The Crouching Tiger Interviews: David Lampton From A to Xi

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As part of the research for my Crouching Tiger book on the rise of China’s military and its companion documentary film, I interviewed 35 of the top experts in the world from all sides of the China issue.  These are key edited excerpts from my sit-down at the Johns Hopkins University with Professor David Lampton, author most recently of Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. 

This interview was the last of those I conducted in Washington, D.C. (on my way to the US Naval War College for wonderful discussions with Toshi Yoshihara, Jim Holmes, and Lyle Goldstein), and it was a classic case of saving one of the very best interviews for last within the Beltway. 

I found Professor Lampton to be a highly engaging and joyous man, albeit neck deep in one of the most serious international relations issues facing the world.  Here’s how Professor Lampton framed that issue:

Right now, I think Asia's one of the more unstable geopolitically central places in the world. You have competing nationalism between China and Japan. Korea and Japan. India and Japan. So, while this isn't the general perception, it is a volatile area in which people are basically strategically distrustful of each other. So we have this huge economic state in t this fragile security circumstance; and historically, and I think currently, the United States has tried to play a stabilizing role. I think that's essential.

So how can we play that stabilizing role, deter conflict among these potentially competing countries and at the same time maintain our economic advantage in the region? I think that's essentially the geopolitical problem.

As a key part of coping that problem, Lampton sees a compelling need to redirect America’s focus on domestic issues after more than a decade of war and economic stagnation:

I think Americans would say since 9/11, we've been terribly engaged in a draining conflicts that have produced relatively little for our national interest. They see our manufacturing job population going down. The middle class is eroding, and frankly, they are right to put the focus on our domestic development. And if foreign presence has to pay a price for that, I think, in general, they're willing to have that price paid. And there's much to recommend that point of view.

Professor Lampton is not, however, a neo-isolationist.  Instead, he wants to take a page out of the China’s own strategic playbook and focus this country on building what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.”   These next few words you are about to hear are some of the most important for this country during this 2016 presidential election season in which a rising China has taken center stage:

My view would be that the comprehensive national power of the United States, the quality of our human resources, the quality of our infrastructure, the quality of our K-12 education, the quality of our research and development – these are the bases of power. And quite frankly the Chinese respect those.

When we are healthy along those dimensions, the Chinese stand up and pay attention. If we're declining in terms of our comprehensive national power and our national capabilities in these ways, I think basically the Chinese are going to be more difficult to deal with.

So I think we may be at a point in our history where we relatively have to pay more attention to our domestic circumstance.  If we create the long-term basis for renewed American power, we'll be more effective.

I do fear, as many Americans do, that we will over-invest on the military front. We'll create enemies, we'll create the de-stabilization that we're trying to prevent, and in the process, we'll weaken ourselves economically and intellectually.

So I think the American instinct not to retreat from the world but to pay relatively more attention to solving our own problems rather than solving everybody else's problems -- which we in the end rarely do in any event is the right instinct. So I'm with the American people as I would understand their views on this.

One of Professor Lampton’s biggest concerns is that of a classic arms race in Asia catalyzed by the reactions of America and its allies to China’s own military rise.  Here, he examines the possible pitfalls of an American “dispersal strategy” of its Asian bases and a concomitant “action-reaction” cycle:

I think there are experts who say as our forces become more vulnerable to power projection systems that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] has or is developing, we need to disperse our forces to make them less vulnerable. So it might be smaller concentrations of U.S. forces more widely dispersed on the region.

Of course, this then creates a whole set of problems of their own because wherever you have U.S. forces or foreign forces in a country, you have a whole set a problems dealing with the local population and local governments, that's a problem.

We got thrown out of Philippines in the early 1990s so we've been around that track. The Vietnamese want us there but in a very low-key way.  It’s the same in Singapore and so forth. So there is some merit to this dispersion of forces, but don't underestimate the problems that this also brings.

However, there is also this more troubling aspect: If we would react and do things and the Chinese wouldn't react and it all stopped there, that would be fine. However, the Chinese are going to react and they're going to take measures to deal with that. It may be to proliferate the number of missiles so they can strike more dispersed forces, in which case we'll be reacting to that.

So what we have is what I would call an action, reaction cycle that it leads us to ever higher expenditures, ever higher concentrations of force and lethality and we all end up at greater cost with less security. So it seems to me the intelligent policy is how do we not get on this treadmill?

Here, Professor Lampton reflects on the difficulty of negotiating with the Chinese – a difficulty deeply rooted not just in China’s so-called “century of humiliation” but also in our own narrative of American Exceptionalism:

Every country has its narrative, and our respective narratives about our own history, our own values, our own sense of ourselves.  It shapes our behavior deeply, and the Chinese are have a narrative and that narrative – I did 558 interviews with Chinese leaders over the last forty years – and the word that keeps appearing in Chinese rhetoric is “we've been bullied. We are the nation that has been bullied, pushed around, humiliated.” And this does make the Chinese very prickly to deal with and to see mal-intentions where we may not in our own proposals to the Chinese see that.

I'll be the first to say it's not necessarily easy from an American point of view to have dialogue and mutual understanding with the Chinese. But I think there are some people who say well, therefore, you really can't trust or make progress through dialogue because this narrative that the Chinese have is so obstructing, and I think that's demonstrably not true.

So I think we need to avoid a sort polarized discussion. You either can talk to the Chinese or you can't. I would say you can, but it's difficult; and that, therefore, we've got to persist.

And remember, America has its narrative, too. We're the indispensable nation. We're the exceptional nation. We alone have a responsibility to lead in the world; and of course this leads us to a rather assertive posture, particularly on political issues around the world.

So, if were talking to a Chinese, they would say the American narrative isn't so easy to get along with either.

One of the biggest obstacles to peace may well be the polar opposite approaches that China and the US take towards deterrence:

Americans and Chinese think very different about how to achieve deterrence, and this creates a huge problem. I think the United States, because we've been the preeminent power in the world since World War II, basically thinks you deter by showing your capability and making it clear to the opponent that they cannot prevail and that the cost of trying is going to be so high our opponents are going to decide it's not even worth going down that road. And you can look at U.S. policy – whether it's our naval presence, our space presence – dominance is a key aspect of this.

Now of course when we are dominant, we feel secure. The problem is when we're dominant, others may feel insecure. And so how do you find a stable point of balance when one wants to be absolutely dominant?  That is difficult because there is no equilibrium point if the other person wants to feel secure. So there is a problem.

Now when the Chinese look at deterrence, they've usually been the weaker party; and therefore, they try to deter by keeping the opponent uncertain of what they have: Obfuscate the situation. Obfuscate your capabilities.

So we have us believing clarity and capability leads to deterrence. There they think obscurity and non-transparency will deter us because we're not sure what China can do or what China would do or how China would react. So I think there is this.

However, I think there's one thing that's changing, and that is as China is becoming stronger, it is moving towards that position of more confidence in its own capabilities; and therefore it is more willing, I believe, to show its capabilities.  However, this is a gradual. You know, the weak fear transparency, and the strong flout their power.

While we complain about the difficulty of dealing with the Chinese government, Professor Lampton points out American democracy is no bed of roses when it comes to negotiations: 

I remember back when Deng Xiaoping visited the United States in February of 1979, he got a briefing on the U.S. Government and checks and balances and our federal system and the courts and all of that and he expressed to President Carter the following sentiment. He says: “Mister President. How many governments do you have?

Here, Professor Lampton laments the use of bogeymen in the political arena to justify increased defense budgets in both China and the U.S.

I think it's naive to think that in either society, there aren't constituencies that favor more military spending; and if you're going to justify more military spending, you have to have a plausible threat of a large scale.  So essentially, after the Cold War, China's the last man standing in terms of big powers that could conceivable threaten us across a broad range of national power. So I think almost by default, China has become a ploy in budgetary politics – but quite frankly the same thing is going on in China.

As for China’s president Xi Jinping, Professor Lampton is concerned Xi may be setting himself up for a very hard fall:

It's been impressive the degree to which Xi has consolidated his power over the military and over the key nodes of policy-making that control various parts of the financial system, the economic reform system, the military system, the crisis management system. So at this point, Xi looks like he's going to be a strong leader.

However, I guess I'm a little off the consensus maybe of American people who pay attention to China in detail because I think he may be overreaching.

He's trying to eliminate very important power factions in the elite; and it's not clear that to me he won't threaten a lot of very important political actors and pay a price for that.  We'll see about that.

One of the traps Professor Lampton is worried President Xi will fall into is that of nationalism – a clear case of playing with fire:

The problem in Asia is that nationalism is on the rise in many places, not least China; and Xi Jinping is sort of hooking his cart to the horse team of nationalism; and trying to increase his own legitimacy by appealing to the deeply felt resentment, particularly of Japan, but secondarily the United States and some of its neighbors.

So you're kind of unleashing an aggressive impulse here that you may not yourself be able to satisfy; and we've already seen anti-Japanese nationalism spill over into the destruction of Japanese property, intimidating overseas nationals who may be in China at any given moment. It gets ugly very fast. So I think this is playing with fire.

As a long time observer of China, Professor Lampton seems both puzzled and disappointed with China’s abandonment of its peaceful rise in recent times: 

I think China has made a tremendous strategic error, and you could identify it in 2008 or 2009 and certainly by 2010.  Everybody would agree this trend towards more Chinese assertiveness has been apparent; and I think it was bordering on a strategic blunder because, the story of China's reform from 1977 when Deng Xiaoping came back [into power] to I think about 2008 was China's comprehensive national power growing at a very steep gradient.

And if you had a line also on that graph of how anxious were China's neighbors or even the United States and other bigger powers, that line of increasing threat would be much shallower. In other words, China managed to grow its power without correspondingly increasing the worry and sense of threat up until about 2008.

And then for reasons that we're still trying to understand, China began to act in a much less reassuring – that's the diplomatic way of putting it – or threatening way, and therefore China's neighbors have begun to do two things.

One is acquire their own military capabilities to more adequately defend themselves; and so you're seeing an incipient, if not actual, arms race occurring in the region.

Second, they're all trying to crowd under the U.S. security umbrella to get U.S. deterrence against China as it deals with its neighbors; and this is profoundly not in China's interest because China has an enormous domestic agenda that its own external actions are diverting the capacity to focus on those because of this external challenge.

So I think to the degree that China is not reassuring its neighbors, this is a huge problem for China's own development.

My mother used to say: “You never have a second opportunity to make a first impression.”

And I think the Chinese assertive policy is what many of China's neighbors feared [was hidden behind the “peaceful rise” rhetoric]. And some ill chosen remarks and actions by China have, made many of its neighbors think now we've seen the real China here. And so I think China's got a big problem in overcoming this.

Here, Professor Lampton was on the same page as many of the experts I spoke to: weakening America’s Asian alliances would be highly destabilizing for the region.   However, he also acknowledged weaknesses in the current alliance structure and openly wonders how we can bring China into the tent rather than create an “us against China” enemy. 

If the United State precipitously weakened or disassociated itself from its five alliances in Asia – Japan, Korea, Thailand, Australia and the Philippines -- this would be very destabilizing and force those countries to acquire their own deterrent, which quite conceivably in some cases could mean nuclear weapons.  That would be totally contrary to our counter-proliferation policy.

Alternatively, it would lead the nations and the region to conclude they need to accommodate to China and go along with China on issues, economic and otherwise that would be harmful to us. So precipitous, disassociation from our alliances, I think would be catastrophic.

But, I think you have to ask a further question and that is: How are we going to eventually have security in Asia if the structure of the security apparatus is China's neighbors aligned with the U.S. against China? That's not a stable structure either.

So, I think we have to, at the same time we are very careful how we treat our alliances and preserve them, we have to think about how we build a new security structure, maybe several security structures that have China inside. It is not, to me, credible to think that a security structure that has China on the outside as important and powerful as it is, is going to be a stable structure there.

So the problem is how do we get from the world we created after World War II and the Cold War, how do we get to a new security structure where the Chinese feel invested in it rather than alienated from it.

If we think our security lies in a structure that freezes out China and makes it the explicit opponent, I think you're going to get just progressively worse behavior from China.

To Lampton, the hope is that such worse behavior doesn’t end in a nuclear war – and he urges great caution.

Unfortunately, when you're dealing with an opponent as big as China, you just can't run up the escalatory ladder because with China, it ends with nuclear weapons. And this is why you don't want to get into a conflict with China because it gives you nothing but bad choices.

On China’s “nine dash line” claim to much of the South China Sea, Professor Lampton sees this simply as a political quagmire for China. 

I think the nine-dash line is millstone, really, around the neck of the Chinese for a number of reasons. It goes almost down to Indonesia. It really would make the South China Sea a Chinese Lake if those were to be the territorial waters of China. Not acceptable to the United States. Not acceptable to any of the states around the South China Sea.

So it's really a line that the Chinese communists inherited from the Kuomintang and the Nationalist Party of Chiang Kai-shek. And the PRC doesn’t want to be less steadfast defenders of Chinese sovereignty then Chiang Kai-shek was.

So, in a sense, part of the story is they've inherited a line they now have to defend, even though the world's a rather different place.

But, I think overall, China is making more enemies in the end, according to International Law, I think, doesn't have a good case. And so, I would think the, the best part of wisdom for China would be to negotiate this issue with its neighbors, cut an equitable deal, sign a code of conduct and move on. This is just a millstone around China's neck.

As for how America and its allies should respond to China’s aggression, he acknowledges the difficulties – but hopes for the best in China:

I think this whole question of how one responds to what you might call Chinese salami tactics in the South China Sea, you just sort of peel off one atoll after the next and pretty soon you've got yourself a set of facts that mirror this nine-dash line; and in the end, possession is nine tenths of the law. 

And so you've actually presented the world with a set of fait accomplis about which you don't any longer feel you have to negotiate. And I think that's, quite frankly, probably the strategy China's pursuing.

It's a strategy difficult for us because, in effect, many of these atolls are not a national interest of the United States; but on the other hand, you don't want to reward this kind of tactic.

My hope would be that the Chinese would see that they have a larger problem, and that is they will have no peace with their neighbors. They will not be able to focus on their internal development as long as they keep intimidating their neighbors.

So I guess part of my hope is that the Chinese recognize what I believe is their own interests and begin to act accordingly. If they don't, they're going to face a bigger military buildup by all its neighbors and the United States. They're going to find a more assertive Japan; and that's not going to be a world the Chinese like.

We ended the interview with this grim assessment of why North Korea is highly unlikely to give up its nuclear weapons.

Professor Lampton’s assessment of the North Korean proliferation issue is particularly grim as he sees little hope the North Koreans will give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for anything: 

Nuclear capability is their ultimate insurance policy because when all is said and done, the United States and its allies have never attacked a nuclear power. And, when Libya gave up its nuclear program, it went down the hill.

And so it’s my judgment that North Korea is not going to get rid of their weapons.  This is both the regime’s insurance policy and it's their legitimacy with their own people – in a sense that despite all the privation, we're a strong country.  They lose this, and the Communist Party in North Korea is gone.

So I think that's a death sentence for the North Korean leaders and so they're going down the nuclear route and my guess is nothing can divert them; and that we're going to have to unfortunately deal with that reality. 

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