Special Reports

Frank Church conference speaker has been watching China’s changes

David Shambaugh stands outside the Forbidden City in Beijing.
David Shambaugh stands outside the Forbidden City in Beijing. Rocky Barker

David Shambaugh looks at the relationship between the United States and China as a reluctant marriage.

The two nations have a long history of ups and downs, but their destinies are deeply interdependent, said the George Washington University professor.

“This is a marriage where divorce is not an option,” Shambaugh said.

Shambaugh is the keynote speaker for the 27th Frank Church Institute conference, “Eagle and Dragon: The U.S. and China in the 21st Century,” Thursday at Boise State University. He headlines a list of speakers that includes representatives of both the U.S. and Chinese governments and other top scholars.

The conference comes at a time when frictions over currency, trade, China’s military modernization and human rights are at a 20-year high, Shambaugh said. At the same time, China’s role in Idaho has grown with J.R. Simplot Co. and Micron Technology running major operations there and Hoku Scientific, owned by a Chinese energy company, making polysilicon in Pocatello.

The Frank Church Institute has long sponsored events around China, a recognition of former U.S. Sen. Frank Church’s own history with the country, said executive director Garry Wenske. Church did intelligence there as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

He rose to become chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and played a key role in ensuring that normalization of China in 1979 passed muster in the polarized Cold War atmosphere. The same year, he led the first official Senate delegation to China and a trade mission that included Idaho companies like Boise Cascade and Morrison-Knudsen.

Shambaugh began his own career as an analyst on international affairs for Church in 1976 after leaving school and traveling around the world. He worked on Church’s 1976 presidential campaign and was inspired by the Idahoan’s idealism.

“Church was one of the few voices at the time, especially among Democrats, saying the United States cannot shrink from the world,” Shambaugh said. “We need to understand the cultures and histories of other countries in order to deal with them.”


Shambaugh went on to work for the National Security Council in the Carter White House and watched the formal normalization ceremonies in 1979. There he met Deng Xiaoping, the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, who led the nation into market reforms that today make it the second largest economy in the world.

In 1983, Shambaugh won a fellowship to study at Peking University in Beijing. There he was asked to play basketball on the university’s team, which traveled to 20 of the country’s 30 provinces and played in China’s version of the NCAA finals.

Also in 1984, he worked as a translator for ABC’s “Nightline” and Ted Koppel, which put him in the room when President Reagan met with China’s top officials. When Shambaugh returned to academia, he was offered the editorship of the China Quarterly, the top academic journal about China at the University of London, where he lived in the early 1990s.

At George Washington, he heads the China program at the Elliot School of International Affairs and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies. He teaches and has written and edited 25 books and 200 articles, including Time’s 2009 cover story on the 60th anniversary of the Peoples Republic of China.

“David is one of the two or three top China experts in the United States,” said Loch Johnson, his boss when he worked for Church and now Regents Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia.


Shambaugh has visited or lived in China every year since 1979, which has given him a unique opportunity to watch China rise from the end of the Cultural Revolution to its place in the world today.

As much as any nation in the world, China is defined by its 3,000-year history. Americans need to understand that long history and especially the colonial period from 1800 to 1949, which the Chinese call the time of shame and humiliation, he said.

“It means the Chinese have a lot of baggage, a lot of grievances,” Shambaugh said.

But with its great economic rise, the second-largest military budget in the world and the fact it weathered the latest recession unscathed, Chinese leaders and people are feeling at the top of their game, he said.

“They don’t want anymore to be lectured to by the United States and the West,” he said.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484