'Blue Team' Draws a Hard Line on Beijing
Action on Hill Reflects Informal Group's Clout
By Robert G. Kaiser and Steven Mufson
Fisher, who moved last month to a Washington think tank, describes himself as a member of the "Blue Team"--a loose alliance of members of Congress, congressional staff, think tank fellows, Republican political operatives, conservative journalists, lobbyists for Taiwan, former intelligence officers and a handful of academics, all united in the view that a rising China poses great risks to America's vital interests.
Though little noticed, the Blue Team has had considerable success. By attaching riders to legislation in Congress, it has restricted the scope of Chinese-American military relations, forced the Pentagon to report to Congress in detail on the China-Taiwan military balance and compelled the State Department to take a harder line on China's human rights and religious rights abuses.
Some Blue Team allies have promoted public fears of a Chinese "takeover" of the Panama Canal; several congressional offices report a deluge of mail about Panama's choice of a Hong Kong firm to operate shipping facilities at both ends of the canal, a cause taken up by conservative radio talk show hosts. Allies of the Blue Team have harassed China's biggest oil company, complicating its efforts to sell shares on the New York Stock Exchange.
Members of the Blue Team initially drafted and then helped push through the House of Representatives this month the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, a measure to strengthen U.S. military ties with Taiwan that has angered China. A legislative rider compelled the Pentagon's National Defense University to establish a new center to study China's military. For a time last spring, the Blue Team thought publication of the Cox committee report on Chinese espionage--which its allies helped draft--might lead to irresistible pressure to alter the Clinton administration's policy of "constructive engagement" with Beijing. Administration officials feared the same result.
The Blue Team has no membership cards or formal meetings. Its sympathizers collaborate around particular causes but sometimes disagree with one another. Some, for example, ridicule fears about the Panama Canal.
The core of the alliance consists of Capitol Hill aides who draft China-related legislation and try to operate as anonymously as possible. Several of the congressional aides were brought together last year with like-minded academics and media commentators in a study group run by a small think tank, the Project for the New American Century, and funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh billionaire who has given hundreds of millions of dollars to right-wing causes.
The study group was organized by Mark Lagon, a political scientist who recently joined the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Its primary purpose was to discuss China policy and help produce a book, tentatively titled "China's Rise and America's Response." According to one participant, these meetings sometimes took on the flavor of Blue Team strategy sessions as two dozen Hill aides, scholars, former Reagan administration officials and others ate lunch once a month at the Tabard Inn on N Street NW, and discussed chapters of the book, due out later this year.
While Blue Team members usually work behind the scenes to urge a harder American line on China, their cause has been taken up publicly by a few politicians. Gary Bauer, the former Reagan White House aide and leader of the Family Research Council, used stinging anti-Chinese rhetoric in his recently abandoned presidential campaign and said it regularly won a powerful response from voters. In a speech a year ago to the Republican National Committee, Cox, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, denounced the Clinton administration for cuddling up to Beijing, accusing President Clinton of giving Chinese leaders "the full Lewinsky." But none of the four major candidates for president has embraced the Blue Team view.
Strong language and with-us-or-against-us judgments are becoming common in the struggle between the Blue Team and those it sees as its rivals, whom it calls "the Red Team." Blue Team allies also speak derisively of "panda huggers" and "the Relationship Police," referring to those who seek a close and cooperative U.S. relationship with Beijing.
Scholars who have been targets of Blue Team scorn say there is an increasingly politicized atmosphere among Sinologists. "It's not as much fun as it used to be," said Ronald N. Montaperto, a professor at the National Defense University whom the Blue Team considers soft on China. "Debate has become very personal and very political, and frequently generates more heat than light."
For nearly three decades after Richard M. Nixon's opening to China, a "domestic consensus . . . used to sustain China policy," observed Peter Rodman, an assistant to Henry A. Kissinger in the early days of China diplomacy and now a scholar at the Nixon Center here. That consensus, Rodman said, "was shattered by Tiananmen Square" in 1989, when the Chinese ruthlessly suppressed a student uprising. "The Soviet threat used to hold the U.S. and China together," he added. No longer.
The end of consensus has created opportunities for hard-liners to advance the view that China's steady military buildup will soon put it in a position to threaten U.S. interests, most obviously by bullying Taiwan. The Blue Team and its sympathizers think the United States should recognize that conflict with China is probable if not inevitable.
Officials and scholars who disagree with those views still generally dominate U.S. policy, but they seem less organized and less cohesive than the Blue Team. The Clinton administration, which might have provided an alternative vision of China, instead has offered a series of different China policies over the last seven years, reflecting the disagreements over China that followed Tiananmen.
Clinton campaigned for the presidency denouncing the "Butchers of Beijing" and, once elected, flirted with denying China trade benefits because of its human rights abuses. But he abruptly abandoned any such linkage and decided instead to warm up to China's leaders, eventually embracing President Jiang Zemin's suggestion that China and the United States could be "strategic partners."
The Blue Team and its allies see China as a rising power run by a dictatorial regime that suppresses "the Chinese people's yearning for freedom and democracy" and is determined to challenge the United States, in the words of William Triplett, an aide to Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) and former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Triplett coined the term Blue Team. It comes, he said, from the terminology of China's own military exercises, which often feature battles between red and blue teams. Triplett, a former China analyst at the CIA, and Edward Timperlake, a former Republican foreign policy aide in Congress, have teamed up to write two books--"Year of the Rat" and "Red Dragon Rising"--promoting their views. Among them: "a series of Faustian bargains and policy blunders" by the Clinton administration has played into China's ambitions to acquire threatening military capabilities.
"Where the [U.S.-China] relationship is going is, frankly, toward conflict," said Frank J. Gaffney, a former Hill aide and Defense Department official in the Reagan administration who now runs a think tank called the Center for Security Policy. Gaffney compared America's current China policy to U.S. relations with Japan and Germany before World War II. "In many ways," Gaffney said, "this is a time not dissimilar to . . . the 1930s."
China experts of all stripes acknowledge that China is buying and building more modern weaponry, and some say they are worried about the long-term implications of this modernization, which will increase China's ability to threaten Taiwan. Most China experts agree that rising nationalism in a democratic Taiwan combined with a frustrated China could create dangerous problems. The United States has an informal commitment to protect Taiwan through its insistence on a peaceful resolution of Taiwan's differences with Beijing, but the United States also recognizes China's claim that, ultimately, Taiwan is part of "One China."
Critics of the Blue Team's image of China argue, however, that China is much too complex, and still much too weak, to describe in the Blue Team's stark terms. "I don't have my head in the sand," said Paul Godwin, a China military expert recently retired from the National Defense University. But he deplored analysts who treat "every rumored Chinese acquisition as a reality" and "tend to see every weapon as the silver bullet for the PLA," the People's Liberation Army.
Peter Brookes, an Annapolis graduate, spent part of his Navy career as an intelligence officer in Nicaragua and El Salvador, helping the contras fight Soviet-backed Sandinistas. Later he spent three years in Japan, flying EP-3 surveillance aircraft that sucked up electronic communications from the eastern-most regions of the Soviet Union.
More than a decade later, Brookes is still on guard against threats to American security, but he has shifted his sights toward China. In 1997, he became an adviser on East Asian affairs to the House International Relations Committee.
"When I left Asia in May 1989, it was before Tiananmen Square. China was not a significant threat to American interests. Our main concerns were the Soviet Union," Brookes recalled. That changed forever, he said, when China fired missiles near Taiwan in 1996 to try to intimidate Taiwanese voters casting ballots in their first democratic presidential election.
Like Brookes, many of those who share the Blue Team's view see the Chinese threat through Cold War lenses. Gaffney built his Washington career on his anti-Soviet convictions. Fisher, who saves photos of Chinese weapons, was once a student of the Soviet navy. He moved last month from Capitol Hill to the Jamestown Foundation, a think tank founded in 1984 as an anti-Soviet institution that has extended its interests to China.
Some who disagree with the Blue Team say its members suffer from nostalgia for the Soviet threat.
Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), chairman of the International Relations subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said that "a significant amount of support exists in the Congress, especially in my party and especially in the House," for the theory that China is America's new enemy. "I don't think you would find anybody who would admit that they need an enemy--they may not see it themselves--but they do see the benefits" of having one, he added.
"You don't need to go searching for a new enemy," replied Jim Doran, an aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) who began his career as a Soviet analyst and lived in Russia in the early 1990s. "Look at the propaganda in the Chinese papers. Look at the vitriolic anti-American attitude of that. . . . It's there for all to see."
Like nearly all the congressional aides who collaborate on the Blue Team agenda, Doran is not a China expert. He made his first visit to China last month. Very few of the other Washington-based activists concerned about the Chinese threat have degrees in Chinese studies or speak Chinese.
But expertise on China is not essential to take a principled view of U.S. policy, argued Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, which along with the Washington Times is a primary outlet for Blue Team views. "I'm not a China expert at all. My view of China . . . flows from my view of what you think U.S. foreign policy should be," Kristol said. "American weakness is really the danger."
One prominent China scholar whose views are embraced by the Blue Team is Arthur Waldron, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. While many Sinologists favor constructive relations with China's leadership, Waldron bluntly asserts that American interests would be better served if China's communist leaders were displaced. "I worry that if China continues on its current trend, which is repressing at home and building up . . . armaments, that becomes very dangerous. I agree with people who think regime change is key to a really stable peace," he said.
A chronic frustration for the Hill aides who make up the backbone of the Blue Team is their lack of access to raw intelligence about China. Many suspect that the administration holds back data that might put Chinese developments in a more ominous light. Several of the legislative riders passed in recent years have compelled the executive branch to provide more information to Congress, particularly on the military balance between China and Taiwan. But the Blue Team has a strong appetite for more.
Last year Congress enacted a little-noticed requirement that the administration create a Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University, headed by "a distinguished scholar . . . of Chinese political, strategic and military affairs."
The anonymous authors of this idea--members of the Blue Team who don't seek any public credit for their handiwork--want the center to have access to the full range of intelligence reporting on China. Because it will be dependent on annual appropriations from Congress, one Defense Department official said, the Blue Team hopes the center will be more willing than traditional intelligence agencies to share raw intelligence with congressional staff.
Although President Clinton signed the defense authorization bill that included this provision, he also called the creation of the center "troubling" because it seemed to assume that "China is bent on becoming a military threat to the United States," a conclusion Clinton rejected. Under the legislation, the administration is supposed to send Congress its plan for the center by March 1.
For a brief time last winter and spring, anti-China sentiment in Washington was sharply ascendant. Some Republicans saw an opportunity to create a political issue over the Clinton administration's "embrace of Jiang and the Communist Party," as Rep. Cox put in a January speech.
Then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) had established the Cox committee in 1998 to investigate what he called "a profoundly deeper question than any other question that has arisen in this administration"--charges that China got American missile technology from Loral Corp., whose chief executive was the largest individual contributor to the Democrats in 1996.
That charge had disappeared by the time the Cox committee's report was published last May. The final report focused on China's efforts to acquire secrets about missiles and nuclear weapons, and all the Democrats on the committee signed it, although on the day of its release two key members distanced themselves from the most alarming conclusions about China copying U.S. weapons.
Critics found much to fault in the Cox report. One of its most frightening assertions--that China could be expected to build a nuclear warhead based on the American W-88 model, thanks to stolen secrets--was challenged by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.
Its accusations of spying got nearly all the attention, but the Cox report also embraced a dark view of China's broad intentions. The Chinese Communist Party's "main aim for the civilian economy is to support the building of modern military weapons and to support the aims of the PLA," the report said.
Harvard Prof. Alastair Iain Johnston, a specialist on the Chinese military, criticized this analysis, arguing that Chinese policy for more than 20 years has been "to subordinate military modernization to the development of the overall civilian economy."
Johnston pointed to several errors, including footnotes to sections of the Chinese constitution that did not say what the Cox report claimed they said, and a misrepresentation of comments by Chinese leader Jiang. The Cox report said Jiang in 1997 "called for an 'extensive, thoroughgoing and sustained upsurge' in the PLA's acquisition of high technology." The article the committee quoted, Johnston noted, actually said Jiang had ordered an "extensive, thoroughgoing and sustained upsurge of studying high-tech knowledge in the whole army."
Asked about Johnston's critique, Cox said "the facts as reported [in the committee report] are indeed the facts." The Jiang quotation showed that the PLA had an "accelerating interest in high technology," which was "precisely the point the report makes," Cox said.
When the lobbying intensifies this spring or summer on the congressional vote to grant China permanent "normal trade relations" status--the key step toward Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization--the Blue Team's opponents will be out in force. Business groups, farm groups, the Clinton administration and pro-trade members of Congress will likely produce a well-greased lobbying effort for passage. All will argue that by opening its markets to foreign competitors, China will have to advance its own free-market reforms, strengthen the rule of law and, over time, moderate its policies.
"It will pass," predicted Robert Kagan, who worked in Ronald Reagan's State Department and has written eloquent denunciations of America's China policy in the Weekly Standard. Kagan, who also writes a monthly column in The Washington Post, said, "You can't block business interests and free-trade ideology in the Republican Party short of war."
In fact, some members who have been Blue Team supporters on issues such as Taiwan--House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), for example--will work for approval of permanent normal trade status for China.
"I consider the government of China to be dangerous, not only to the people of China but at least to all the peoples of that region," Armey said in an interview. But the majority leader, a staunch free trader, also said he hoped to extend "freedom through commerce to the Chinese people" by bringing China into the WTO.
The impact of the Blue Team still "isn't nearly what this community [of hard-liners] desires," lamented Richard Fisher, the former congressional aide who collects photographs of Chinese weaponry. But he noted with satisfaction that the Blue Team "strikes terror into the heart" of Washington's policy establishment, adding: "We are going to continue to have problems in our relationship with China . . . and they require that America remain vigilant."
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