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Tensions with China
With Arthur Waldron, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute
Monday, April 2, 2001

In this discussion, Arthur Waldron, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, argues for decisive action on the part of the Bush administration, noting that "even Reagan, not to mention Bush senior and Clinton, gradually taught the Chinese that they could get away with threatening their neighbors and we would overlook it."

Answering the many questions about possible next moves by Bush, Waldron suggested that if the crisis continues, "Bush might consider postponing his trip to China, halting visas for high level Chinese coming here on shopping trips, selling Taiwan exactly what it needs (which he should do in any case), opposing China's bid for the Olympics, etc. etc. We have frittered away a lot of credibility and now it has to be rebuilt. This process is necessary, but there will be squeals in Beijing (and Washington)"

Earlier, in his op/ed piece in The Washington Post, Ghosts Who Refuse to Rest, Waldron looks at the memory of Tiananmen Square to help explain the mindset of China's leaders today.

Waldron is a professor of international relations at the University of Pennsylvania and director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Read the transcript below:

Columbus, Ohio: I am very concerned over China's refusal to allow our inspectors to view our plane and visit our military members. This type of action can precipitate war. Does China have the legal authority (i.e., United Nations or otherwise) to refuse entry of our inspectors? If so, what legal actions can the U.S. take to (1) Fix & Repair the plane; and (2) Fly the heck out after fixing it? Finally, I believe China will use the American University professor currently detained, as bait in this matter. What's your opinion?

Arthur Waldron: I am not sure about all the international law permutations here. However, if China wants to maintain good relations with the United States, given that this was evidently an accident, then they will release the crew ASAP and get the plane off Chinese territory pronto. If they don't do that, the indication is that they want to use this for some purpose. I agree that the scholars already arrested by China may figure as pawns in this.

Washington DC: I would like to know if the United States has any safeguards in place to prevent the Chinese from gaining access to the classified data, that it had been gathering. Wouldn't it be a good idea for the US to have a system of self destruction of such classified equipment in the future?

Arthur Waldron: That is a very good question and I don't know the answer. Obviously it would be nice to be able to disable all that equipment in case of a forced landing, but reports say that the plane was immediately occupied by PRC troops.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think China intends to force us to hand over their defected military official by holding the crews?

Arthur Waldron: I cannot imagine that we would hand over the defected military official. Think of the message that would send to brave people who want to get on the other side against oppressive regimes. But the Chinese have learned over the past three administrations, and more, that the US will give in to pressure. So I have no doubt that they will use both our Navy personnel and the US citizens detained as hostages and bargaining chips.

Burnaby, British Columbia: How much of a role will the Chinese or Asian "shame culture" or "face" play in the resolution of this episode? And what is the difference between this incident and the U2 spy plane downed in USSR?

Arthur Waldron: Face is tremendously important in China. Also, the current PRC regime is trying to keep its own people in line by means of arrests--e.g. of various kinds of activists--and by appearing "strong" against (imaginary) foreign threats such as the US. Therefore it will be difficult for them to yield on the plane in the face of their own hard line rhetoric. The U-2 was shot down over the USSR--this plane was over waters that China claims but the rest of the world consider international. Could compare it to the Pueblo. Difference there is that North Korea in those days had no connections to the US and we had no leverage. Now China is deeply involved in a world community in which the US and other democratic countries have a fair amount of leverage over them. Question is, will we use it and how?

Washington, DC: Given recent events - the tense debate over military aid to Taiwan, the detainment of U.S. intellectuals, and the current situation with the downed plane - what impact, if any, will these political issues have on the economic relationship between the U.S. and China? Does PNTR's removal of political and social issues from the trade debate seem short-sighted now?

Arthur Waldron: When analyzing China, always look at the INTERNAL situation in China first. I believe--and many China scholars would disagree with me on this one--that the leadership is feeling increasingly beleaguered. A change in top leaders is coming as Jiang Zemin and the others step down in the next two to three years. The popular demand for effective citizenship and political participation aired in 1989 and then crushed, has not been abandoned by the people. Corruption is worse than ever. It seems likely that within a few years, after the leadership change, the historical assessment of the Tiananmen massacre will be revised and the people like Deng and Jiang who were implicated in it will be criticized. So the leaders are trying to preempt this by getting tough.

These domestic problems will have an effect on US and the world's relations with China. China is not simply an economy where we invest and make money (sometimes). It is a nation of 1.2 billion people in the throes of transition from authoritarianism to something else--which we hope will be freedom. That transition is going to rock the boat.

In this context, I don't think PNTR, arms sales to Taiwan, etc. are anywhere near so important as what decisions the leaders in China make now about their future political approaches toward their own people.

Cinnaminson, NJ: Is this a blunder on the part of the Chinese? They are inflaming people's passions. They are scaring investors. They are strengthening Taiwan chances of a arms upgrade? What do they have to gain?

Arthur Waldron: I believe this is an accident. It comes though as a result of pushing the envelope. You only crash into US aircraft if you fly very very close to them. Riding the tiger it is difficult to dismount. PRC since 1989 has carried out a conscious program of stirring up strong nationalistic and anti-American feelings (remember the stoning of the embassy?). Now they are faced with a problem. If they use it to hammer the US, we all lose. If they whish the plane and crew out, as they can and should, someone will criticize them for being weak.

But in a sense they are showing what kind of regime they are. There is little law in China. Ordinary people navigate in a sea of corruption. Unfortunately, much investment and policy depends on ignoring the regime type and talking about how things are getting better under reform.

As I said earlier, I don't think they caused this incident directly. But they have nothing to gain and everything to lose by prolonging it--except that their own people, trained to be anti-foreign, may object.

Burnaby, British Columbia: Who is in the driving seat for the U.S. negotiation team? Powell? What sort of negotiating pattern could we infer from their previous experiences? And what about the Chinese? Do we know their negotiation style?

Arthur Waldron: I don't know who is driving, except that I suspect W has more of a role than some people imagine. The previous US negotiating record with China over issues such as proliferation, Taiwan, human rights, trade, and so forth, has been to yield on immediate issues and avoid confrontation in the name of maintaining a healthy long term relationship. This makes some sense if done in a moderate way, but as practiced for the last decade or so, it has taught Beijing that the US can be manipulated and intimidated, and that thus they can be as repressive as they like at home, and even threaten their neighbors, WITHOUT jeopardizing relations with the US. This is an unintended and a dangerous lesson. It is important that they unlearn it, and that will be difficult to do.

Because of its hierarchical and authoritarian structure, the Chinese have great difficulty negotiating, especially when they have to give things up--as most negotiations require.

On our side the problem is that we have let pass opportunities in the past to make our limits clear, and now will have to insist on a rather large adjustment.

Arlington, VA: Professor Waldron, I remember you from your days at Princeton. While I never took your classes, I knew many people who did and who enjoyed it. Here's my question: It seems to me that the world is a much more dangerous place under George W. Bush: Russia and the U.S. are expelling each other's diplomats; the Middle East is nearing war, and now we're in a standoff with China. Do you have a view on whether the Bush Administration foreign policy has been a success thus far?

Arthur Waldron: Greetings! Trust all is well. I wouldn't blame W; he has scarcely been in office three months. BUT with respect to Russia--I believe we missed a big opportunity there in the dozen years since communism ended. We underestimated how difficult it for countries to recover from communism, and although we didn't cause it, I think we have contributed to a slide back toward authoritarianism--though Russia still has a free press, elections, and a convertible currency, all of which China lacks.

China is a comparable issue. The exit from communism is proving more difficult than we expected.

Fiinally, even Reagan, not to mention Bush senior and Clinton, gradually taught the Chinese that they could get away with threatening their neighbors and we would overlook it.

I hope and expect that some clear speaking from our side, in private, will help. I think of the row over the Pershing missiles in the 1980s, when many people feared that if we deployed the missiles--as we did--nuclear war was next. In fact the deployment helped persuade the USSR to take a more peaceful approach.

A "hard" line by us against China makes trouble for China's hardliners and HELPS the Chinese moderates, who understand that threats will not get them anywhere. So I want to see this handled properly, but don't see the world falling apart.

Bloomington, Indiana: Dr. Waldron:

US officials claim that the incident occurred in international airspace, and US media reports that US vessels are in "international waters" 130 miles east of Hainan. In the past, the US has refrained from siding with any of the claimants over sovereignty to parts or all of the S. China Sea. Do US officials' statements and the navy's actions remove the veil of the US as honest broker and put the US squarely at odds with China's position that it has sovereignty over the area? What are the consequences for Sino-US relations?

Arthur Waldron: We have never accepted Chinese sovereignty over that territory but we have hemmed and hawed and failed to protest, for example when they fortified Mischief Reef. Now, having built up more military forces and deeper economic and other connections with us, they are pushing harder on sovereignty. They don't need those waters for anything, but if they keep pushing--against US allies, mostly--then we will have to start saying what we think. My own view is that "ambiguity" may make sense sometimes, but that "clarity" is usually better, particularly when the possible issue is military confrontation.

McLean, VA: What would be China's reaction if President Bush used this incident as an example as to why he approved the sale of Aegis destroyers and the other weapons Taiwan is asking for. What is the likelihood that the President will give the go ahead for those sales?

Arthur Waldron: This incident is only indirectly related to the possible Aegis sale. China has been deploying ballistic missiles against Taiwan for more than six years and has actually fired four or so into waters near the island to intimidate. Clearly we have to help Taiwan offset that threat and Aegis is one potential way of doing it. The threat would not exist absent the Chinese missiles, so my favored solution is that China withdraw and destroy those missiles.

Much of the argument over Aegis has spilled over into general issues of Chinese behavior. The case is made that China is, by and large, becoming a better and better international citizen, but that Taiwan is a special case. This incident has to do with the South China Sea and therefore suggests that China's outward push is not limited to Taiwan.

What would China do if we sold Aegis? My own guess is: raise hell, raise their estimation of our strength and resolve, adjust their policy and begin to talk to us more seriously--as the Soviets did after the Pershing deployment. It may seem counter intuitive, but looking strong to someone who is trying to intimidate you may be the best way to ensure peace.

As long as I have been in the China field (thirty years) we have been hearing about how this or that was going to wreck the relationship. It has never happened. Remember the F-16 sale was followed by the Singapore talks, the most successful ever.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Does China have the resources to engage in an arms race with the United States?

Arthur Waldron: I don't think China has the resources to engage in such a race with us, or with Japan, or with a combination of powers. They have started the missile race hoping to steal a march and gain an offensive capability that could then be used to prevent defensive reaction. That is not working.

China's central government runs a growing deficit, and finances more and more by special bond issues and borrowing. They don't need the military they are building and the money could be better used for rural improvements, education, and so forth.

Furthermore, the race will lead only to stalemate at a higher level of expenditure for all concerned. I think we have all learned the lesson of the Anglo-German naval race of 1897-1914: If someone insists on racing you, it is essential to match him. In that case, as now, the race poisoned international politics and reduced trust, thus making peaceful resolution more difficult.

Newburgh, New York: Is is possible that the plane and crew are hostage to internal maneuvering among factions vying for power. Perhaps there are those in the leadership who oppose the "action" over the gulf, while others, perhaps those in the PLA, who want to use the US plane and crew for their own purposes. It could be that the powers in Beijing don't have the leverage to force release of the plane at this point.

Arthur Waldron: Yes and no. I am certain that a lot of factional positioning is going on in China now. But if Jiang Zemin insisted on the immediate release of plane and crew, I think he could make it stick. If he can't, then the breakdown of the regime is further along than I thought. Look at how effective the secret police remains, even in Guangdong.

Washington, DC: How far do you think the U.S. is willing to go the get the plane and crew back in a timely manner. Beyond the mere presence of the destroyers, are we ready to use force?

Arthur Waldron: How do you use force? As Jim Lilley (former ambassador) put it, they hold all the trump cards. If they don't terminate the crisis fast, then we are forced either to ratchet up pressure in other areas, or to overlook it and just go on. In the days ahead pressure to do the latter will grow. But we need to do the former, the reason being that yielding on this will simply invite more trouble. I am no master of the diplomatic operational art, but among things Bush might consider--postponing his trip to China, halting visas for high level Chinese coming here on shopping trips, selling Taiwan exactly what it needs (which he should do in any case), opposing China's bid for the Olympics, etc. etc. We have frittered away a lot of credibility and now it has to be rebuilt. This process is necessary, but there will be squeals in Beijing (and Washington)

Davis, CA: Given the many incidents that have occurred recently with China, do you think that China is deliberately testing the new administration and/or establishing themselves as the next superpower?

Arthur Waldron: I look to the domestic situation in China as the first explanation for the latest wave of incidents. This is an autocratic regime, which has put timely political reform on hold, and is now facing more and more difficulty internally. Hence the crackdown first on domestic dissidents, falun gong, Chinese web sites and chat rooms, etc. Arrests next of China-born Americans, scholars in particular.

But there is also an element of testing W. Reagan was flummoxed by the Chinese early on and mishandled their pressure over Taiwan (the 1982 communique) even though he recovered nicely (and did a lot to promote democracy in Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea). Bush senior sent Scowcroft secretly to Beijing right after the massacre--and was crucified for this by Clinton. Clinton, however, was disciplined early on when the Chinese called his bluff on human rights--and proved amenable to them thereafter. This is a sorry performance on our part and it has created problems. Now the question is whether we and our friends can begin to turn it around.

China is not going to be a superpower except, possibly, in the old Soviet sense--militarily. They have far more money than the Soviets so in theory could support an even larger military establishment. But as with the USSR that would be at the price of the welfare of ordinary people--and it would undermine their critical relations with Japan, the US, Europe, and others. We don't need superpowers in today's world. We need peaceful democratic regimes that feed their own people and let them get on with their lives.

Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Prof. Waldron,

What are the American spy planes doing along the Chinese coast? If Chinese spy planes were regularly taking off from Cuba and monitoring US Army maneuvers by flying less than 100 miles along the US West Coast, would that be acceptable to the US government?

Arthur Waldron: The planes were in international airspace--except by the Chinese definition. For all I know Chinese planes MAY be taking off from Cuba. Certainly China has a big electronic monitoring presence there. The soviets constantly flew missions near our coast and over our landmass, and the Russians have followed suit. And don't forget the Russian fishing fleet. If they are beyond the few miles of territorial waters the world recognizes, we let them be.

Washington, DC: President Bush calls it a "routine surveillance mission," but let's be honest: the Navy plane was engaged in Cold War-style spying. Why is the US engaged in this kind of outmoded, provocative activity in the first place when there are so many better intelligence-gathering methods available? It seems to me that the negative political consequences far outweigh whatever military benefits this spying might bring. Treating China like an enemy could only strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Beijing, making conflict a self-fulfilling prophecy. (edited)

Arthur Waldron: The way you discourage the hard liners is by frustrating their attempts to use force and by strengthening your alliances with your democratic friends.

The fact is that China is developing a force projection capability that threatens a whole range of US friends and allies that in no way threaten China. It is prudent for us to keep tabs on what they are up to, and show presence.

The root cause of China's behavior is China's political system--a largely unreformed communist dictatorship, riding uncertainly on an increasingly autonomous population. China will have to find its own way out of that problem--democratic transition has been the signature event of the end of the twentieth century. If South Africa can be democratic, why not China? If Korea, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, India, etc.

We have only marginal influence on the process. But the process affects us, because if it goes well, we get peace. If it goes badly, we get a threatening militaristic china.

Boston, Massachusetts: I've been browsing the Chinese chat and bulletin board rooms and it's scary. Titles like "US airmen MUST be tried for MURDER" and "US itching for War with 'Routine' Spying missions" seem to be the trend(both from Lundian.com). What kind of information is the average Chinese citizen receiving and just how widespread is the anti-American sentiment there? Does this sentiment influence their leaders?

Arthur Waldron: This sort of stuff scares me too. But since 1989 China has been involved in a "Patriotic Education Program" that stokes just such pathological nationalism. Ordinary Chinese are not as well informed as they might be and government propaganda has some effect. But it is irresponsible to promote this sort of thing and it only adds to problems. Remember the students who stoned the US embassy. They were then angry when it closed and they could not file their visa applications to study in the US.

washingtonpost.com: How will the rise of a new generation of Chinese leaders affect U.S.-China relations? Jiang Zemin's term is almost over... who is his likely successor?

Arthur Waldron: This question gets to the heart of the matter. Mao was giant (but a monster), Deng was quite tall (and far more sympathetic, though a Mafia don), Jiang is by comparison a midget--and his putative successors--are scarcely in sight, and utterly lacking in the what it will take to run a nation of over a billion.

What is needed is a change in the system, so that a successor can be chosen democratically, and thus have the legitimacy required to rule (given that the fearsomeness that used to substitute is no longer available).

Steven, Washington, DC: According to the US government, there are 3 U.S. warships in the vicinity of where the accident took place. Does this situation have the potential to escalate to the point where those warships will be used in the firing of cruise missiles onto Chinese territory? What is the likelihood of that happening? Also, is it possible that China will use this incident as a bargaining chip in handing over the crew and the plane in an effort to stop sophisticated US arms sales to Taiwan? If that is the case, why haven't they been more compliant with the US government? Thank you very much.

Arthur Waldron: I don't see how firing cruise missiles would help. We pounded little Serbia for what? sixty days and barely got a result. I am sure that the Chinese will try to use this as a way to pressure us over Taiwan. But decisions about Taiwan are, by law, to be based on Taiwan's legitimate defense needs. I doubt that pressure will work. More likely, I think, is a stalemate that undermines the rather precarious relationship. W I hope will have the sense, if that happens, to stick to his position, keep the pressure on China in some appropriate way, and devote his attention, say, to Indonesia where the attempt to move from dictatorship to democracy is being made, but not going very well.

Washington, DC: How much are lingering feelings about the U.S. "accidental" bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade clouding recent dealings between the two governments?

Arthur Waldron: I think that bombing really upset Beijing. But they were even more upset that Belgrade caved in. Milosevic was someone they praised to the skies in their official media, and aided substantially. Interestingly, he surrendered to the elected Serbian government--after promising to die first--on the same day this incident with the plane happened. Seeing yet another dictator go down--and possibly go to court--makes Jaing Zemin and his people worry about their turn maybe coming up

washingtonpost.com: That's all the time we have. Many thanks to Arthur Waldron and everyone who wrote in with questions.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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