Reappraisal Led to New China Policy
By Barton Gellman
When President Clinton touched down in April 1996 on the flight deck of the USS Independence, its vast hull flying flags from stem to stern, he indulged in a small display of national pride. Just a few weeks before, the aircraft carrier had led most of the Navy's Seventh Fleet through a tense standoff with China as the Beijing government rehearsed a missile attack and invasion of Taiwan.
"We showed our power to the world without firing a bullet," Clinton told the assembled officers and crew.
In truth, the president and his advisers felt sobered as much as satisfied by the episode, which closed without lethal incident. They had come much closer to combat with China than either government wished, and they were trapped in a pattern of mutual, ritualized complaints.
"Our meetings had been overwhelmingly, 'We want you to release more dissidents,' 'We want you to stop selling arms to Taiwan,' you know, tit for tat," said a senior policymaker on China. "Repetition, usually verbatim, of things that had been said a dozen times before -- as if the world didn't exist."
By the spring of 1996, national security adviser Anthony Lake and his deputy, Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, were finishing a policy review that decided, in essence, to concentrate on the big picture again. Since then, the U.S. government has moved with purpose to repair ties to Beijing. The decision, which set Clinton on his road to a China summit that begins this week, included a willingness for the first time to pay the domestic political costs that have often accompanied China policy since the 1950s.
"That was the key moment at which the administration accepted that it was going to have to deal seriously with China, that China was more than a theme park for the human rights advocates and the Dalai Lama's followers," said Chas. W. Freeman Jr., a former deputy chief of mission in Beijing and Clinton's first assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.
The tumultuous year of 1989, when China crushed its democracy movement at Tiananmen Square and the Soviet empire collapsed with the Berlin Wall, brought two results for Sino-American relations: Public warmth drained entirely, and the old strategic common cause -- containment of Moscow -- disappeared. But a new rationale was growing in the minds of the Clinton foreign policy team. The world's most populous nation, a rising economic and military power, was simply too big to ignore on nearly every foreign policy concern.
Consider, said Assistant Secretary of State Stanley O. Roth in an interview, what the world might look like if Beijing chose hostility at every turn.
"On the Korean peninsula, China could be supplying weapons and encouraging the North Koreans not to participate in negotiations," said Roth, the State Department's leading official on East Asia. "China could be in Cambodia doing what it did 15 years ago, arming the Khmer Rouge and trying to give them support. China could be continuing to sell weapons systems to Iran that threaten U.S. naval forces, like [cruise missiles]. If you want to solve global warming, you're not going to do it if China's not playing. There are just so many of these issues."
Among the first things to come from the interagency review was a firm order anchoring China policy in the White House.
"The overall strategy was that no one agency run off on its own," said one White House official. "No freelancing on sanctions events or other things that would have a profound effect on relations. This was not a decision to suck up or appease. It was a decision to consider consequences rather than automatically heading to a solution that would satisfy a vocal domestic audience."
By July 1996, Lake was heading for Beijing. He had opened a new diplomatic channel to Liu Huaqiu, his approximate counterpart, at the height of the Taiwan Strait crisis four months before. Now that channel became the primary vehicle for reshaping the relationship.
On the long flight to China, Lake wrote out what he would come to call his "strategic rap" -- "strat rap" for short among the note-takers who heard it often in coming days. He intended it as an answer to Beijing's suspicion that Washington aimed to box China in as it had done to the Soviet Union.
"The role China plays in the very different world of the next century was going to be very important, and it was in China's interest as well as the world's that China not only play by the rules but also help devise those rules -- whether on nonproliferation, arms control regimes or the WTO [World Trade Organization]," Lake said in an interview, summarizing his pitch that week to Liu and other top leaders.
"Another part was that the American military presence in Asia had not been drawn down and, I believed, neither should nor would be, and this was not a part of containing China but was there for the sake of stability. I asked him to consider what would happen if we withdrew our presence from Northeast Asia. There would be almost certainly an arms race, probably a nuclear arms race, among Japan, China and Korea, and this was in nobody's interest."
Michael Oksenberg, a China specialist who urged the trip on Lake, said, "Tony had been part of the problem" with the Chinese because of a 1993 speech in which he lumped China with four other "backlash states" -- Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea. "It was outrageous," said Oksenberg, who directed White House China policy for President Jimmy Carter. "He had to lead us out of that particular formulation."
Region by region, issue by issue, the two governments began to talk about the world as the United States commonly did with other strong countries. But there were four major irritants that could set relations tumbling again: human rights, nuclear proliferation, trade and Taiwan. The two years since have been marked by concerted efforts to salve, if not settle, those disputes.
Strategy for Human Rights
Lake -- echoed later by Clinton, during the October 1997 summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin -- began telling the Chinese they were on "the wrong side of history" over political and religious freedom. That formula was more of an overture than a slap. By design, it took some of the pressure off the argument, consigning its outcome to posterity.
But it was not quite good enough, the president's advisers concluded. They wanted to press for near-term improvements, even if they were unwilling to hold the whole relationship hostage on that account. They believed they had to have progress on human rights to make warmer ties palatable to Congress.
Knowing that Chinese leaders took a harder line in large-group meetings, with rivals and subordinates in the room, Lake asked Liu on his 1996 trip if they might take a walk around the Diaoyutai fishing pavilion.
Strolling in brilliant sunshine around the 100-acre compound of ponds and streams, alongside the Garden of Shared Happiness, Lake asked Liu to consider an "illustrative list" of seven dissidents for early release.
Robert Suettinger, the National Security Council's China director, conveyed the list to one of Liu's subordinates. Its contents have never been made fully public. It is known to include China's two most famous dissidents, Wei Jinsheng and Wang Dan, as well as Xi Yang, a Hong Kong journalist, and Chen Ziming, a veteran of the Democracy Wall movement of the 1980s.
In November 1996, Secretary of State Warren Christopher laid out a package deal for the Chinese. The United States would neither sponsor nor vote for a resolution against China in Geneva, provided that China meet "four expectations": release the list of seven, sign two international covenants on human rights, allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Chinese prisons, and create a joint U.S.-China forum of non-government human rights groups.
Premier Li Peng was unequivocal in response. He attacked the proposal as an infringement on Chinese sovereignty.
Madeleine K. Albright, who took her first trip as secretary of state the following February, had a somewhat more productive conversation with Foreign Minister Qian Qichen.
"I've come a long way, and I have to be frank: The United States has serious concerns on a number of human rights issues," she said, according to a written account of the meeting. "The relationship cannot reach its full potential until human rights are dealt with by China in a positive fashion."
By September of last year, amid final preparations for the state visit of Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Washington, the Beijing government forecast the release on "medical" grounds of dissident Wei Jingsheng. On Nov. 16, shortly after the Jiang-Clinton summit, Wei was free and on a plane to Detroit.
Yet as the spring of 1998 approached, with another round of the annual Geneva debate, China still had not come close to meeting the "four expectations."
Berger, who had succeeded Lake as national security adviser, sent a decision memorandum to Clinton reflecting unanimous advice from him, Albright and U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson: The United States should once again sponsor the censure motion.
Clinton rejected the memo. He directed Berger to work out a deal with the Chinese.
Sandra Kristoff, the NSC's senior director for Asia, traveled hastily to Beijing on March 7. Her delegation, which included NSC staffer Jeff Bader and the State Department's China country director, Susan Shirk, pressed Vice Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to show enough progress to justify an end to the Geneva fight.
Yang suggested that China could release Wang Dan and announce its intention to sign the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights sometime soon. Of the four U.S. human rights demands laid out in 1996, that made for partial fulfillment of two.
On March 16, with Clinton's mind made up, it fell to Albright to telephone Qian and cement the deal. The Chinese minister, now vice premier, said Beijing would sign the U.N. covenant "in the near future." Albright, in turn, notified Qian that Washington would drop the motion of censure in Geneva.
Human rights still require a balancing act for Clinton as he heads for a state welcoming ceremony Saturday in Tiananmen Square.
One illustration of the delicacy of the issue came in late April last year, when the Dalai Lama, the religious leader of Tibet's Buddhists and a much-scorned figure in Beijing, met with Vice President Gore at the White House.
Berger was adamant that the Dalai Lama should be spirited out a side door after the meeting, avoiding any photograph in front of the White House. Press secretary Michael McCurry, according to a knowledgeable account, secretly telephoned Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special representative. If Gyari wanted the Dalai Lama to see reporters, McCurry told him, he would have to raise the subject with Clinton directly when Clinton made a scheduled "drop in" on the Gore meeting.
Gyari, who later told friends he did not have the nerve to look at Berger as he spoke, told Clinton that the Dalai Lama would like to speak to the press stakeout when he left. Clinton, put on the spot, agreed. Berger's plan was foiled.
The spread of Chinese nuclear weapons technology had been a vital concern of U.S. governments since the era of Mao Zedong, who used to argue that Third World atom bombs would make the world safer from superpower hegemony.
China's first movement toward nuclear arms control came in 1984, when it joined the International Atomic Energy Agency. Eight years later it signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in 1995 it supported the treaty's indefinite extension.
But January 1996 brought U.S. intelligence that China's National Nuclear Corp. had sold Pakistan a consignment of ring magnets, essential components in the enrichment of uranium to weapons grade.
The discovery triggered a U.S. law banning Export-Import Bank financing of any business deal with China, a sanction that would shut down billions of dollars in trade. Trying to use that leverage to press China toward new restraints, the Clinton administration found Beijing unreceptive at first.
"China's nonproliferation export policy is China's policy," Foreign Minister Qian told Christopher when they met April 19 at The Hague, according to U.S. records of the conversation. "We have no need to discuss it with the U.S. government."
But with the trade sanctions looming, China announced abruptly on May 11 that it would provide no further assistance to unsafeguarded nuclear facilities in Pakistan.
The administration set four initial goals on arms control with China, and -- in contrast with the four on human rights -- obtained them all over the course of the next two years. It wanted China to give up all nuclear assistance to Iran, even that permitted under international law; to break contracts to sell (non-nuclear) C-801 and C-802 cruise missiles to Iran that posed an "over the horizon" threat to U.S. shipping; to write and enforce formal export controls on nuclear and dual-use technology; and to join the Zangger Committee, an international panel to monitor restrictions on nuclear technology.
As bait, the administration offered to revive a moribund agreement reached by President Ronald Reagan in 1985 to allow China to buy American nuclear power plants -- but only if Clinton certified that China was exporting no help on nuclear weapons, direct or indirect.
As negotiations proceeded throughout 1997, a mirror-image analysis emerged. Beijing and Washington each appeared to think it was dangling the other by the wallet.
China knew that three U.S. companies -- Westinghouse Electric Corp., General Electric Co. and the American subsidiary of ABB Asea Brown Boveri AG, a European concern -- were desperate to bid on the world's only significant remaining market for nuclear plants.
"Turkey is probably going to build one," said Ian Butterfield, director of international and government affairs for Westinghouse. "One! Hungary may build one. There will be a couple of completions in Ukraine. China is talking about building a plant a year for 30 years! If you can't bid on business like that -- as they say on Monty Python, it makes you cross."
A senior White House official said, however, that "we had a powerful incentive for the Chinese because we knew they really wanted to have access to U.S. technology." The Chinese, he added, "have an old-fashioned Communist view of how the United States makes decisions, which is that the capitalists have all the power. It just wasn't true. We'd been resisting industry pressure for 13 years."
For its own reasons, China already had canceled deals with Iran for a pair of 40-megawatt heavy water reactors -- a clear proliferation risk -- and a uranium conversion plant that would have been a key link in weapons-grade enrichment.
The first deal came on the C-801 and C-802 cruise missiles. Albright met with Qian on Sept. 23 at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel, and he told her there were "no plans" for further cruise missile sales. Albright, according to an American account, pressed Qian on whether the assurance applied to production technology, and Qian said it did.
At midnight the night before Jiang's first meeting with Clinton, Gary Samore, the NSC's senior director for arms control, and Assistant Secretary of State Robert Einhorn were still negotiating with He Yafei, a Chinese counterpart, in the Willard Hotel on the final language of letters to be exchanged by Albright and Foreign Minister Qian. The Chinese official sought assurances, too, that Clinton would not embarrass Jiang by speaking in front of him about the cutoff of Iran.
But Qian signed the letter Oct. 28, just in time. "China," he wrote to Albright in a document still classified "secret," "is not going to engage in new nuclear cooperation with Iran." With those assurances, Albright wrote back, Clinton would submit "the necessary certifications" to allow China to buy American nuclear power plants.
A CIA assessment made this year, also classified "secret," states that "China has effectively terminated nuclear cooperation with Iran."
"Although our two countries have different systems of export control, our effectiveness is about the same," He Yafei argued in a recent interview. "It's not a joke, but China, being a socialist country, we have better control."
Taiwan remained a potential flash point as Washington and Beijing moved to close ranks.
In the aftermath of the March 1996 crisis, U.S. intelligence gave increased attention to Chinese acquisitions -- Kilo-class submarines, Su-27 strike fighters, and especially Sovremenny-class destroyers with SS-N-22 "Sunburn" missiles -- that were designed by the Soviet Union to fight U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups.
"There's a pretty good consensus in the intelligence community that the Chinese military has been asked to operationalize a Taiwan invasion in a way they haven't done in the past," said one U.S. military expert on China. "For strategists and warfighters in the PLA [People's Liberation Army], that means they have to plan to deal with the United States."
Washington moved on two fronts to defuse Taiwan. On March 11, 1996, Berger and Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff summoned Taiwan's national security adviser, Ting Mou Shih, to a New York hotel. They told Ting to cool Taiwan's independence drive because U.S. military support was not going to be a blank check.
To Beijing, the Clinton administration gave repeated assurances that it was sticking to its "one China" policy of 1972.
For the presidential summit last year, the two sides negotiated a statement by State Department spokesman James P. Rubin. Reading carefully from notes, Rubin said the United States did not support Taiwanese independence, did not support a "two China" or "one China, one Taiwan" policy, and would not back Taiwan's admission to any international body based on statehood.
"These were what I would call corollaries of previous things we said, but we hadn't said those things before," said a State Department official.
China wanted that formula repeated at the highest levels of the U.S. government. Without public notice at the time, Albright did so in an April 30 news conference in Beijing, in answer to an unrelated question on Taiwan.
"The Chinese are pressing for the president to say it, and we were giving advance warning that this is going to be a problem," said a high-ranking administration official.
China and the United States now cooperate on major regional problems as they seldom have before. They see broadly eye to eye, so far, on the four-party talks they jointly sponsor to bring rapprochement to North and South Korea; they have worked in concert to contain the Asian financial crisis, with China resisting internal pressure to devalue its currency, the yuan; and China has been remarkably restrained in response to nuclear testing by its old rival, India.
But is all this a "strategic partnership"? The term, used by Clinton and Albright both, has many skeptics, with doubts ranging from the desirability of such a link to uncertainty about what it even means. In Congress, the policy is under ferocious attack as appeasement and strategic madness for commercial gain.
Ronald N. Montaperto, a senior fellow at the Pentagon's National Defense University, describes the partnership sardonically as "two nations in search of a strategic reason to get along."
"There's a rhetoric of strategic partnership," he said. "I don't see any substance anywhere. We have failed as yet to address the important issues on which relations between the United States and China will truly turn" -- chief among which is competition for dominance in Northeast Asia.
Roth, the assistant secretary of state, described the idea as an aspiration, not a claim about the present.
"The formulation is 'moving towards' a constructive strategic partnership, and I think it's a clear articulation of a goal," he said.
Certainly the two nations have changed the way they do business. In Geneva last month, China held the rotating chair of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The new foreign minister, Tang Jiaxuan, introduced the South Asian nuclear crisis with sentiments that "could have been written in Washington," according to one U.S. official. Then he turned the chair over to Albright for presentation of a U.S. proposal.
If there is any one moment that shows how far the two governments have come, and perhaps at what price, it arrived in the second week of February. Richardson, the U.N. ambassador, had the sensitive assignment of enlisting China in the American-led showdown with Iraq. He sought, and obtained, China's abstention -- instead of its veto -- on a forthcoming vote to threaten "severest consequences" for Baghdad if it failed to cooperate with special U.N. weapons inspectors.
Just before traveling to Beijing on Feb. 14, Richardson paid a call on his U.N. counterpart, Qin Huasun. A politician with a mischievous streak, Richardson put on a serious face and, according to one witness, told Qin: "I want to come to China to focus on one subject." He paused. "Human rights."
As Qin stared back in disbelief, Richardson burst into a grin. The Chinese ambassador threw his head back and laughed.
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