In the spring of 1974, David Shambaugh, B.A. ’77, boarded a train in Hong Kong bound for the border of mainland China.
A few days earlier, a British traveler had filled Shambaugh’s ears with stories of “Red China” and what it was like inside the country. Shambaugh, who was traveling the world while on a gap year from his undergraduate studies, wanted to see for himself.
As much as he could, anyway.
Despite a limited opening in the early 1970s highlighted by President Richard Nixon’s dramatic visit in 1972, the United States and China had not yet agreed to normalize relations—something they wouldn’t do until 1979. Shambaugh could only look across the border he was not yet allowed to cross and saw what he describes as a sea of barbed wire fences and rice patties—and mystery.
“[China] intrigued me because the Cultural Revolution was going on, and here was the biggest and most populous country on the planet, but foreigners in general and Americans in particular weren’t allowed to go there,” Shambaugh said. “That became a puzzle for me.”
That intrigue has burned for five decades, while he has become internationally recognized for his scholarly work involving contemporary China and international relations of Asia.
Shambaugh, the Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science and International Affairs and the founding director of the Elliott School's China Policy Program at George Washington University, has been selected for many honorary awards and appointments. He has received research grants from the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, German Marshall Fund, Hinrich Foundation, the British Academy and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and has been a visiting scholar or professor at universities in Australia, China, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Singapore and Taiwan. He has delivered lectures all over the world.
In addition, Shambaugh has served on the board of directors of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Advisory Board of the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR), East-West Center Fellowship Board and other professional bodies. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and member of its board of studies and has been a participant in many public policy and scholarly organizations. His expertise is much sought after as he serves on numerous editorial boards and has been a consultant to governments, research institutions, foundations, universities, corporations, banks and investment funds.
Most recently, he was awarded two prestigious fellowships for the 2023-24 academic year. He will spend September through January as a distinguished fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. (He was previously a fellow from the Wilson Center from 2002 to 2003 and served as director of its Asia program from 1987 to 1988.) From February until June he will move to the west coast, where he has been appointed as a distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. During both fellowships, Shambaugh, a prolific and award-winning author, will work on his next book project titled “Disillusionment & Disengagement: How China Lost America.”
"The Hoover Institution is delighted to have appointed Professor David Shambaugh as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow during the 2023-2024 academic year,” said Hoover Institution Director and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “David is one of our nation's leading scholars of China and U.S.-China relations, and his presence will contribute much to our community of scholars."
His work has earned praise from some of the world’s most prominent leaders and organizations of international affairs, and GW has been a big part of his legacy.
The early years
After returning from his in 1974 from his trip around the world, Shambaugh felt inspired to focus his studies on Asia, and he wanted to be closer to politics and policy. Washington, D.C., made the most sense, so he applied to several local universities. While he got into all of them, he thought GW had the best Asia studies program, so he transferred in for his junior year from the University of New Mexico to study at the then School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA).
At the time he enrolled, GW was home to the Institute of Sino-Soviet Studies (ISSS), which was one of the leading U.S. institutes for the study of the communist world. He was intrigued not just by China, but communism as a political system. He studied under well-known faculty members. One of those was Gaston Sigur, the former director of ISSS and noted expert on Asia whose namesake is on the chair Shambaugh now holds—which he describes as quite an honor. Sigur is also memorialized in the university’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies. While at GW, he also met his wife of now 40 years Ingrid Larsen, B.A. ’76, in a Chinese class.
After graduation in 1977 Shambaugh was selected for an internship in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research for a summer, which led to him being hired as a full-time analyst. There he first covered China, and then Indochina. That job propelled him to another opportunity to work for the National Security Council’s Asia Bureau at the White House during the Carter administration. This was during the immediate run-up to normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, which he said was a fascinating and unique opportunity.
In fact, Shambaugh was on the South Lawn when China’s Vice Premier Deng Xiapong came to the White House in January 1979 to commemorate normalization, and he personally met the Chinese leader three times during his visit.
“For a young person coming out of GW, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity had I not gotten the internship in the State Department in the first place,” Shambaugh said. “GW really was instrumental in launching me not just in Asian studies, but also into the policy world.”
He went on to earn his master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) before enrolling at the University of Michigan’s Ph.D. program in political science. There he studied under Michel Oksenberg, with whom Shambaugh had worked under at the National Security Council.
Shambaugh studied and lived in China three times once Americans were allowed to do so: during the summers of 1980 and 1983 at Nankai University in Tianjin and Fudan University in Shanghai, and then for two full academic years between 1983 and 1985 at Beijing University. Shambaugh was the first foreigner allowed to study international relations at a Chinese university. He spent two years at Beijing University researching his doctoral dissertation, taking classes and playing on the university’s basketball team, which remains a great thrill in his life.
“We went 56-5 over two years, won two city championships and went to the national tournament twice (the Chinese equivalent of “March Madness”),” Shambaugh recalled. “I am still in touch with many of my teammates, and this was one of my best experiences getting to know Chinese people.”
After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan’s Department of Political Science, and a one year stint as Director of the Asia Program at the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in 1988 Shambaugh accepted an appointment at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and its Department of Political Studies.
He said he very much enjoyed living in London, exploring England and the European continent. “I developed professional relationships across Europe that I maintain to this day,” he said. Not only was he thriving professionally—he was also appointed editor of the prestigious journal “The China Quarterly" during this time—but his two sons were born there, and it was going to take quite an opportunity to pry him out of London. Then one came calling.
There was an opening at the time for the directorship of the Sigur Center of Asian Studies at GW. Then Elliott School Dean Harry Harding, who held the post from 1995 until 2005, solicited Shambaugh’s application. After being selected by the search committee in GW’s Political Science Department and the Elliott School, for the 1997-98 academic year Shambaugh and his family moved back to the Washington area, where they have been ever since. He had returned home to GW.
“Had it been another university that had invited me to come back to the United States, I may not have done it,” he said. “But this was my alma mater, and the chance to really continue to build the Asian Studies program that Gaston Sigur and my mentors had established. That was just too hard an opportunity to decline.”
For 26 years, GW and the academic community have benefited from his three-pronged approach to academia. First and foremost, there is teaching. “I love the classroom, and I believe it is a very important public good to train students of the next generations and stimulating young people to study China and Asia,” Shambaugh said.
Second, research also drives him . His particular areas of research and publishing have been in Chinese domestic politics, China’s foreign relations, modern Chinese intellectual history, China’s military and security and the international politics of Asia. He has authored significant books and countless articles on all of these topics.
And third, there is public education. He feels it is a scholar’s responsibility and obligation to share their knowledge with the world around them. “I believe the public is also my classroom,” Shambaugh said. “I think the more educated our country is about international affairs, the more informed they are and the better our nation’s engagement with the world will be.”
As China has risen to become a major power in world affairs, demand for Shambaugh’s expertise has grown concomitantly. His expertise is solicited in every corner of the globe. He has lectured across the world so many times Dulles International Airport is a second home. He gives about 30 guest lectures a year, inside and outside the United States, and he has extensively shared his knowledge through countless op-eds, over 200 published articles and 35 books.
He has adopted this outward-looking approach with the China Policy Program, which he founded in 1998, which serves as an outreach program to the Washington, D.C., policy community, as well as China specialists around the world, the media and the public.
Shambaugh has found it very rewarding to watch and be a part of GW’s growth. That includes the Elliott School, which (at the time when it was SPIA) occupied a little townhouse on H Street that it shared with the criminology department when he first arrived as a student in 1974. Now, it is housed in a beautiful, state-of-the-art building on E Street across from the State Department. It is home to more than 2,800 current undergraduate and graduate students, quite the uptick from when he first arrived at Foggy Bottom. Over time, a regional studies center has been established for virtually every area of the world. It has taken hard work, he says, to build the Elliott School into a leading and truly comprehensive professional school of international affairs.
That includes growth in the Asian Studies program, which Shambaugh has experienced as both an undergraduate and now a chaired faculty member.
“We have an internationally renowned faculty offering multidisciplinary approaches to the study of Northeast, Southeast and South Asia,” Shambaugh said. “Our curriculum is also policy-focused, and our graduates gain employment in the U.S. and foreign governments, in consulting firms and NGOs, in business, journalism and other professions. GW prepared me well for a successful career in the field, and since then I and my faculty colleagues have trained new generations of Asianists."
It is needed, he said, because today’s world needs the best and brightest to solve challenging issues in that key region of the world.
While being a scholar, contributing to the discourse on U.S. foreign policy is also important to him. He is frequently called upon to brief high-level administration officials. And right now, U.S.-China relations are quite tense. Military conflict between the two superpowers is not unimaginable, he says.
He describes experiencing the U.S. and China relationship since 1979 as a roller coaster. In the 1980s, he says there was a tremendous amount of hope, promise and enthusiasm between the two countries. Those positive strides ended temporarily with the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre in 1989, but gradually resumed in the mid-1990s and lasted a decade-plus.
He first noticed changing attitudes of the Chinese toward Americans when he was living in Beijing as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in 2009-10. After several decades of enthusiasm, positivity and dramatic growth in different dimensions of the relationship and participating in academic, student, NGO and economic exchanges, the relationship had become fraught. There has been a real seachange in American thinking about China, and my next book project will explore the reasons for it,” Shambaugh said.
He says China, which had become a much better global participant and global citizen, has more recently moved in a more assertive and concerning direction. China is working, he says, against the West and the liberal international order in favor creating a more diffuse but illiberal order.
“At minimum, they are competitors, at a maximum they are an adversary,” Shambaugh said.
Taiwan is a real potential flashpoint. He believes the American public should educate themselves on the history of the Taiwan issue and how it pertains to U.S.-China relations. Tensions over Taiwan’s status are rising, as China has vowed to unify the island with the mainland, using force if necessary. There is a growing fear that the U.S. and China could actually go to war over Taiwan, as Shambaugh asserts.
He wants to make it clear that current Sino-American tensions are between the governments, ruling parties and militaries. He says the Chinese people are “wonderful,” as he has experienced in his many trips to the country and six years of living there. He also says there has been a lot of good rapport between Americans and the Chinese over the decades.
This is why it as imperative as ever to continue sharing his knowledge with the world while teaching Chinese studies and East Asian studies to students, he said. He does his best to prepare students in the nuances of international affairs in Asia, and he incorporates his lived experiences and scholarly findings into lectures to provide students with substantive knowledge.
“Maybe I'm an old school professor, but I believe it's incumbent upon us to actually substantively educate students. The classroom is for knowledge transmission. But I also try give them a set of real professional skills—each one of my assignments is geared to training a different skillset, such analytical writing, primary source research, teamwork, forecasting and other practices that they will encounter in the work place,” Shambaugh said.
In his 26 years on the faculty Shambaugh has contributed a great deal of knowledge and expertise to his students in Asian studies at GW, and he expects to continue for another 5 to 10 more years. He has lived out the university’s commitment to creating a better world.