Editorial Insight: China Crisis
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TERENCE SMITH: Joining us for additional perspective are four columnists: Lee Cullum of The Dallas Morning News, Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, Georgie Anne Geyer of the Universal Press Syndicate and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard. Welcome to you all.
David Brooks, we just heard two Senators and two former Ambassadors describe this as a great job and yet your magazine, the Weekly Standard, said it was by the Bush administration a national humiliation. Which it was?
DAVID BROOKS: Well we were right. They did, you know, the Bush administration did an excellent job of doing what they needed to do to get our people home but as regular citizens rather than diplomats we should still feel soiled by our little embrace.
TERENCE SMITH: Soiled?
DAVID BROOKS: Soiled by our embrace with the Chinese government. These regimes – these tyrannies, require a series of Orwellian lies for their survival, and – in order to get our people home – and maybe we had to do it – we played along with Orwellian lies. You know, we suppressed the true events – we apologized for things which we had no reason to apologize for; we said things we didn’t mean, and when you legitimize their lies, in some sense – in some small sense – you’re legitimizing their regime. And one of the practical ways this affects is on the dissidents – remaining dissidents in China who believe in democracy, who built that Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square; their morale has to be low. It wasn’t a major loss, but I think we are soiled.
TERENCE SMITH: Georgie Anne Geyer, what about this, is it in your view a fine performance by the administration, or something less?
GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: Terry, I think it was very polished performance, and I was fascinated to see the two ambassadors and two senators, because finally President Bush has gotten bi-partisanship, except for David, everybody was just praising him to the heavens. You know, the language thing is just fascinating. I was watching Colin Powell this afternoon. At one point he said after – and I thought this was, as I say, a very polished performance – but he said, we are very sorry, but we are also glad we did it. You know, I mean, this language thing is so fascinating because it shows a real cultural understanding.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, that’s your Orwellian contradiction that you’re talking about.
DAVID BROOKS: Exactly.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Cullum, how do you grade the administration’s performance in this?
LEE CULLUM: Oh, Terry, I think you have to grade the administration with an A, a B+ at the very least, but I think I would give the administration an A. You know, people should be judged by their results, and the administration achieved the result we all want. The crew members are on their way home this evening, or at least on their way out of Hainan. I’m not concerned about the apology, statement of regret for the loss of a pilot’s life. Who wouldn’t regret that? And if it was offensive to the Chinese for us to land in Hainan without permission, then there’s nothing wrong with saying we’re sorry we upset you. I don’t think we’re soiled in the slightest, and I don’t think we gave an inch. I feel the administration did very well.
TERENCE SMITH: Tony Lewis, you were critical in your column on the weekend about the early reactions of President Bush. You found it a bit harsh. How do you see it now?
ANTHONY LEWIS: I feel good, Terry. I think they were slow off the mark, and the President made a mistake by beginning with a demand, which was not calculated to get the Chinese to respond, but I think they’ve played it very well since, very calm, and most important, they rejected the advice of the standard, because, you know, what would we have done – what would we have accomplished by bristling and shouting at the Chinese and denouncing them as Orwellian, or whatever? What would we actually have achieved? We would have built up the power of the military and the hardest line elements in China. Is that in our interest? Certainly not.
TERENCE SMITH: David Brooks?
ANTHONY LEWIS: If I could go on for a minute.
TERENCE SMITH: Yes. Go ahead.
ANTHONY LEWIS: I want to say something here, and that is, of course it is right that China does things we don’t like, and shouldn’t like that are very bad-like arresting an American citizen, holding him and American residents, people of Chinese origin. That’s terrible, and we shouldn’t like it. But let’s look at the larger picture and ask ourselves whether the Chinese people, and our idea of what’s right and just, hasn’t improved over the last 25 years – haven’t improved. They both are much, much better off. There is much more freedom of movement; there’s much more general freedom in China than there was 25 years ago, and we shouldn’t assume – we shouldn’t do things that are likely to set that trend back.
TERENCE SMITH: Respond to both of those points, David, because that – and also the idea what would have happened if we had bristled -
DAVID BROOKS: Well, the President responded in an honest way, and maybe he was right to tail back. You know, when you’re being pawed by a dirty old man and he’s got something you need, maybe you just have to sit and take it, but the – the mistake would be to treat this as a discreet event which, you know, we’ve got a result and so let’s be happy. In reality, this is the first step in a long process or a little step in a long process of trying to democratize the Chinese regime, and the question is: How do you react to this event? Do you we react as many Senators and Congressmen did over the weeks by saying, you know, we should take another look at this regime; sure, the economic liberalization is real, but so is the political repression, so is the repression of the dissidents, so is the repression of the religious minorities, and that also has to figure into our treatment of Taiwan and our treatment of WTO and all the other stuff.
TERENCE SMITH: Georgie Geyer, what does this incident tell you about this administration’s approach to foreign policy?
GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: It tells me that they’ve got a lot more cultural moxie than I would have – even I would have thought. I mean, they culturally did it right, but there’s something else I think we have to look at here, Terry, that no one’s bringing up. I think this is the first step in the long struggle between China and the United States over Taiwan because Jiang Zemin sees himself as the unifier of China – he’ll start to go out of this in two years – this occurred because the Chinese air force is now going out from their shores, which they never do – they didn’t have an air force before – and we are moving in closer. Taiwan is the center, and that’s what the next few years are going to be about.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Cullum, is that fundamentally what this is all about, Taiwan and China’s control?
LEE CULLUM: Yes, I would say that’s so, and it’s certainly not a first step. It’s a process we’ve been involved in for many years, for decades, and it will continue. I think what the Taiwanese are playing for is time and plenty of time to get a non-Communist or at least a more reasonable regime in Beijing with whom the Taiwanese can truly do business. I do want to comment a little bit about the Bush administration and foreign affairs. I think that we have learned that the President is going to be hard line.
He’s going to make statements that are hard-line initially on North Korea, on Russia, on China, it’s going to be a hard line. He’s also going to be very steady. I think he has shown a very steady hand the last 11 days; he’s not impulsive; he’s not impetuous. He seems to move in a “steady as she goes” manner, and I think that bodes very well for this long struggle, long twilight struggle, as JFK would say, over Taiwan.
TERENCE SMITH: Tony Lewis, what about Taiwan, and what about specifically, the arms sales? You just heard two Senators express two different views on how to handle that. What’s your view?
ANTHONY LEWIS: I think we have to be cautious. We don’t want Taiwan to fall into China’s hands by virtue of an invasion — of course not, and we wouldn’t stand for it. President Clinton stopped a Chinese threat by putting our ships there, and that surely would happen again. But I think we have to be cautious about the arms sales, because for one thing, the agreements we’ve made with China, going back to the Shanghai document that President Nixon negotiated, limit what we can sell to Taiwan to replacement weapons. They should not have new generations of weapons. So we have to play it I think very cautiously. I’d like to add just one thing, I think in response to Lee Cullum.
We do want to have our eyes all the time on trying to build up more democracy in China and less repression. I agree with David Brooks. We certainly don’t want to look as though we’re approving repression. On the other hand, Lee Cullum spoke of these acts that President Bush had done vis-à-vis Korea, for example, which were viewed not only in China but elsewhere in Asia as unilateralism, arrogance, and I think maybe as one of the Senators said, this episode is very constructive in reducing that element of arrogance or unilateralism and making the Bush administration understand, as it clearly did, very wisely, that you have to play these things carefully.
TERENCE SMITH: David Brooks, what do you think will be the fallout in Congress from all of this?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think you’ve already seen a little taking a second look at China. But at the end of the day I have trouble seeing Congress in large number voting against free trade, open trade with China, voting against or US coming against the Olympics, because our business interests are so strong and the politics of engagement with China and what we’re seeing just around her is really a replication of the long debate between engagement. How do you confront tyrannies? Do you confront them, or do you engage with them, and that’s a very tricky debate, which has been going on.
I would like to add though about the Bush administration – because I think their policy is still in flux. There’s among us who watch them this parlor game – is the State Department or is the Defense Department in charge? Or the Defense Department presumed to be much more hawkish. In the last 11 days, Colin Powell was very much out front. Donald Rumsfeld was almost invisible, I thought, about wrapping a yellow ribbon around the Pentagon: “Free Donald Rumsfeld” – and I think, you know, that still has yet to be heard from. The administration was very polished, but I don’t think they have a final China policy yet.
TERENCE SMITH: Georgie, do you think that was because the – Colin Powell took the lead? Was that to make it a diplomatic dispute, versus a military one?
GEORGIE ANNE GEYER: Yeah, I think so. But behind that is surely our military might and our concern. But what impressed me I guess, Terry, was the fact that, as Lee said, steady and moderate and careful and cautious, but this is what I thought he would be all the time. He’s the CEO of a big company. It’s the United States of America. He’s running it very differently than Bill Clinton did, and he’s got some very accomplished people around him. And they showed it this time; they showed it very well.
TERENCE SMITH: Lee Cullum, we have just a few seconds left. What about the return of the plane and the next shoes to drop in this – in this incident?
LEE CULLUM: Well, Terry, what we have – of course, the crew will returned – thank God for that – the explanations will begin. I suspect that we’re going to find that what we’ve been reading about the plane flying too low – rather, below our plane and hitting the propeller is true, but I think the next shoe to drop is going to be in June over permanent normal trade relations, and that’s very tricky. I think the worst thing that’s happened out of all of this is a hardening of feeling among Americans toward China, and that can have an effect in Congress, and it’s dangerous. We have to continue our trade relationship with China no matter what the regime is like; there’s simply no choice.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. We’ll watch it as it goes. Thank you all four very much.