National Press Club Roundtable Discussions and Luncheon:

“U.S.–China Relations: Past and Present”

On April 23, 2001, the U.S.–China Policy Foundation (USCPF) held its annual roundtable discussion and luncheon at the National Press Club. His Excellency Yang Jiechi, Chinese Ambassador to   China, and  J. Stapleton Roy, former U.S. ambassador to the United States, addressed the gathering over lunch, sharing their respective views on the current state of U.S.-China relations. The lunch was preceded by two panel discussions. At the first session, former senior diplomats reflected on the normalization of bilateral relations in 1979 (see pages 5–6). The second session featured authorities on bilateral security and military affairs who provided insights into the then-imminent decision on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan (see page 6).  More than 100 professionals from the Washington policy community attended the luncheon and the morning discussions.

Highlights from these events follow:

I.   Ambassador Yang Calls for Cordial U.S.–China Relations

In his first public speech since arriving in Washington, Chinese Ambassador Yang Jiechi stressed China’s desire for a world in which states interact with mutual respect and non-aggression. “All countries, whether big or small, rich or poor, are equals and should respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.

Yang reported on China’s impressive economic progress, noting  that  China’s economy has achieved at least 7 percent growth rate over each of the past five years, and for the first time Gross Domestic Product now exceeds $1 trillion. Whatever happens to the world economy, Yang said, China can rely on its vast domestic market.

The United States and China have important common interests, Yang maintained, including global development, prosperity, peace, and stability. He warned against the development of an outdated “Cold War mentality.” He also argued that attempted interference in China’s domestic affairs is contrary to international law and the three U.S.-China joint communiqués.

Yang predictably blamed the United States for the plane collision near Hainan Island. He maintained that “all hell would break loose” if an Asian country sent one plane to collect intelligence off the U.S. coast. “The U.S. should stop reconnaissance planes to avoid similar occurrences in the future,” he said.

Yang stated that Taiwan is of primary importance to the future of U.S.–China relations and that “U.S. arms sales to Taiwan violate Chinese sovereignty and embolden separatist forces [in Taiwan].” He labeled former Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui a “representative of separatist forces.” The United States should stop selling advanced weapons to Taiwan and stop granting visas to Taiwanese leaders or it will face a strong Chinese reaction, Yang warned.

U.S.–China relations are at a crossroads, Yang declared, but added that cordial Sino–U.S. ties “serve the fundamental interests of the two peoples,” and that “History is kind to those who work for better U.S.-China relations.”

Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy opened his talk by recalling how different China was thirty years ago compared to today. No longer backward and isolated, China is now the fastest growing economy in the world and has tens of thousands of students studying in the West.

Up until 1989, Roy said, the United States viewed China largely through a national security framework; it was primarily a buttress against the USSR. Since 1989, Roy argued, domestic forces in the United States have shaped relations with China. The dissolution of the Soviet Union played a role in that change. So too did the Tiananmen Square massacre, after which negative images of China permeated the United States, frustrating Americans with the slowness of political reform in China. The Chinese and American governments also found themselves at odds over Taiwan, not able to find a mutually agreed framework to deal with that issue.

Roy maintained there should be a “healthy balance between domestic and national security factors” in America’s China policy.  While human rights should not be trivialized, they should not be allowed to interfere with other important issues.

Roy made two key points about the future development of the Chinese state. First, he emphasized the importance of leadership, pointing to the fact that Singapore had transformed itself from a poor nation to a wealthy one, while Burma remains impoverished. “Nothing is inevitable,” he declared. “Enormous challenges lie ahead but none are beyond the capability of wise leadership.”

Roy also referred to historical cases of emergent great powers contributing to world instability as examples of what does not have to happen with China. France in the early nineteenth century and later Japan and Germany brought about costly wars by not respecting their neighbors’ legitimacy, Roy said, adding that the same does not have to be true with China in East Asia. The United States needs to recognize that China’s interests will not be the same as those of a weaker and poorer country, while China needs to recognize America’s interests in East Asia.

II.     Panel Looks Back at U.S.-China Early Relationship

The opening roundtable looked back at Henry Kissinger's secret visit to China in July 1971 and the start of the new relationship between the United States and China. The panel consisted of Ambassador William Gleysteen, Jr., former ambassador to South Korea, Ambassador John Holdridge, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, and the Honorable Richard Solomon, president of the U.S. Institute for Peace.

Ambassador Gleysteen reminded the audience that in 1949, after Chairman Mao's civil war victory there was a split among U.S. policymakers about whether or not to recognize Mao's communist government. The debate quickly ended in 1951 when Chinese troops crossed the Yalu River into Korea and made containment of the Red Army the top U.S. priority.  In the 1960s, when relations between the USSR and China deteriorated, many U.S. policymakers began to take a fresh look at China as a possible practical ally. Congressional hearings were held to consider the various China options open to the United States even before President Nixon took his historic 1971 trip to "open up" China.  According to Gleysteen, it is unfortunate that during the past decade some Washington policymakers have reverted to the old belligerent attitudes toward China.  "We need to show that we know better," he said.

In his talk, Ambassador Holdridge reviewed his personal experiences as a member of the National Security Council under President Nixon.  He recalled that in 1969 Henry Kissinger asked him to draft a memo on improving relations with China; he believes that his memo was sent to Beijing in July of that year. Holdridge also composed the language Henry Kissinger used to express America's view of the Taiwan situation to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.   After Zhou read the memorandum, which stated that the United States did not support two Chinas, an independent Taiwan, or one China and one Taiwan, he said, "Good.  These discussions may now continue."

Solomon, then a professor of political science at the University of Michigan, participated in the 1966 Fulbright hearings on China in 1966. In his talk he recalled that in those early years many academics were worried that the United States might go to war with China—a development they strongly opposed. After Kissinger's trip, however, the attitude of the American people shifted from one extreme to the other—from fearing China to idealizing it.

Solomon believes that at present there are profound differences within the Chinese leadership over relations with the United States and stresses that for good relations it is necessary to have leadership consensus.  In response to one of the questions, he reminded the audience how Mao had been able to put Taiwan aside as an issue in order to deal with the threat from the Soviet Union.  Solomon thinks that to address the current issues of human rights, Taiwan, and the Olympics, Washington and Beijing must again find some appropriate framework for such discussions.

III.    Panel Discusses U.S.  Arms Sales to Taiwan

U.S. arms sales to Taiwan was the topic of discussion of the second panel.  The speakers included Ambassador Chas. W. Freeman Jr., former Assistant Secretary of Defense, as well as a USCPF cofounder and executive board member; Kurt Campbell, former under secretary of defense and now senior vice president and director of international studies at the Center for Strategic Studies; and  Bates Gill, senior fellow and director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy at The Brookings Institution.

In his remarks, Freeman reviewed the history of the U.S.-Taiwan relationship since the early 1950s.  In seeking to maintain a military balance in the Taiwan Straits, the United States was inclined to overlook Beijing’s complaints about the sale of military equipment to Taiwan.  This was the case in 1992 when former President George Bush approved the sale of F-16 fighters to Taiwan. Freeman warned that "provocative voices" in the United States and China could destabilize U.S.–China relations.

Following his presentation, Freeman was asked whether the recent controversy over the plane collision off the coast of Taiwan indicated that the Chinese military had a greater influence over the government's policies.  In response, he reminded the audience that the Chinese military is still under civilian control and that even the highest estimates of Chinese spending on its military would not come anywhere close to the 3 percent of the national budget that the United States spends on its defense.

Campbell pointed out that Taiwan's military is isolated and largely unsophisticated.  "No other nation trains or interacts with it," he said.  The Chinese government has a "coercive strategy" towards Taiwan and much of its cross straits military buildup is intended to show the United States how serious it is about reunification. According to Campbell, the most interesting change in the then-imminent announcement of a U.S. arms package for Taiwan was the behind-the-scenes discussions between the military representatives of the two sides over what the package might entail. Previously, such interaction would have been considered out of bounds.

For his part, Gill explained that the Taiwan problem will not be solved no matter what weapons the United States might provide and that, at best, these sales only "contribute toward a tenuous status-quo." In recent years, the Chinese government has downgraded its use of military coercion and instead has cultivated the Taiwanese political opposition and business interests. Gill believes that there should be more contact between military representatives of the United States and Taiwan. He also thinks that the United States should help Taiwan develop civil defense to withstand missile attacks and send anti-submarine equipment and surveillance aircraft to help Taiwan deal with Chinese submarines and surface ships.

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