Professor Daniel Mattingly: The Future of US-China Relations

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The speaker event was hosted by the International Students Organization.

By Aurelia Dochnal

The November 5th seminar-style discussion with Daniel Mattingly, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale, touched on topics ranging from the improbability of military intervention in Taiwan to leading Chinese Marxist intellectuals like Jiang Shigong. Professor Mattingly opened by introducing different frameworks for understanding international politics: neorealism, liberalism, and Marxism. In the neorealist theory of international politics, the international system is anarchic, states are unitary and rational, and they act to preserve their own security. Supporters of liberalism, on the other hand, question neorealists’ emphasis on power politics, asserting that while states are important, they are not unitary, and should focus on building interdependence and cooperation through international institutions like the United Nations to preserve peace. Views championed by scholars like the aforementioned Jiang Shigong align with Marxist international relations theory, which elevates class conflict and economic and material aspects over neorealist and liberal conceptions of international politics. Broadly speaking, China’s main concerns in the international sphere include increasing economic and military capabilities and accruing soft power. China has achieved purchasing power parity with the U.S. and its modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is in line with the 2015 Defense White Paper calling for “independent innovation”, still a top priority for technological development and military modernization.

Professor Mattingly discussed the broadly worsening relationship between the U.S. and China, exacerbated by Donald Trump’s and his allies’ isolationist policies, trade war, and aggressive, sometimes racist, language. In response, Chinese “wolf warrior diplomats” like Zhao Lijian, often operating on Twitter, have been posting increasingly strongly-worded defenses of China and attacks on various U.S. issues and policies. With a Biden administration, Prof. Mattingly predicted that diplomacy will return to the more subtle character of pre-Trump times. Nevertheless, he expects to see similarly hardline policies regarding trade, defense, and technology, albeit without the disastrous immigration regulations pushed by the Trump administration. The Biden administration, according to Prof. Mattingly, will involve U.S. allies, like Japan and South Korea, to work closely promoting American interests in Asia. Regardless of Mr. Biden’s promised tough political stance, Prof. Mattingly expects much closer cooperation on issues like public health and climate change between a Biden administration and the PRC.

Professor Mattingly, who has experience in the public health sector, noted that for over thirty years in the pre-Trump era the U.S. and Chinese centers for disease control were intertwined, sharing research and cooperating on major issues. Donald Trump slashed the number of staff at the U.S. CDC in China, reducing its capabilities to close to nothing, a decision Prof. Mattingly expects Joe Biden to reverse. Clearly, Mr. Trump’s villainization of China for the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak is an unproductive, unhelpful strategy, and collaboration between the countries could lead to fruitful conclusions for the public benefit. Professor Mattingly expressed his hopes that the United States and China will be able to cooperate in the future, and while some participants asked about the possibility of a technological cold war, referring particularly to Mr. Trump’s proposed bans on WeChat and restrictions on Huawei, Prof. Mattingly suggested that an outright cold war is improbable, particularly under a Biden administration. Instead, Mr. Biden will continue his predecessor’s moves against Chinese tech companies, but in a more targeted, de-escalated manner: let’s not forget that lawmakers first barred U.S. companies from using Huawei networks back in 2012. 

Our discussion also touched on the issue of Taiwanese security, with some participants wondering about the possibility of war breaking out between Taiwan and the PRC. Prof. Mattingly emphasized that a Chinese attack on Taiwan is highly unlikely, given the potentially disastrous repercussions not only for Taiwan, whose military is unprepared and unable to face the PLA, but also for China diplomatically in the international arena. The United States has signaled multiple times its intentions of moving closer to Taiwan, most recently by approving massive-scale arms sales and sending delegations of the highest-ranking diplomats since the U.S. officially recognized the One-China Policy back in 1979. Although alarming to China and to the overall state of U.S.-China relations, Prof. Mattingly expects a Biden administration to continue drawing close to Taiwan. Nevertheless, the probability of military intervention on the island is extremely low, seeing as the PRC would not launch an attack without a very serious, direct provocation, frameable as an inadvertent escalation. The PLA has not fought a war in half a century, and although public opinion has been reported as increasingly hawkish, scholars find that support is low for direct military intervention. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that the U.S. would directly engage in a PRC-Taiwan conflict given lack of political will and the modernization and strength of the PLA — unlike its state in the Taiwan Straits crisis of the ’50’s. 

A participant asked about the reasons for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, and Professor Mattingly outlined three main motives: firstly, the widespread corruption within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that Mr. Xi took upon himself to eliminate, along with enemies. Secondly, many Party cadres saw the 2012 Bo Xilai scandal as a threat to the CCP’s legitimacy, exacerbated by collective rule. Power consolidation was necessary to retain Party leadership and focus the CCP’s direction. Lastly, a large problem within the Chinese state at the beginning of Mr. Xi’s rule was the lack of control over local officials: even when the Party implemented a policy, there was no way to guarantee the officials would carry it out. The breadth and depth of Mr. Xi’s policies span across these issues, consolidating centralized power and returning greater strength to the Party.

Professor Daniel Mattingly is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale. His research focuses on authoritarian regimes, historical political economy, and China. His book, The Art of Political Control in China (Cambridge University Press) examines how the Chinese state controls protest and implements ambitious policies from sweeping urbanization schemes to family planning initiatives. His current work examines the role of the military, nationalism, and surveillance technology in Chinese politics. He received a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and a B.A. from Yale University.

Aurelia Dochnal is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. You can contact her at .