dangerous straits
homeinterviewsexperts's analyseschronology
photo of kissinger
interviews: dr. henry kissinger

Dr. Kissinger, why do you think on the EP-3 incident started with such belligerent tones between the two countries?

Well, on the American side, every new administration has to cut its teeth in a crisis, because before a crisis, you don't really know what your various subordinates are thinking under stress. The first reactions are often instinctive. So one of the first things we said was that the Chinese had no right to inspect the plane, and that we had a sovereign right to. I don't know what the legal position is, but it was surely psychologically absolutely the unwise thing to do.

The Chinese, on the other hand, were in the position of having an American military spy plane on a Chinese military base and they had their own internal problems to deal with. At first, the Chinese weren't all that belligerent. They were just stalling to get their own bureaucracy in line. So then I don't actually think it was handled all that badly, because as I see it, this was a novel event. It isn't usual that you would just release a plane. If a Chinese plane landed at Los Angeles Airport having just bought down an American military plane, he wouldn't be permitted to leave the next day. So then we developed a framework which should have been acceptable as a concept to the Chinese, namely to express regret for the loss of life and maintain our position that we had a right to fly these missions.

We first became conscious of the plane publicly on a Monday. I thought then by the weekend it would be done. But then the Chinese military, the defense minister made a statement saying that if there was no apology from the United States, the Chinese military and the Chinese people would never understand. No reference to the government or the Communist Party, and that obviously presented an internal problem to the Chinese leadership, which was travelling at that moment.

I think on the whole, the American detainees were treated well. They were put into a hotel, they were fed well, they weren't harassed. So I think on the whole it was handled well by both sides. I think ten days in releasing the Americans does not seem to me an example of excessive belligerence.

As assistant to the president for National Security Affairs in the Nixon administration, Henry Kissinger played a pivotal role in the 1972 U.S. decision to reestablish relations with mainland China. In this interview, Kissinger discusses the changes in China's political and economic system over the past 30 years, his views on a U.S. China policy, and why he doesn't consider China a communist nation anymore -- calling China "a one-party state without a firm ideological foundation, more similar to Mexico under the PRI than Russia under Stalin." Interview conducted early autumn 2001.

Were you asked for your advice during the [incident]?

I had an opportunity to express my views, yes. I agreed with the approach which we took, namely, to make a distinction between the loss of life of the Chinese pilot and our military operations outside territorial waters or territorial limits.

To begin with, it seemed that President Bush or anyone in the administration didn't really apologize or express their regret about the death of a pilot. That seemed to have caused a lot of anguish in China.

Well, I don't know whether it caused anguish in China, but it was not a wise way to proceed. But one has to remember that it was the first experience. And in a Republican administration, there is a conservative wing that looks at China as the last embodiment of communism, which therefore tends towards a more bellicose rhetoric anyway than I would. It's not the dominant element, but every once in a while they get a crack at public statement.

And that split exists within Bush's own Cabinet?

I wouldn't say it's a split. It's a difference of emphasis. It does exist between, I would say, the State Department and the Defense Department.

As President Bush is about to go to China, do you think that they have managed to work out a policy on how to deal with China?

I think the trip of President Bush to China will oblige them to work out a policy. If you had asked me that question before what happened at the World Trade Center, I would have said it certainly will lead to a resolution of disagreements about China. Now I think that the president will be so preoccupied with handling the immediate crisis that the ultimate resolution may have to wait until after he's been in China.

On the other hand, I think when he goes to China and sees what China has accomplished since he was there last in 1975, he will realize that the simple categories of communism and Cold War posture are not fully applicable, or even at all applicable to the contemporary China.

So what is applicable?

What is applicable is to understand that first of all China has undergone a huge revolution in the last 30 years. Anyone who saw China as I did in 1971 -- and for that matter even in 1979, because not much had changed between 1971 and 1979 -- and sees China today, knows one is in a different economic system.

I do not know what will happen in China politically. I do know that it is impossible to maintain the communist system, or probably even a strict one-party system, when the economy becomes so pluralistic. When I first saw China, there were no automobiles. There were no supermarkets. There were no high-rise buildings. There were no consumer goods. There were no restaurants that were at least accessible that foreigners could see. It was a Stalinist society, and a very poor Stalinist society. So the economic system has totally changed, and the private sector in the economic system is now the dominant sector. It didn't exist at all as late as 1979.

Secondly, the political system has changed, though not as rapidly. The China of the 1970s was a communist dictatorship. The China of the twenty-first century is a one-party state without a firm ideological foundation, more similar to Mexico under the PRI than Russia under Stalin. But the measurement of the political and the economic evolution has not yet been completed, and is one of the weak points of the system.

So it's no longer a communist state?

I don't consider China a communist state, no. I know that sounds paradoxical, but it's my view.

It's not a party of the workers and the peasants?

Certainly not a party of the workers and the peasants. In fact, Jiang Zemin in recent weeks has officially said that capitalists and the entrepreneurs should be enrolled in the Communist Party.

When you went to China in 1972, that led to huge transformations. One was that the position of Taiwan suddenly changed. Taiwan [had been] part of the United Nations. It was internationally recognized. It was a friend of America.

No, no. But that isn't the defining issue. It was a friend of America. The defining issue is that the government in Taiwan was considered to be the government of all of China, and the authorities in Beijing were not recognized as a government of China. So Taiwan was the residuary for all of China.

You and President Nixon changed all that.

Well it did not make excessive sense to say that 20 million people are the recognized government of a billion people that have their own institutions. We did not change it in the sense that we said this has to end, but there was a U.N. vote that transferred the legitimacy of China from Taiwan to Beijing. Beijing was recognized as the government of all of China. Then, under President Carter, we followed what the U.N. had already done eight years earlier.

But there is a tremendous bitterness, obviously, in Taiwan that suddenly they're kicked out of United Nations, that suddenly they're no longer recognized as a state or country.

I have great respect for the Taiwanese. They have done an extraordinary job. But it was not a sustainable position to say that the legitimate government of China resides in Taiwan, which at that time didn't have much contact with the mainland.

Couldn't you have said they're two separate countries?

Certainly nothing is easier than to rewrite history. If we had made Taiwan a separate state, it would have led to a fundamental conflict with China, and probably to war. Certainly in the long term, it would have led to war.

In the short term, it would not have made it possible to resume relations, because in the Chinese mind, the humiliation of China started with the annexation of Taiwan by Japan. If the United States had suddenly declared Taiwan as a separate state -- for which we would have had no support among other nations -- the consequences would have been giving up our relationship with China and committing ourselves to a long-term conflict with China.

So, is there one China? Is Taiwan part of China?

I think the art of this period consists of not challenging the principle of "one China" and leaving open the possibility of an ultimate resolution, but also making very clear that the United States has an intense interest in a peaceful resolution. To enable Taiwan to continue its autonomous existence without facing the issue of its precise legal status and while maintaining the basic principle of "one China" is a delicate road to go, but every American president now for 30 years has managed to walk that.

Every time there has been an attempt to disturb it, it led to two things. It led to immediate intense conflict with China, and it led to a reaffirmation in the end, because nobody wanted a major confrontation with China to this principle of a "one China" policy within which Taiwan is finding a place now. Its own position has greatly improved since the Nixon policy. It is richer, it is stronger and it is participating in many international organizations.

But many Taiwanese want to be a separate country.

And many don't.

If it ever came to a conflict between China and Taiwan, should America support Taiwan?

I think America has made it very clear in several administrations that if there is an attack by China on Taiwan, the United States is very likely to resist.

Very likely? Or possibly or maybe?

No, [the U.S.] has made it clear that we consider a peaceful resolution an essential aspect of American foreign policy. This I believe to be a situation understood by China, but again, it is important to not sound too truculent. Taking on a billion-plus Chinese is not an enterprise which one should enter lightly.

You've even said in the past that it would be preposterous for America to go to war for a country they don't recognize, when you recognize China as a legitimate country.

I haven't said that. That I did not say.

So you don't think it would be?

It is not. You're pushing these questions to a useless point. Every American president, regardless of party, has said that America has an intense interest in a peaceful resolution. And I think it should be left at that.

Obviously that is [what] you call the policy of strategic ambiguity.

I haven't called it a policy of strategic ambiguity. ... I have said there are three principles that should be followed. One, we should maintain the "one China" policy that every American president has articulated, including President Reagan. Secondly, we should make clear that we want a peaceful resolution. And three, Taiwan should not challenge that arrangement in a way that will provoke a conflict. Those are three perfectly clear principles. I haven't used any of the other slogans.

If Taiwan proclaimed independence, that would be seen by China as a declaration of war.

What China would do, I cannot predict. China has all but given up the claim to the use of force, except in the circumstance of Taiwan declaring its independence. That is a huge step forward over what the situation was 30 years ago.

And if Taiwan did declare independence?

I think Taiwan will probably not declare independence. The question isn't independence. The issue is whether Taiwan will declare itself as a sovereign separate state. That will start a huge crisis if that happens. ...

One of the arguments Deng Xiaoping and others said during the incidents in Tiananmen Square was that if they allowed this spread of democracy, this spread of revolution, it would cause chaos in China. What role should America play? Do they want a strong government in China?

China has had a long and complex history and has managed to evolve its own culture for 4,000 years. It therefore not necessarily true that we know exactly what is best for the internal structure of China.

I do not know what will happen in China politically. I do know that it is impossible to maintain the communist system or probably even a strict one-party system when the economy becomes so pluralistic. Now, what form that takes and what institutions will evolve, I do not have a clear view about. I do not think the United States, as a general principle, ought to intervene in this.

Our concern for human rights comes to the fore when there are gross violations of human decencies. Then other countries, including China, must recognize that this affects the American attitude towards their country. But towards what precise institutions will it evolve? I think we ought to leave something to history.

Could you understand why the leadership felt they had to take action during the Tiananmen Square crisis?

Deng Xiaoping thought of himself as a great revolutionary and a great reformer. He had dismantled the Chinese communist management of the economy. In my next-to-last conversation with him, which was about six months before Tiananmen Square, he said to me that his aim would be the next phase to reduce the Communist Party to philosophical issues. And I said, "What's a philosophical issue?" And he said, "Well, like if we make an alliance with Russia." Given his view of Russia, that was not the likeliest thing that would ever happen. So I thought that he thought he was in the process of not necessarily creating a democracy, but creating the conditions for a different kind of political system. ...

[What did Deng tell you after Tiananmen Square?]

He said that he did not understand why we failed to grasp that the alternative was not democracy, but total chaos and risking all the reforms that had been achieved.

Could you understand why, after eight weeks of demonstrations, there he felt he had to take some action?

No. I think the methods they used were too brutal and were wrong. But I remember I knew Deng Xiaoping when he came out of prison. He had, after all, been imprisoned for nearly ten years by Mao. I know what China looked like before he took over, and so in my own mind, I don't think of Deng Xiaoping as an oppressor. I think of somebody who, faced with that crisis, made a very painful and decision with which I cannot agree. But I also think of him as a great reformer.

[How do you think the Sept. 11 attacks will change President Bush's agenda for his China trip?]

I don't think he's had a chance to give it any thought. I would have said, before the World Trade Center events, that he would try to get a normal relationship with China -- making clear to China what the limits are of what America can accept, but also showing understanding for some of Chinese necessities. I thought he was moving towards the position that I have more or less advocated.

Everybody who has dealt with China over an extended period of time has come to more or less the same conclusions. There are nuances of differences, but not fundamental differences. I think that President Bush was heading in this direction, and I have no doubt that he will again wind up in this position. But right now he has to be preoccupied with the atrocity committed in New York and Washington.

And what is that position you think he will take up?

The position is that stability and peace in Asia depend on a cooperative relationship between China and the United States. ...

There are some people who think that at some time in the future, China may challenge us for supremacy in the Pacific, and therefore, what do we do today to prevent that? And you, of course, will say that we will try to thwart any economic progress in China. If we engaged in such a policy, we would turn a billion-plus people into nationalist opponents of the United States. I don't think that that's a desirable option for us. Besides, it wouldn't work, because there are too many other countries that are willing to work economically with China. But I don't think the basic relationship depends on economics. It depends on a political understanding of what is required for peace in Asia.

Do you think China will go along with President Bush's war on terrorism?

I think China will do nothing to obstruct it, and they probably will go along with it.

Will they ask for anything in return?

I don't think we should pay people to fight terrorism. I would be amazed if they asked for anything in return.

You don't think they might say, "Could you lessen your being so vocal on human rights?"

I would be surprised. I don't expect that.

What about if they said, "Could you give us more freedom on Taiwan?"

They won't say that. They're not that unsubtle. They will not say, "Will you give us a military shot at Taiwan?" (A) We wouldn't give it; (B) I think they are expecting some historical evolution to take place. And it is taking place. More and more of the Taiwanese economy is connected with the mainland. There are more and more exchanges taking place. There's no reason to doubt that over a period of ten years or so, or maybe more, the conditions of life on the two sides of the Taiwan Strait will become more comparable, and the dialogue on the political level therefore easier.

In China, there is tremendous opposition to President Bush's desire for a missile shield. Can you understand it?

You know, this is a very strange phenomenon. I keep reading that in American newspapers, and I keep reading extensive speculations. I meet with the Chinese leaders periodically, and while I don't say they've endorsed the missile shield, it has not been in the forefront of their discussions.

Of course, in principle, they're against it. We are the ones that keep asking them what they think about it. I think their basic concern is a land-based missile defense of Taiwan hooked into the American communications and other systems, which in effect would make Taiwan then an outpost of the United States. That is a concern they frequently express. A missile defense shield of the United States, while they may not like it, it is not a big obstacle to our relationship. ...

What about the question of President Bush allowing Taiwan to buy more weapons? That seems to be another thing China feels very, very strongly about.

But he's done it, and our relationship has continued. It was in the process of improving, and will almost certainly continue to improve. But there's now this temporary interruption due to the World Trade Center challenge. ...

China is incredibly unstable [with] such a disparity of incomes within the country, such unrest, troubles on the border, Muslim fundamentalist problems. Do you see the future of China actually being one of collapse rather than growth?

No. I see the future of China as growth. I think that historically China has often gone through periods of consolidation, and then periods of sort of weakening central authority. They undoubtedly face tremendous challenges.

Like any developing country, it has an inequality of wealth. In the Chinese case, it is particularly [pronounced] by the fact that they decided they couldn't make the whole country move forward simultaneously, so they've started region by region. So the interior regions are much less well off than the coastal regions. And this is certainly a huge challenge, because it produces a flow of populations from the poorer regions to the richer regions. ...

There does seem, as we talked about, to be some sort of split within the Bush Cabinet, certainly the beginning. I mean, still quite recently, just before the World Trade Center disaster, you had Defense Secretary Rumsfeld talking about China being a potential enemy.

Well, he keeps saying that, and as defense secretary, of course he has to think of a lot of potential enemies. I do not think it's a wise course to articulate this or to base our policy on it. And I do not see under modern circumstances what we would be fighting about. ...

Secondly, the Chinese military budget today is officially listed as, I think, about $15 billion. But even if you double it, that's only a tenth of ours. So the possibility of China challenging the United States for the next ten years over the Pacific is next to zero. There could be a conflict between us and China over Taiwan, but I think that, too, will not occur with the proper policies on both sides.

And the next 50 years?

I don't know what happens in the next 50 years. But I cannot now design a policy in which we try to keep China from developing, because in 50 years, if they develop, they might be rich enough to challenge us, and adopt the principle that we will hold down any state that might in the future become strong. That would make us a world empire for which we wouldn't have the talents or the convictions.

home + introduction + interviews + experts' analyses
chronology & map + readings & links + discussion + teacher's guide
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + frontline privacy policy
frontline + pbs online + wgbh

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
chinese army photo ©afp/corbis



Solitary NationApril 22nd