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Kenneth Lieberthal: China Reconsidered

Terril Yue Jones is the Detroit bureau chief for the Times

As the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia during the last two-and-a-half years of the Clinton administration, Kenneth Lieberthal helped shape U.S. policy toward Asia, especially toward China and Taiwan--countries with a long history of volatile relations. Lieberthal, a professor of Chinese politics and business studies at the University of Michigan, opposes a confrontational, containment approach to dealing with China and advocates ongoing dialogue and engagement with Beijing to avoid military escalation and conflict with the United States or Taiwan. He spoke recently from his home in Ann Arbor.

Question: Do you see the awarding of the 2008 Summer Olympics to Beijing this month as a possible catalyst for reform in China?

Answer: Other things being equal, the pressures created by the Olympics in Beijing should, in broad terms, move Beijing in the direction we would like to see them move. The good thing about the Olympics as an incentive is that the incentive grows stronger over time. The Chinese now know that seven years from now, the world will be coming to their doorstep, and they know to a certainty that the scrutiny of China’s record will be intense by advocacy groups, by foreign governments and by others. As you get closer to the date of the Games, the Chinese will be, if anything, more sensitive to the possibility that one or another major country might withdraw because of some Chinese domestic or foreign action. I would hope that this kind of scrutiny would, over time, move China toward more serious attention to its environmental problems, greater attention to civil liberties and greater flexibility allowed to its own media to report events accurately.

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Q: Do China’s recent espionage convictions of U.S.-based Chinese scholars strike you as an alarming policy change?

A: I certainly see it as an extremely unwelcome development, one that complicates U.S.-China relations. And I do not have the kind of faith in the Chinese judicial system that would make me assume that all of these cases are well-grounded and appropriate, so there may be a political element to this that, obviously, I would find extremely objectionable. My own feeling is that at least part of this grows out of the repercussions of “The Tiananmen Papers” incident where earlier this year, first in English then in Chinese, a very substantial body of highly classified material--original documents from 1989--were made available in the United States and in Hong Kong. This was a huge national security breach; there are people with access to their most sensitive documents who are prepared to bring them out and publish them in the United States. That’s got to be a source of tremendous alarm to any national leadership.

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Q: Has Chinese espionage in the U.S. increased in recent years?

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A: The biggest problem you have in evaluating a foreign country’s espionage effort is that you never know how much of that effort you’re aware of. But yes, the Chinese make a serious effort to acquire American secrets. Some of them are military, some are commercial, some are purely scientific. It’s our job to limit the success that they have in pursuing espionage. As far as I’m aware we’ve done a very good job of that. And I don’t mean just the Clinton administration, I mean every administration. There is, to my knowledge, extremely little reason to believe that China has ever succeeded in acquiring information that would be very damaging to our national security. I think you have to make some pretty heroic assumptions to have confidence that China has penetrated our nuclear labs or done some of the other things that have been bandied about. That is not to say that they haven’t made attempts; I’m talking about success.

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Q: How about China’s concerns over the Bush administration’s plans to expand a U.S. missile defense system?

A: China decided many years ago, in the early 80s at the latest, that it was going to deploy what it called a “minimal” threat to the United States, somewhere on the order of less than two dozen missiles that could reach America, each with a big bomb on it, each aimed at an American city. If all two dozen got through, if they all worked and fired well, they would cause catastrophic damage to the United States. Given the range of those missiles, I presume most are aimed at cities in the western part of the United States, and I presume they did not pick Tempe, Ariz. We can put onto Chinese territory targeted nuclear weapons that probably number more than 6,000. Arguably, our margin of error is greater than their entire strategic deterrent. And so, as the Chinese look at it, if we build an antimissile system that can give us a high level of confidence of knocking down 40 or 50 incoming missiles, it means that they no longer have a strategic deterrent.

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Q: Does the lack of China specialists in the Bush administration weaken U.S. policy toward China?

A: There is a dearth of China specialists at what I would call a policy level in this administration, which is to say at the assistant-secretary level or above. At that level or above, I believe it’s accurate to say that there is nobody who has ever seriously worked on China at any point in their career. Below that level, at the deputy-assistant-secretary-of-state-level and on down, there is the normal complement of China expertise, much of which is very good. I imagine that in the typical meeting of cabinet secretaries or deputies that deals with China, there is no one in the room who has had significant experience in dealing with China. I think that’s a problem. What is missing is not an understanding of U.S. interests, but how the Chinese will view what we are contemplating doing.

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Q: What are the lessons of the U.S. reconnaissance plane that made the forced landing on China’s Hainan island after colliding with the a Chinese fighter jet?

A: As to what the net effect will be on U.S.-China relations, I think it’s too early to tell. During the initial part of the crisis, when they still had our crew members on Hainan island, I think Washington quickly learned that you had to turn to the people who understood how to deal with China in order to find a way out of this mess. And it was in reality, I believe, our people in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing who had the initiative in crafting the strategy that got our people back quickly. Eleven days is too long, but it’s shorter than it might have been by quite a bit. And I give considerable credit to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his staff at the State Department for taking that strategy and working with it effectively in Washington. The lesson should be that it helps a lot to listen to people who actually know how to get results from the Chinese.

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Q: How do you assess Bush’s policy toward Taiwan?

A: I remain very strongly of the view that a reasonable resolution of the cross-strait issue can only come through diplomacy, through peaceful discussions across the Taiwan Strait. My concern about the Bush administration to date is that there is a belief that the way to manage this is to give all-out support to Taiwan, and let the Taiwanese determine in their own good time whether or notthey want to deal with the mainland. There is a view that because Taiwan is a democracy and because it has a longstanding affiliation with the U.S., we should sell them whatever they want to buy, with very few limitations, that we should treat them diplomatically as if they are a country. My feeling is that moves in that direction are more likely to cause problems than to create the basis of a solution. I think that the Clinton administration had it much closer to right, which is to say that we sold Taiwan sufficient military equipment to meet Taiwan’s legitimate defense requirements. I think that the administration should turn its attention toward creating a cross-strait dialogue. Our fundamental objective ought to be to move this onto a political track that allows for the very ample period of time--decades--that it will take to reach a final agreement across the Strait.


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