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Orville Schell on U.S.-China relations under President Trump: a look into the Asia Society’s task force report

Photograph of Orville SchellOrville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He is a former professor and Dean at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. 

Schell is the author of fifteen books, ten of them about China, and contributes to such magazines as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times Magazine, among others. He covered the war in Indochina as a journalist and has travelled widely in China since the mid-70s. Schell was the recipient of many prizes and fellowships, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Overseas Press Club Award, and the Harvard-Stanford Shorenstein Prize in Asian Journalism.

He is a Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, a Senior Fellow at the Annenberg School of Communications at USC, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. On February 19, 2016, Dr. Schell spoke with Bryn Miller CMC '19.

Photograph and bio courtesy of Dr. Schell.

In the last four decades, a fairly bipartisan consensus has existed in U.S. policy toward China. Does such a consensus still exist today with Donald Trump in the White House? 

There’s two factors here. The first is, of course, Donald Trump. It is impossible to judge his policies because he has a way of speaking out of both sides of a contradiction, so there’s no consistency. The second part is in many ways obvious and equally as dangerous to the consensus of the two countries. In the last five years, China has become much more militant, belligerent, repressive, and opaque, so the consensus even before Trump came along was already threatened and out of balance. When Trump was elected, the equation, which had one unknown, suddenly had two unknowns. These two unknowns make the whole bilateral relationship extremely hard to analyze and predict.

What factors have led to China becoming more opaque and militant over the past five years?

For a hundred and fifty years, China has yearned for national rejuvenation. It wants to be able to rise again to a position where it can be ascendant at least in Asia, if not on a global scale. This is a long-suppressed aspiration, and now it is most graphically characterized by Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream.

What prompted the Asia Society to organize a team of leading China experts and offer a set of policy recommendations to the new administration? 
A year and a half ago, it became obvious to me that the bilateral relationship was breaking down in some critical ways. It was clear that this year’s election would be something of a tipping point. So my co-chair Susan Shirk and I brought together twenty people we believed were the most thoughtful and experienced, and we collaborated for a year and a half. We realized how unclear many of us were about how the situation had evolved in China and what the U.S. should do about it. The result was the report. 

How has the report been received so far — has there been any reaction from the Trump administration?

We were in Washington two weeks ago, and there was an amazingly receptive atmosphere to the report not only in the White House but also in the Senate, State Department, Department of Defense, and particularly among the various diplomatic missions and ambassadors to Asian countries. This positive reception was because everyone felt threatened somehow by Trump’s provocative statements, and no one quite knew what to do about them. No one could see what a new framework might be, particularly with him attacking the old framework. The report was very welcome because it made some very reasonable, sane arguments. On the one hand, it said we should protect the “One China” policy because without that you won’t get anything done. However, the report also holds that the U.S. really has to arch its back and act with much more resolve to face down China when it does things that are against our interests. 

If you could highlight the three most important recommendations the report offers to the new administration, what would those be?

First, that we need to do something collectively with China vis-à-vis North Korea and the nuclear proliferation question. On February 18, the Chinese did finally crack down by stopping coal imports from North Korea. The Chinese do share a common interest with us there; they don’t want a nuclear North Korea, either. But they’re very wary about having an American treaty ally across the Yalu river if the North Korean regime falls and South Korea takes over. The only way to make progress with China is to have an urgent, last-ditch effort to get together with Xi Jinping and make some kind of a deal. Trump could guarantee certain protections of China’s interests in the peninsula if the Kim regime collapsed. He could promise, for example, to not position troops north of the 38th parallel, or to privately provide some kind of guarantee that might make the Chinese feel more comfortable. 

A second thing that’s absolutely urgent to address is the uneven playing field with respect to the trade and investment balance. China has become much more discriminatory, mercantile, and protectionist. If they don’t make some corrections, it is going to throw the relationship off track. When you lose the support of business for better relations with China, you’ve lost an enormous piece of the bilateral puzzle. 

Third, the administration must address China’s repressiveness at home and its exportation of its Leninist ideology. China is repressive and repudiates any kind of universal values and basic rights. Now, it is exporting its own values to other nations, whether through Confucius Institutes, China Central Television channels all over the world, or the China Daily newspaper. It will also call up think tanks and universities to threaten them if they’ve had speakers that China doesn’t like, or kidnap people with foreign passports. All of these things represent a dramatic shift: what was once an internal matter of repression has now started to be a global matter.

The report calls for a “reciprocal balance” between China and the U.S. with respect to the sort of information flow, NGO access, and media presence you mentioned above. How could the Trump administration make this happen, given Beijing’s strong aversion to this idea? 

Here’s where Trump might actually have a few abilities that a more decorous and principled president might not have. When China denied visas to American NGO staffers and journalists, Obama was reluctant to retaliate because it violated our principles. Trump has no such qualms. It would be very easy for him to at least threaten and perhaps actually execute reciprocal policies, which would certainly get China’s attention. This is a difficult question, but Trump might be able to negotiate with Xi Jinping, perhaps even more convincingly than Obama.

Is there a chance that the Chinese could call his bluff and there could be an escalation in this situation?

I think there is. But that would ultimately happen anyways. The U.S. has backpedaled and backpedaled and not acted about one thing after another. Eventually, there won’t be a relationship worth protecting anyways. We’re not getting enough out of it. Of course this policy is dangerous, and it should be done with great prudence and always with reciprocity in mind. But if China can have 75 Confucius Institutes in America, why can’t the U.S. have Thomas Jefferson institutes in China?

Going back to the Taiwan issue, Trump has reaffirmed America’s longstanding “One-China” policy, as the report suggests. Is Taiwan still a flashpoint in U.S.-China relations?

Yes, I think so, not just because of President Trump’s earlier phone call with the Taiwanese president, but because we do live in an era of self-determination. Scotland can vote to leave Great Britain, Quebec can vote to leave Canada, and Czechoslovakia can break into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. One may logically ask why Taiwan can’t have that right. We know the answer — because China won’t allow it — but it is a great threat because the independent sentiment is increasing in Taiwan. The people there think they are less and less Chinese in the mainland sense. The U.S. isn’t the arbiter here — the people of Taiwan are the arbiters, and it is undeniable that they are less inclined for China to absorb them into its fold. 

Transitioning to another sensitive issue, what do you think is the best course of action for the Trump administration in the South China Sea and East China Sea?

That’s probably the thorniest issue. Some very tough talk at a very high level would involve some kind of a deal, which Trump is supposed to be good at. One can imagine a bargain that protects freedom of navigation and acknowledges that the South China Sea is a legitimate sphere of influence for China. In exchange, China could agree to yield to the United States and help contain North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

People have different views about whether such a deal would be good or not. But it is not in China’s interest to keep pursuing the South and East China Sea maritime claims in the same inflexible and belligerent manner that they have, not only because they risk tension with the U.S. but also because it is alienating many of its neighbors.

The United States conducts naval freedom of navigation exercises regularly in the South China Sea, an act that seems to place a policing force behind the international laws guaranteeing freedom of navigation. How does the United States reconcile this action with the fact that it has not signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea?

There’s a huge disconnect. In the report, we call first and foremost for the U.S. to ratify the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea. On the other hand, we’ve agreed to abide by its principles in the South China Sea and acknowledge the ruling that was handed down in the Philippines case. Like China, the U.S. has an awful lot of inconsistencies and hypocrisies.

Looking outside of China, this report also advises that America reaffirm its commitment to Asia. Which countries in particular should America focus on and what are tangible steps that the United States should take to do so? 

There’s nothing more important in Asia and possibly in the world than the American alliances, whether that’s with NATO, South Korea, Japan, Australia, or previously the Philippines. These alliances need to be reaffirmed in the most forceful way possible, because they are the bulwark against China’s expansionism. I do think that China has a great ambition to push these countries around.

The report also talked about how reinvigorating the TPP could catalyze reform in China. How do you see that happening? 

Whatever you may have thought about TPP, it did have the advantage of ring-fencing China. As Obama noted, if we don’t write the values or prescriptions, China will. It would also give China something to work towards, to get into, because there was a presumption that China ultimately would be included. The TPP would operate like the World Trade Organization — it would force China to bring about reforms that it might not otherwise do in order to join, which is what happened when it wanted to join the WTO. These reforms would make China more transparent, more law-based, and more equitable. 

To tie all this information together, this report notes that China should be America’s biggest priority in the Asia region. Where should this relationship fall on America’s list of global priorities?

The world is increasingly gravitating around the U.S. and China. They’re really the only two countries of consequence anymore. Russia can make a lot of trouble with its military, but it is economically weak. Japan is of consequence, but the two major poles are the U.S. and China. This relationship is critically important, but it is underlaid by two governments with utterly opposite values and political systems. It is difficult to overcome these differences because deep down in their hearts, Xi Jinping and the Communist party do believe that a lot of Americans would like to overthrow the Communist party, and I can’t say they’re wrong. This fundamental antagonism prevents us from cooperating as much as we could and really should if our political systems weren’t so inimical. 

Bryn Miller