12 April 2016

The Crouching Tiger Interviews: David Lampton From A to Xi

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.

Peter Navarro is a professor at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the World (Prometheus Books) and director of the companion Crouching Tiger documentary film series. For more information and to access film interview clips, visit www.crouchingtiger.net or see his book talk on CSPAN2.

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