is the changing leadership in Asia Pacific and the world, and the inherent instability this change will bring about. The long-time world power, America, is in relative decline, and the trend will intensify. Its disregard of international law, especially through its war on Iraq, has significantly undercut the legitimacy of its global leadership. Until Washington is willing to apologize to Iraq and the world, compensate for the damage it has inflicted on Iraq, and bring those who launched the war to justice, America’s soft power enabling it to pose as guardian of international norms cannot be fully recovered.

With the US GDP as a proportion of world GDP constantly declining, the US economy is likely to fall to second place behind China – by 2016 if measured  in terms of China’s purchasing power parity (PPP), and by 2020-2025 in terms of China’s official exchange rate. The shift will further constrain America’s freedom of international action. Consequently, the US defense budget will keep shrinking over the next decade as the result of sequestration, while China’s defense spending is likely to keep doubling every four to six years. The mounting US debt, the challenge US administrations face as they seek to revive its economy, the hard-to-reverse globalization and accompanying production outsourcing, and the declining role of the US dollar per se, all indicate that by 2030 America will have lost its sole superpower status. By that time, with China’s GDP already overtaking that of the United States, its defense spending possibly close to the US, and its education infrastructure and social safety network built more robustly, Beijing will emerge as a co-superpower.

So, in the coming decade and beyond when the “historical” power and leadership shift takes place, the international community will face great challenges in navigating the turbulent waters toward a more secure global environment.

How would you describe the present state of US-China relations? In your view, is the United States willing to accept China as a major partner in the development of a multipolar global and regional security system?

Current Sino-US relations can be described as an interesting mix of necessary cooperation and increasing competition, with some controlled confrontation.  So long as it views itself as a “City upon a hill,” the United States will remain fundamentally opposed to the emergence of a multipolar system. In particular the United States will resist anyone, China included, from sharing its leadership.  America may accept certain partnerships as part of a US-centric world, but not as part of a multipolar one. America may eventually agree to engage with China in the development of a multipolar order, but out of necessity, not out of choice.

There are many examples of expanding China-US cooperation: collaborating against North Korea’s nuclear and missile development; jointly stabilizing the world financial market; and, dispatching large numbers of students reciprocally to learn from each other etc.  But areas of suspicion are increasing even faster when it comes to perceptions of each other’s strategic intentions: why the US has moved its pivot to Asia, and how China perceives its interests in the South China Sea, to name a few. The US is wondering whether Beijing, especially during China’s military modernization, will follow through on its international commitment, especially to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) which allows Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia respective exclusive economic zones (EEZs), thereby denying China’s claim of the right to tap maritime economic resources in some of these exclusive areas. China, for its part, is deeply concerned about the US shift to a pro-Japan position in the China-Japan sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands. Such deep mutual suspicion and subsequent hedging, if poorly managed, could lead to serious crisis escalation.

Tensions appear to have risen in the South China Sea in recent years. Do you share this assessment? If so, how do we explain this trend, and what might be done to defuse the tensions? 

That is true. A bit of background first. China officially claimed all rocks within its nine-dashed-lines (9DLs) in 1947, when none of the other regional states had as yet claimed any of them and when none of them officially were opposed to the Chinese action. In fact, a number of them actually accepted and even supported China’s claims. The Philippines, till 1997, didn’t consider Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal) a part of its sovereign territory.  All its five constitutions till 1997 viewed Luzon Island as its westernmost territory, which is 130 nautical miles east of Huangyan Island. North Vietnam officially admitted in many ways, till its unification with the South in 1975, that Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) and Xisha Islands (Paracel Islands) belong to China.

There have been two types of problems to emerge since then. First, Vietnam, the Philippines negated their words by occupying some of these islands in the first place, which created the tension.  Malaysia took similar action as well.  Second, China joined the UNCLOS in 1982 only to find later on that its neighbors along the South China Sea had their EEZs overlap the 9DLs to varying degrees. Recently China has demanded that its traditional fishing/seabed rights within the 9DLs-bound South China Sea should not be compromised by the creation of EEZs of its neighbors  This has generated disputes with other claimants. The two developments I have just mentioned explain the tension. To defuse the tension, my personal view is that other countries should quit the islands they have occupied and China should follow the UNCLOS agreement as the basis for dealing with its rights in the EEZ/9DL overlapping area. Also, the America pivot or rebalancing in the region should take both developments into consideration.

Tensions have also risen in relations between the DPRK on the one hand and the United States, Japan and South Korea on the other. What do you see as the key to the conflict? Is there a serious risk of miscalculation by one or other of these players? What is the most constructive role China can play in containing, if not resolving, the conflict?

The key question is: who is entitled to nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction, and who is not. The DPRK’s view is that given the US threat, Pyongyang is justified in developing nuclear weapons, and it is willing to consider abandonment of its nuclear capability only in the context of regional and/or global nuclear disarmament. The US considers that Pyongyang is not entitled to nuclear weapons in the interests of nonproliferation and Pyongyang’s historical relations with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, as well as its past and current record of irresponsible behavior  However, the DPRK may regard the US preemptive war on Iraq as illegal and may have concluded that in order to prevent this from happening again it has to build its own nuclear deterrent. After three nuclear tests it has become virtually impossible for the DPRK to give up its nuclear program.

The recent tension is the outcome of intentional brinkmanship between the DPRK and the US/ROK: the DPRK has issued empty threats it would not implement, not because it wants to protect American interests, but out of regard for its own interests as it cannot afford an overall military confrontation with America. The US has taken a heavy-handed approach with a view to deterring the DPRK and so preventing Pyongyang from miscalculating. China has expressed clear displeasure with any self-interested action likely to throw the entire region and even the world into chaos, and ordered all its checkpoints and banks to strictly observe the UNSC Resolution 2094 passed in March in the wake of DPRK’s third nuclear test as punishment for its behavior. All this seems to have lowered the tension somewhat.

Prof Shen is interviewed by Emeritus Professor Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University.

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