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interviews: senator fred thompson

With President Bush's visit to China ... what should he be trying to do?

The president, I hope, will build bridges where he can and draw lines where he must. ... That's what our country has to do with regard to China. Clearly, the Chinese know that we want a good relationship with them. On the other hand, there's some fundamental conflicts of interest that we have with them on human rights, on their proliferation activities, Taiwan. I think the name of the game is going to have to be to avoid incidents until all this plays out, and we find out whether or not we're going to be dealing with a friendly competitor or an enemy. I don't think we know that yet. We're hoping for the best, but we need to prepare for the worst.

What makes you think you might be dealing with an enemy?

Because they're such a large country; because they potentially have such a tremendous economy; because they are rapidly building up their military; because they have over 300 missiles pointed toward Taiwan, who we have obviously a close relationship and commitment to. Because they're going to be undergoing a change in leadership, nobody knows what that's going to bring about. They have tremendous potential social problems. Outside the major cities, if there was a major disruption, we don't know what that would bring about. It might be worse for the United States than better.

So there are lots of things that could happen that could create difficulty, both in terms of incidents like the Hainan airplane incident, which is relatively small, compared to something like Taiwan and that potential or something major, such as a commitment of their ... to prepare to engage for a conflict. Like there are those in their country -- from their writings, you can tell in rather senior positions -- who think conflict with the United States is inevitable. We cannot assume that that it will not happen, so it's a delicate balance that we've got to make. But we have no choice but to make it.

Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) has been a strong critic of China and of the Clinton administration's policies on China, which emphasized engagement. In this interview, he discusses how the U.S. should approach its relations with China, why it's a potential enemy, and how the "poker game" is being played over the Taiwan issue. Interview conducted early autumn 2001.

The agenda has been changed by the appalling attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Do you think you can persuade China to join in this war on terrorism?

I don't know. There are some hopeful signs coming out of China in the statements they've made since the since September 11. On the other hand, there's no indication that they're prepared to stop dealing with Saddam Hussein, for example, and supplying him with capability to shoot down our airplanes is one example. Fiberoptic technology and so forth... They also, as I understand it, are insisting that we go through the United Nations, which we cannot do this time ... on a such an attack on our own soil. So I'm not sure what game they're playing right now. It'll be what they consider to be in their best interest, and I'm not sure how they view that.

Our relationship with China over the next few decades is probably the single most important issue facing our country. Obviously they've got their own potential terrorism problem. On the other hand, more than one country has seen fit to accede to blackmail from these terrorists and get along with them and trade with them and assist them ... in order to keep them off of their back. So China will be having to make some choices as to whose side it wants to be on. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a major improvement in our relationship with them, if they choose correctly.

Senator, do you think that there's a danger that China is going to make demands as a result of ... of President Bush trying to get the help on terrorism?

Oh, sure, I'd be surprised if they didn't. I would say they would probably try to put Taiwan on the table, cause us to back off there; human rights, cause us to back off a little bit [on] some of their proliferation activities. They'll probably try to point out to us that now we need Pakistan, so we shouldn't be criticizing them for supplying Pakistan with their nuclear capability. The fact of the matter is China has supplied Pakistan soup to nuts with ... with nuclear capability and the ability to build their own missiles. Now it looks like Pakistan is going to assist us, so... It's a very strange convoluted ironic world out there that they will try to use.

They've been at this for a few thousand years longer than we have, and so yes, they'll try to extract some things out of it. But obviously, we can't afford to make some bad long-term decisions with regard to basic commitments our country has -- trade those away for some short-term assistance that may or may not be there a month from now.

... From their perspective, Taiwan is part of China. And historically, isn't that so? Doesn't it make it and put America in a difficult position to defend Taiwan if there was ever a conflict, because you accept virtually the one-China principle?

... We have been operating under the one-China, two-systems principle now for some time; everyone gives lip service to that. But that means different things to different people. It has had a strategic ambiguity that has served everybody's purpose up until now. Taiwan looks at Hong Kong and says, "If that's what that is, we don't want that," for example. So the difficulty now is that perhaps that ambiguity [that served our purposes in the past] might complicate things in the future.

We've made some mistakes in this country in times past -- the Korean conflict proceeding that, some say proceeding the Persian Gulf War, where we were ambiguous as to what we would do. Others thought that we would step back when, in fact, we were willing to make commitments and we allegedly misled the people into having a false sense of security to move against our interest. We can't let that happen there. They need to understand that this is this is important to us and we're going to keep our commitments to Taiwan.

You would help Taiwan if there was ever any hostilities between Taiwan and China?

Yes, I think we have an obligation to do that. ... The Taiwanese have to exercise responsibility, though. They should not make a unilateral declaration of independence. They would be inviting conflict if that happens. They have to bow to reality to that extent, and we do not encourage them to do that. But if the Chinese mainland, the PRC, attacked Taiwan, we'd be obligated to come to their aid.

If Taiwan did declare independence, would America still support them?

We've got enough on our plates right now without looking that far into the future. I think that there is a relatively small number of people who are pushing for independence in Taiwan. There's a relatively small number of people who want to unify with the mainland under the mainland's terms. I think, for most of the people in Taiwan, a pretty substantial margin falls somewhere in the middle, and it'll remain that way for some time. This possibly will be affected by a dozen different things before we ever reach the point of having to face up to the hypothetical which you just gave.

Could you spell out for us how dangerous do you think the Chinese military are?

They don't have to be a threat sufficient to invade the United States. They just have to be a threat sufficient to go against our interests. ... Certainly if Taiwan comes up again, most people think that they're not in a position, for example, to invade Taiwan tomorrow. Obviously they could unleash devastation on Taiwan through the air. But they're behind the curves pretty substantially. The question is not today; the question is tomorrow, and the next day and the day after that.

As everyone knows, they think in long terms, and we think in short terms, usually. And the fact of the matter is that they could be as big an economy as ours before long. That would allow them to continue their military budget increase. They are now at 17 percent, so you know it's substantially more than that. Nobody really knows how much the increase is, but it's going to continue to increase. They are making great strides in technology. They are getting technology from all over the world including the United States -- something that I'm very concerned about. I think we've been blind to that. We've assisted them in ways that we shouldn't be assisting. We're concerned about what's going out the back door in terms of theft of sensitive nuclear technology. But we've been negligent in terms of what we're giving them out the front door in terms of our trade and dual-use items -- things that can be used for military purposes.

But they're gathering all of that and they're very, very good with that ... in using that to enhance their military. So all that is going on, and it's not important that we pick a date in which it's the most dangerous to us. We know what the trend is, and we have to be concerned about it.

How important is the Taiwan Strait? How dangerous is that area?

It is potentially very dangerous. One of the things that I picked up, or we picked up our delegation in August when we were in China is the constant theme from them that "This is important to us. Taiwan is important to us. We don't want to wait forever. We want unification." And it's difficult for the average American to understand why something like that could be so important and why a little small place like Taiwan would be so important to the PRC. But the fact of the matter is, it is true, it is real, it is very important, and therefore very dangerous.

So our policy there has to be has to be sophisticated and very courageous. I'm glad that we've got people like George Bush and Colin Powell and Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and people like that on the job, quite frankly, because I think that our relationship with China over the next few decades is probably the single most important issue facing our country.

Why is that?

Because of the potential difficulties that we might have, because of the potential threats, misunderstandings and conflict that we have there ... right now, they pose the greatest potential. Hopefully, we can build bridges, but we also have to draw lines. And when we draw lines in the sand with regard to certain basic things that are vital to our interest and to the interest of democracy and our friends around the world, we have to be willing to back that up. If you're willing to back it up, there is potential danger; there is potential conflict.

From your knowledge, can you give me a picture of their military forces opposite Taiwan? What is it they've got there? What should America be worried about?

We know that they have 300-plus missiles along the coast there, pointed toward Taiwan. And we know that they're doing training exercises on those islands in the Strait. We know, for example, that they're using American ships and submarines as enemies in their training exercises. And they know that we know that; they're sending a signal to us; they're sending a signal to Taiwan. They're going to wait and see how we react to all of that. But it's not like that there's any particular buildup right now. ... It's what the potential there is over the next few years, and then over the next several years.

Could it just be a bargaining chip to make America and Taiwan listen?

Could be, could be. But when you're playing poker, you don't know the answer to that until after the cards are laid down, and then it's too late. So if you look back over the long history of China, they've never tried to take over the world, but they've been quite aggressive in their own neighborhood ... in carrying out their own purposes and interests in their sphere of the world. So if that gears back up again, it's going to run headlong into some of our vital interests and some of our friends and affect our own security and interests in that part of the world. So we simply have to be prepared. I'm stating the obvious; it's not the only threat in the world,

Obviously, we're focused on something very, very different right now, and that is terrorism. But it's not unrelated. China is one of the world's greatest proliferators of weapons of mass destruction to these rogue nations. We don't know right now the extent to which [these states] if any of these nations are assisting these terrorists. But I'm convinced that it's there. I'm not ready to identify the states and the terrorists. But the flow from the major nations such as China and Russia to the rogue nations who, in turn, are supplying some of these terrorists. My opinion is that there may not be direct linkages right now, but it's there, and the potential is there, so we've got to be mindful of that.

Already the United States has imposed sanctions on China for nuclear material getting to Pakistan.

And lifted them.

Had lifted them. Why did they suddenly lift them?

For new agreements. The history is that they proliferate. We catch them, we impose sanctions. They promise to be better, we lift sanctions. And they go back and proliferate more. That's been the history. We've got to get more serious with them and we've got to draw the line. Every foreign policy of every major nation involves reason, common sense, carrots and sticks. You can't have all carrots and no sticks. You can't substitute promise after promise with known violators of prior promises at the expense of protecting ourselves or setting an example.

I keep asking myself, "What must it look like to the rest of the world when we say we need a missile defense system?" -- which I dearly believe that we do, to protect ourselves from the rogue nations -- when in fact we're doing things and allowing China to do things to assist those same rogue nations? It doesn't make any sense. We have to be consistent on our policy.

President Bush made a very strong statement that he would do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan. Do you think as [he] discovers that, in the world of politics, things are much more complicated, that we will move to a position of much more pro-engagement with China?

I think he is involved in engagement with China. People ... in an international community often tend to equate sophistication with engagement. Perhaps that's true to a certain extent. But you know England tried to engage Hitler after World War I, and did everything in the world to avoid conflict, to rely upon commitments and pieces of paper with dictators and Mussolini instead of their own national strength -- let their alliances decline with their friends, like France, in that case, and all of that.

That should be an example for us: You can't buy peace by just wishing it and avoiding the challenges that other nations present to you. You've got to face up to them before they get out of hand, hopefully, because of course in that case, it wound up presenting bigger problems than would have ever been there if they'd faced up to some of these things earlier on.

I think that's a good example for us. When you're in constant negotiation, you're constantly making concessions; you're constantly entering into a new agreement, even though there's no way to verify it. And all that ... you're not necessarily making your country safer. Chamberlain and all the rest received wonderful public acclaim back in back in England in those days because it was peace, but the underlying reality was they were making the world more dangerous. Sometimes you have to, as I say, build bridges where you can -- but draw lines where you must.

Did China really steal some of your nuclear secrets?

Yes. My opinion, yes. I didn't see them, but, yes, I'm convinced that they did.

How serious?

Very serious. Some of our most important ... secrets in terms of warheads and design and things of that nature. Again, that business ... it's probably not a matter of keeping the genie in the bottle. It's a matter of when. I think by what they were able to do, they speeded up their process and their abilities and capabilities several years.

Do you think that China maybe, perhaps, [is] no longer a communist state, but things have changed so dramatically that actually the Communist Party will wither away?

China and the United States are engaged in a major gamble with each other. The United States is gambling that, with increased engagement and especially with increased trade, it'll become a more liberal society and more open society. China, on the other hand, is betting that they can open up to the extent necessary to promote their economic prosperity. They're smart enough to know that a certain amount of capitalism is a good thing and they've got to go in that direction to feed 1.3 billion people. But that they can open up to that extent, but not to the extent they lose control -- and control is the name of the game.

It's not communism in the sense of the Soviet Union, where they're trying to convince the world, as it were, of a doctrine. It's more a matter of they're keeping control, and they will do what is necessary to keep the communist regime there in control. So they're betting that they can keep that control. It's going to be some years, probably, before we see who's right. In the meantime, the name of the game in terms of diplomacy and national security is to try to keep incidents from happening until we reach that point that throw us off-kilter and get us into trouble with one another and make the world more dangerous. ... I'm willing to take that gamble. I think we've got a fair chance of winning that gamble.

But it's not at all clear that that's the way that it's going to turn out the way we'd like for it to. It very well could be, if they can open up somewhat, do better than they've done in the past but still arrest American citizens at will, proliferate weapons of mass destruction and be an imminent threat to our friend across the Taiwan Strait.

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