Shortly after news broke of Donald Trump’s phone call with the head of Taiwan—the first direct communication between American and Taiwanese leaders in 37 years—one of the leading Chinese scholars of U.S.-China relations offered a stunning proposal: If the U.S. president-elect took similar actions as president, the Chinese government should suspend the world’s most important (and precarious) partnership. “I would close our embassy in Washington and withdraw our diplomats,” said Shen Dingli, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. “I would be perfectly happy to end the relationship.”
What made the recommendation especially notable was that, just days earlier, Shen had been arguing that Trump’s victory was good for China—much better than the election of Hillary Clinton would have been. So what was it about the Taiwan call that had so quickly soured Shen on Trump? Where did he now think the U.S.-China relationship was headed, and what might that mean for the wider world?
I asked Shen these questions during a moment of profound uncertainty for the two global powers. The Chinese government initially reacted to the call with restraint, suggesting that Taiwan’s leaders had “tricked” Trump into challenging a U.S. policy—adopted in 1979 as a consequence of Richard Nixon’s opening to China—that the island of Taiwan be considered part of China rather than an independent country. But reports have since indicated that the call was a deliberate effort by Trump and his advisers to express solidarity with Taiwan and stake out a tough stance on China, which the U.S. president-elect accused throughout the campaign of exploiting the United States economically. On Sunday, Trump noted indignantly on Twitter that China had never asked U.S. permission to devalue its currency, tax U.S. imports, and construct military installations in the South China Sea. In other words, it’s getting harder for Chinese leaders to minimize Trump’s provocations as inadvertent breaches of etiquette.
Shen’s anger and ambivalence about Trump’s call speak to broader anxiety in China right now about what to make of the U.S. president-elect and the trajectory of relations between the two countries. When I asked Shen whether he was concerned about a Trump presidency destabilizing international affairs, he told me disorder was already upon us. When I asked him whether he thought America, under Trump, would remain the most powerful nation on the planet, he answered without hesitation: “No.” An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Uri Friedman: You’ve studied U.S.-China relations for a long time. What was your initial impression of Trump’s Taiwan call?
Shen Dingli: I think the president-elect is still a private citizen. Any American private citizen has the right to say anything that goes against the U.S. government, [including] policy on China. The U.S. government can only make the government itself observe the line.
Friedman: Why do you make the distinction between a private citizen and the president? In just a couple months, Trump is going to be president.
Shen: Any bullshitter can say bullshit things. So I don’t care what he says. But if [and when] he is president, I really care.
Taiwan is a part of China, so the U.S. should not touch [it]. Like how the Hawaii independence movement, the Texas independence movement, [should be considered] U.S. internal affairs that China should not touch.
Friedman: What is your sense of how the Chinese government is processing Trump’s call to Taiwan so far?
Shen: [Chinese leaders] are downplaying it, [suggesting that] he has been played by Taiwan. The Washington Post is saying no, he played Taiwan. China has been hurt by Trump, but the Chinese government wants to protect Trump by saying no, he did not place the call, he is just inexperienced, so why do we care?
Friedman: Why do you think the Chinese government wants to protect Trump?
Shen: Because what can you do? Can you really cut off the official relationship with the U.S.? No, you cannot. You [may] hurt yourself more than America. So the Chinese government does not want to hurt China by hurting Trump. But I don’t care. I’m not the government.
Friedman: In the days after the U.S. election, you cheered Trump’s victory. People might be surprised to hear that, since Trump bashed China during the campaign and talked about imposing a 45-percent tariff on Chinese imports, which could risk a trade war. What made you say that at the time?
Shen: Trump does not care about human rights; he traded with China [as a businessman]. Democrats care more about human rights—sometimes, they place values above trade. The Republicans, oftentimes, care more about trade. For trade, Obama created the [Trans-Pacific Partnership] that excludes China, that makes China less able to export competently. Trump would abolish the TPP, which would give China some breathing space.
Friedman: You said after the election that you thought a trade war between China and the United States was inconceivable. Do you still have that view today?
Shen: A trade war is not conceivable. China exports $440 billion [worth] of goods to America. If the U.S. imposed a 45-percent tariff then China couldn’t export that much, so lots of Chinese would lose their jobs. But China would retaliate against America. Hundreds of thousands of Americans would lose their jobs as well. Therefore, a mature leader would not develop a confrontational trade relationship to that extent. They would use negotiation [and] eventually everybody would make some concessions, but each party would get a lot in return.
Friedman: So you expect Trump to be a mature leader in that respect?
Shen: I think Trump would ultimately use bilateral negotiation and [World Trade Organization] arbitration, which is a multilateral process, to deal with China-U.S. trade unfairness and disputes.
Friedman: You’ve been a vocal critic of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. Can you explain, for those who may be unfamiliar with the issue, why Taiwan is such a sensitive topic in China? Why has the Chinese government so far tolerated U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan but not diplomatic recognition of Taiwan? In other words, what’s so bad, from a Chinese perspective, about the U.S. president calling the leader of Taiwan?
Shen: Taiwan is a part of China, just like the mainland is a part of China, which is the consensus of the international community. The UN [shares] this consensus, so Taiwan was expelled from the UN and [China] entered the UN to replace Taiwan. The U.S. used to recognize one China before 1949, but after [Mao Zedong’s revolution in] 1949 the U.S. government recognized the tiny island of Taiwan, [where Mao’s rival Chiang Kai-shek had fled], to represent the entire China. That seemed ridiculous because Taiwan had a small territory, a small population: How could it represent the entire China? That ridiculous argument was replaced by Jimmy Carter in 1979. From that time on, the U.S.’s official statement has been that there is one China, [with its capital in] Beijing, and Taiwan is a part of [China].
You cannot count on Taiwan to stop North Korean nuclear weapons. You cannot count on Taiwan to stop the Iranian nuclear program. You cannot count on Taiwan to help America [fight] terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. You cannot count on Taiwan to counter global climate change. You need to count on working with Beijing. It’s your choice. We do not force your choice. We just tell the U.S.: Once you choose Taiwan, you cannot choose us. But if you choose us, you cannot maintain an official relationship [with Taiwan]. You can have an unofficial relationship. That’s our position.
Because we represent Taiwan, you are free to sell weapons to us or not to sell weapons to us. You cannot sell weapons to Taiwan without our permit. But [the U.S.] has three governments [in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches]. Congress has made a foreign policy that is the Taiwan Relations Act, which says, “We have the right to sell weapons to Taiwan.” On the same issue, each government says different things. We don’t have three governments. We only have one government. The whole branch of the Chinese government would have the same policy with the U.S. So we are struggling to deal with the three governments in the U.S. In order to [have access to] U.S. capital, markets, and technology, we tolerated it for a long time. But there will be a time when [China is] strong enough that we will not tolerate a policy to recognize Beijing as representing China, but to sell weapons to a part of China without the government of China [approving].
Friedman: What’s the best-case scenario for U.S.-China relations during Trump’s presidency?
Shen: Let’s look at Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton allowed the Taiwanese president, Lee Teng-hui, to visit the U.S.[in 1995]. So what happened? China launched a missile exercise against Taiwan, and the U.S. sent two aircraft carriers into the Taiwan Strait. In Bill Clinton’s second term, he had a more stringent, tough policy on Taiwan. He came to China to deliver the “three no’s,” [which included declarations that] the U.S. does not think Taiwan [should] have statehood, which means he would never call Taiwan’s leader “president,” and the U.S. would not change its “One China” policy.
George W. Bush, in April 2001, after Chinese and U.S. aircraft collided, said the U.S. would do whatever it took to defend Taiwan. That [went] beyond the limits of the Taiwan Relations Act. The next day, his spokesperson clarified that the U.S. position on “One China” had not changed—the president did not mean what he said.
So a future good case would be that Trump would not repeat his bullshit argument and would apologize to China for what he has already mistakenly stated. Or each time when he makes a bullshit statement, his press secretary would come out to say, “The U.S. position on ‘One China’ has not changed.” Now he is not a president. He does not need a [press] secretary to say, “He did not mean what he said.” Every day he tweets to say, “I mean what I said.” Fine. You are not a president. But if you are president, Shen Dingli’s China would cut off the [diplomatic] relationship with the U.S. completely so the U.S. cannot sell $120 billion [worth of] goods to China.
[A breakdown of U.S.-China relations could mean] 2 million U.S. workers lose jobs, no more 3 million Chinese tourists coming to the U.S., each spending $10,000. Not many Chinese students would come, and U.S. universities would close.
Friedman: So that’s a worst-case scenario?
Shen: [In addition, China would] not cooperate on Iran, on North Korea, on climate, on IS. America would have to take on all the burdens by itself.
Friedman: In the U.S., people are wondering whether foreign governments and foreign leaders are taking Trump literally, whether they’re taking Trump seriously. Do you think the Chinese government is taking him seriously? Literally?
Shen: We really don’t know about him. We could not have predicted that he would be elected. We prepared for how to work with Hillary Clinton. So we’re still probably reflecting on who Trump is.
Friedman: You’re a physicist by training. Do you worry that the Trump Era will bring entropy—systemic uncertainty and disorder—to international affairs?
Shen: Already. Already. Already. He was a critic of TPP, and TPP would have given more order to the world. [As part of the agreement], the U.S., Japan, and the other 10 countries can better trade. He has said that he would quit the Paris climate-change agreement. If the U.S., the [world’s] number-two CO2 emitter, will not cooperate, the world will have chaos. He already has created lots of chaos. And now with calling the Taiwanese leader “president,” he has created more chaos.
Friedman: Do you expect the United States to remain the most powerful country in the world and to lead the world under President Trump?
Shen: No. The U.S. will [experience] further decline. The Republican President George W. Bush mistakenly sent troops to Iraq. That made the U.S. decline. And Trump’s quitting of TPP will make the U.S. decline. Trump’s promise to quit the climate-change agreement will make the U.S. decline. When Trump campaigned, he said, “I want to make the U.S. great again.” But actually, he [seems to] want to make the U.S. decline more.