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interviews: david lampton

Is China a communist country?

Let me put it this way. I had friends say, "I wish you Americans would quit calling us communists, because it makes it very difficult for democratic America to see the commonality of interest when we refer to that."

I think it would be fair to say that, if by "communist," you mean is there assured ideology that workers of the world are going to displace capitalism --that's been dead for 10 or 15 or more years in any significant way. If, on the other hand, you mean communism as an authoritarian state with a Communist Party that's bent on keeping its monopoly of political power... China has a Communist Party with 60 million people -- it's bigger than many countries in the world. So it has an authoritarian Leninist party. The party is having trouble maintaining its coherence. ... It has that political structure, but the religious ideological character of the belief system is almost totally gone.

Let me just give you one example. I was just in Shanghai. The person that opened the meeting says, "I surely hope that you and the American economy does well in this global slowdown, because your economic interest and your economic development are critical to the welfare of people in Shanghai and China." What happened to the communist ideology that premised its success on the collapse of the capitalist world? Now they're hoping we do well because [with] us doing well, they do well.

David Lampton is director of China studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and author of the recent book Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000. Here, he discusses China's remarkable changes over the past 20 years, its "abandonment" of communism as an ideology, the country's potential social instability, its own terrorism threat, and his thoughts on U.S.-China relations over the next 10 years. Interview conducted early autumn 2001.

It's remarkable, isn't it? How did it come about?

It is. Twenty-five years ago, you could have got all the China experts in the Western world together, and they wouldn't have predicted that, 25 years later, you'd be hearing that.

How have they done this remarkable transformation?

First of all, they've done what is the sensible thing to do, and that is unleash the basic entrepreneurial character of the Chinese people, taken the restrictions off the Chinese people to behave in economically rational ways that Chinese all over the world know how to behave. That's I think certainly the first thing.

If you look at all of the factors of instability in China, you can get very alarmed very soon. And, indeed, China's leaders are very alarmed. The second thing that accounts for this success is that they have opened up their economy to the penetration of foreign knowledge in a way that the Soviet Union never did. Every year, in the United States, there are about 50-plus thousand Chinese students and scholars in research institutes in the United States. That 50,000 is many more people in one year than the Soviet Union sent scholars and students in the entire 70-plus-year history of the Soviet Union. So the second factor here is not only the Chinese people, but their willingness to open up intellectually in a way the Soviet Union never did.

The third thing is that they've created an environment that is attractive, relatively speaking, for foreign investment. That involves a number of things. But basically they've allowed American and Japanese and western European firms to come in under relatively favorable circumstances, and China has such a big untapped market that it's a great lure for world capitalism. The final reason I believe that China's been so successful is that it has overseas Chinese -- Chinese in Southeast Asia, in North America, in Canada, in Europe. These are among the most successful entrepreneurs and businesspeople on the face of the earth. And they are investing in China.

Do you believe that their economic growth is going to lead to a more pluralistic society? And is it inevitably going to lead to a democracy?

In history, you rarely use the word inevitable, and I certainly wouldn't. ... I think history -- in Asia, in particular, but longer world history -- suggests that when countries develop economically, people become more educated. As countries develop economically, they develop a middle class. And educated people with property tend to want to have a say in the government they have. They tend to want to articulate their interests, which means they begin to want political parties or they want associations to express their views.

So I think the best bet we have for moving China in a more humanely governed pluralistic direction is the best that economic growth will lead to political liberalization, but that's not inevitable. Germany in the 1930s was a relatively advanced capitalist society with a middle class, and it went off the rails. So did Mussolini's Europe. Yugoslavia has gone off the rails. So it's not inevitable. But over the long run, it's likely. And it's certainly the best bet.

And ask yourself the opposite question -- if we don't support China's attempt to enter the world and have a middle class and become richer, does that mean we're opposed to it? And then what do we think the reaction of a nationalistic Chinese people will be to the perceived attempt of the West to keep them down? I think that is a sure formula for conflict. There's no certainty here, but I'm all in favor of putting your bets on the best bet.

But a Foreign Ministry person we spoke to said, "The Americans are completely wrong if they think they can manipulate us and that there's going to be some sort of Western democracy here."

Of course, he's the spokesman for China, and that's an important thing to take into account. But on the other hand, you would have to explain to me why one of the more enduring aspects of political campaigns in China has been the campaign against what is called peaceful evolution. And what [is] peaceful evolution but the belief in the West that, if we engage with China, involve it in the world, it grows economically, its people become more educated, it will of course abandon communism?

In fact, I think they have abandoned communism as an ideology. But they do face a problem and that is, if you don't believe in communism, why do you have a Communist Party? So they are hesitant to abandon it, even though the emperor has no clothes and everybody knows it; they don't know how to deal with the consequences of acknowledging that publicly. But I think in the not-distant future, we're going to see more significant political change in China.

Are there more freedoms today than there have been?

Oh, it's night and day. The first time I went to China was in 1976. ... People would get on the other side of the street so they couldn't have a conversation with a Westerner, so they wouldn't be seen even conversing with a Westerner, because they knew the security police would be debriefing them shortly after that conversation.

Now you can engage in conversations with Chinese about a broad range of political topics. They are very critical of their leaders, very critical of economic and social policies. When I first went to China, people couldn't even live where they wanted. Families were split apart, children were sent to the countryside. Now people are travelling. Chinese are major tourists to Southeast Asia now. They go all over the world on leisure trips and so on, and so we're seeing a much freer China.

The area that there hasn't been progress is certainly treatment of dissidents, and certainly the ability to articulate the desire for a competitive political system. But the average life both materially, socially, and I would say politically of the Chinese is infinitely better than that China I saw in 1976.

But don't they face potential for an incredible instability? They seem to have so many problems.

If you look at all of the factors of instability in China, you can get very alarmed very soon. And, indeed, China's leaders are very alarmed. In fact, they justify some of their repressive political measures precisely because of what they call "the factors of instability." Those factors of instability include a financial and banking system that is basically bankrupt -- the bad loans out are greater than the real net reserves of the banking system.

They face literally perhaps between 80 million to 100-plus million people that are moving from the countryside on a kind of temporary contract labor into the Chinese cities. They are afraid of large numbers of urban unemployed that are getting put out of business and non-competitive state enterprises. So they've got urban unemployed, rural unemployed coming into the cities, unsound financial system, and general resentment against a regime that has, in the past, grotesquely mismanaged things.

So the sources of discontent in China are great, but Americans, it seems to me, make a mistake in one regard. There are also some things that tend to work towards the regime being able to exert some control over all this. The first thing is that the Chinese people have been through a lot in the years since 1949, including a famine where 20 million to 30 million people died in the early 1960s; a cultural revolution that went on into a decade, and the national suicide rate of China went up in that period. Nobody in China wants that kind of chaos again, so there is a kind of a constituency for law and order.

At the same time, many people are unhappy with the regime. And the other big thing the Chinese government has going for it is, while there are many poor people in China, and great inequalities -- maybe mounting inequalities in China -- never in the history of the world have so many people been lifted from poverty so rapidly. President Clinton, in one of his last speeches, said that 200 million people in China were lifted from absolute poverty from 1978 to about 1999. So the achievements are huge. The problems are huge. And that's why people like me are interested in studying China.

President Bush is going to his first meeting with the Chinese leader. He's going to the economic trade conference in Shanghai. But at the same time, he's got this war on terrorism. What will he be asking?

The World Trade Center and the Pentagon [attacks] has transformed this president into a president that is leading a very large-scale, long-term conflict. And now I would predict the focus is going to be rather quite different. It's going to be trying to get as much support from this economically dynamic and important region of the world for, essentially, our war aims, whatever they prove to be.

So there's going to be the opportunity that hasn't existed in our relations with China to weld some strategic military cooperation. Since the Soviet Union went away and the Tianamen incident, the Americans haven't really been in a mood to deal with the Chinese on the military level. It is well possible, depending on the Chinese receptivity, that we could at least find ways to cooperate now in the security area. If that proves to be true, I would project that we will have better relations with China.

Will they be asking for things from us?

I think the Chinese, like every country, when they give something to the United States or any other country, they ask for things in return. The Chinese have many things they would like from the United States. They would like us to remove some of the sanctions that we still have on in place stemming from 1989 and the Tianamen incident. We've recently, in recent weeks, imposed sanctions on for technology transfers to Pakistan, so I'm sure there's that they would like us to reduce weapon sales to Taiwan. They would like us to reduce what they perceive to be our support of the Dali Lama.

But I think if they are too strident in demanding these things, they will produce a counter-reaction in the United States. And indeed, some of these demands, like reducing weapon sales to Taiwan, are things that no administration can agree to, both because the administrations themselves wouldn't agree to it, and they know the inevitable congressional backlash would be counterproductive.

So in the world of real politics, what if the Chinese ask for something if they're going to join in Bush's war against terrorism?

Sure. I think this isn't peculiar to the Chinese either. I think almost everybody we bring into the coalition is going to ask for something. But certainly the Chinese are already giving hints. Their Foreign Ministry spokesman already gave hints at this early date that China, of course, has certain dissatisfactions with past American policy -- in particular, our support of weapon sales to Taiwan -- but also what they would call support of separatists, in which they include the Dali Lama. So I think they would like to see not only the U.S. diminish its support for those forces, but would also like to see us do away with some of the sanctions, some of which we just imposed about a month before President Bush went to China.

So the Chinese have a laundry list of things they would like us to do. If they are smart -- and I believe they are -- they will recognize that if they are cooperative with us, of course we will try to improve the general environment with them. If they get too strident in their demands and there are some demands the U.S. can't capitulate to -- and I would say weapon sales to Taiwan is among those -- but the Chinese need to be subtle. This is an opportunity on their part to improve relations and the general climate in which Americans make decisions.

How could China help President Bush and his war against terrorism?

The Chinese are particularly adept at operating at two levels. My guess is that their cooperation with the United States will be significant, but much of that cooperation they will not wish to make public. There's a good precedent for this in the early 1980s. The United States and China cooperated in their support of the Muslim forces fighting the Soviet Union that invaded Afghanistan. And the Taliban that rules at least the bulk of Afghanistan was one of the supporters, forces we were supporting together, China and the United States. That cooperation took the form of the U.S. buying Chinese weapons, providing mules to haul them through Pakistan into Afghanistan. It was quite intimate cooperation in the pursuit of guerrilla war to sap the strength of the Soviet Union. ...

We also cooperated with missile monitoring systems in western China when we were concerned about Soviet testing of missiles. We had cooperative relations with Chinese intelligence in that area. The world, for the most part, was unaware of these forms of activity. ... So it is at least possible, though not inevitable, that the United States and China will be cooperating in ways that are significant to the U.S. government, but of which the American people are not fully informed.

But something like a third of the Chinese population is Muslim. Surely if they're seen to be fighting or helping the Americans wage a war against Muslims, then that could be problems for them

China, of course, faces a problem. It is surrounded by lots of countries with which, at times, it has had uncomfortable relations -- none more uncomfortable at the current time than its relations with the Central Asian Muslims. In fact, the Taliban forces in Afghanistan are transferring money and some know-how and maybe some personnel to Muslims in western China in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region....

The Chinese have tried to deal with this problem through a combination of crushing those forces in China through rather ruthless means, and trying to be minimally cooperative with the Iraqis or the Iranians or the Taliban so that they will not have the incentive to support those forces in China. So it will be tough on the insurgents in China and will try and mollify those countries around its periphery, so they don't have the incentive to unleash these forces in China.

The degree to which China is seen as cooperating with these -- what Americans consider to be "pariah states" -- means we will not consider China to be cooperating with us. So China is torn between this impulse to take the heat off it by cooperating with these regimes, and its fear that it won't be successful, and its fear that the Americans will see them as cooperating with regimes with which the Americans are at war. So China's in a very difficult position.

President Bush sees this in terms of black and white -- "You're for terrorism or you're against it." What is China's position?

The Chinese have to speak for themselves. But I think they have a more complicated view of the world. I would just simply say that, not only do the Chinese have a more complicated view of the world, but our friends, the Saudi Arabians, do as well. And they have contributed funds trying to buy, if not friendship, at least acquiescence of some of these terrorist forces themselves. So if the Americans are looking in the world, and particularly the world of the Middle East for black and white, we're not necessarily going to find a lot of people that share our Manichean view.

But are they going to find China saying, "Oh, war against terrorism... Sure, we'll join you?"

The Chinese will be basically supportive, because I think they're basically afraid of these same forces. But you have to realize that the Chinese are already talking, not only about terrorism; they're linking terrorism and separatism. And separatism in China means Taiwan wanting to be independent. Separatism in China means Tibet wants to be independent, and separatism in China means the Muslims want to break away into some central Muslim state. The Chinese would like the United States to sign on against not only terrorism, but separatism. And, of course, the United States is not going to sign onto a proposition that's against Taiwan or against the Dali Lama. So the Chinese are trying to get us to sign onto a broad agenda that's consistent with their agenda, and we want to keep it a little more narrow on this strict issue of terrorism, defined as Muslim terrorism.

How can America be friendly with a country which is friendly with so many of America's enemies -- Iran, Iraq, Milosevic, even Pakistan, when they were selling nuclear material? How can that be?

First of all, our relations with China have been, and will remain for the foreseeable future to be mixed, to be a complex combination of cooperation and contention. So the first thing is, don't ever expect a kind of nirvana of peaceful, cooperative productive U.S.-China relations. I can't see that.

We're always going to have a complex mix of compatible interests and conflictional interests. And really, if you think about it, how could it be different? We have a far different history, far different political system. The Chinese have an aggrieved experience with the West and the United States -- lots of resentment. And China is still a very poor country.

So I think we have to sort of get off this notion that its going to be easy to deal with the Chinese -- it's not. And the Chinese, incidentally, don't think it's easy to deal with us. But be that as it may, we have important interests with the Chinese, and we have to manage this relationship so we can get the maximally productive relationship, the most help we need on the most urgent problems. And we're going to have to subordinate some of other aggrievances.

The atrocity of the World Trade and Pentagon bombings -- how's that changed relations between America and China?

It certainly depends on how the Chinese respond. If the Chinese respond cooperatively and are perceived by Americans to be cooperating in a significant way -- certainly ... they will not do everything America might like -- but if they're seen to be basically positive, this represents a chance to improve U.S.-China relations that hasn't existed since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and indeed since 1989, with the Tianamen massacre.

Since 1991 and 1989, China and the United States have not really been able to cooperate very significantly in the security area. If we are cooperating in the security area, this tends to be an area of cooperation that is so important to the United States that we tend to not clutter the agenda of bilateral relations with lots of other secondary issues; issues that are very important in this country, but nonetheless are not of the same magnitude and urgency of the security concerns. If the Chinese play their cards right and are cooperative, we could see better relations.

And what do you think President Bush will be saying to them? What will he want?

He is going, in effect, as a war president. My guess is that he is going to see his primary job now to use this opportunity to meet with regional leaders of the major economies, welcome them in some way into cooperative posture in the coalition he's building to deal with this problem. So in a subtle way, he's going to try to use an economic meeting to serve security objectives.

Surely, does China have an interest in helping him?

I think, in many regards. First of all, the United States' relationship with China is of absolutely economic centrality to China. We are China's number two trade partner. We are China's biggest source of foreign direct investment after the Chinese diaspora -- overseas Chinese and in the world. Probably millions now in China are employed in American factories or employed in domestic factories for exports to the United States. China already has a huge unemployment problem. China has 54,000 students and scholars studying in the best American universities. We are very important to the Chinese. I think they recognize that, and they will see it in their interests to be cooperative, to some extent.

There are limitations on their cooperation. ... China itself has been in its own vision, victimized by, let us say, Central Asian ... Muslim terrorism. Bus 22 in Beijing was blown up by what the Chinese assert was fundamentalist terrorists. And they face what they call separatists in the western province of [the] autonomous region of China called Xinjiang.

So they not only have their economic interest overlapping with us. They've also been subject to -- not the same magnitude, but nonetheless the source -- of what they would call terrorism and separatism in the same region. So they have some incentives to cooperate.

How important is the economy at the moment? How important is that in the relationship with China?

It's potentially very important. First of all, China, unknown to many Americans, is our fourth-largest trade partner. There are certainly probably 300,000, 400,000, 500,000 American jobs that are directly dependent to exports to China, and there are some of our most competitive high tech sector. Obviously, given the state of our own economy, we don't need more unemployment. ...

But China's economic importance -- particularly to the United States, but the global economy -- hasn't been recognized in another way, and that is inter-dependence. Let me just give you a fact that I think is just demonstrative of a larger reality. Eighty-seven percent of the motherboards of computers in the world are made in Taiwan. And of that 87 percent of the brains of a computer, the motherboards made in Taiwan, 50 percent are now made in the PRC, and that industry is even moving more rapidly towards the PRC. So in certain key areas, China's component manufacturing is absolutely key to a strategic global industry.

So whether you look at it narrowly, or in terms of jobs, China is essential. Also, China is the most rapidly growing major economy in the world today. And heaven knows, with Japan lagging and Europe's economy stagnating and the Americans hovering near a recession, the world needs all the center of growth that it can get. So I think we are going to recognize that we have a very great interest in China's prosperity.

And is that important to President Bush?

I think its essential to President Bush. He remembers that his father won the Gulf War, but in fact lost the election, largely because of what was perceived to be a fading U.S. economy during his father's second run for a second term. I think the son has learned the lessons of the father, and knows that in the end, you can win a war and lose an election if you don't have a good economy.

So that's one reason to get on with China?

I think the president now has both strategic military reasons to try to have a decent, productive relationship with China. He has economic reasons and, frankly, we have great cultural reasons. Some of the most innovative intelligent students in American universities today come from abroad, and many of those come from China. So we have cultural reasons, economic reasons and military reasons.

Does that suddenly mean that China is no longer a threat?

... You can't predict how China is going to behave in the future. But I think what we can say for now, and for the next ten years is, all Chinese I'm familiar with -- except a few modest interest groups -- are devoted to the proposition that the Chinese first need to economically modernize. The challenge to America is to make it clear to the Chinese people that the world is supportive of them becoming more prosperous and having a more dignified place in the world; that the United States does not stand in the way of that; and create an environment that's going to create the incentives where the Chinese want to play by the rules, where they feel like they're a member of the club.

The odds are very great that, if China is able to continue to move in the direction it's going and that we are basically receptive to the aspirations of the Chinese people... I think we'll always have difficulty in dealing with China. But it need not be the kind of experience we faced with the rise of Japan or Germany.

At the start of President Bush's administration, there was the crisis over the U.S. surveillance plane. The tone seemed very belligerent. Why do you think that was?

First of all, new American administrations always come in and feel bound and determined to prove they're not the previous administration. They, in effect, have to say, "We're not the same as Bill Clinton," and Bill Clinton came in and said, "I'm not the same as George Bush One." So there's this compulsion to differentiate yourself from your predecessor. That leads to policy reviews, and it usually leads to an initial reflex to reject the policies of your predecessor. And then, over time, you find, "Well, maybe my predecessor wasn't quite as stupid or ignorant as I thought. Maybe there were some sound national interest reasons that we had this policy."

That's the first thing that leads to this impulse to differentiate yourself. But there are other things, and that is that this administration came and believed that the Bush administration, that the Clinton administration had not treated our allies -- in particular, Japan -- with sufficient dignity in the past. And they came in and wanted to build our relations with our traditional allies, rather than emphasizing China as such a central player in Asia.

And finally, I think they came in with their mindset that, as big countries become great powers, they tend to want to exercise more power and influence in the world; that rising powers are troublemakers. China is certainly a big country. It was rising, and I think it was their basic view that China was destined to be a troublemaker like Japan and Germany.

In fact, the situation is quite different in a number of respects. You have a civilian elite now in China that's dedicated to economic development. China still has tens of millions of people that are desperately poor. And when you talk to China's leaders, that's what they would prefer to talk about -- how they're moving their country ahead in economic terms. So I think they came in with the wrong mindset, and I must say, I think the president had a clearer, more constructive vision of China policy than many of his subordinates.

But at the beginning, they didn't even express regret for the death of a pilot.

Of course, you can go back in time. We bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. We didn't handle the fact that Chinese had casualties there with great skill and acumen, either. One reason I think the Chinese got so distressed that we didn't acknowledge immediately the death of a Chinese pilot was that it was exacerbated because we had made effectively the same mistake with the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in 1999.

The basic Chinese mindset is that the United States now is an unchallenged superpower, and has [assumed] a kind of global policeman role. That basic perception makes them nervous about signing on to this coalition, no matter how justified we may think it is, and no matter how much they recognize that they face the same terrorist threat that we do.

There does seem to be an anti-American feeling in China?

The way I would put it, there's a deep ambivalence about Americans. Chinese leaders send their sons and daughters in great numbers here to study. Many of their sons and daughters are living long term in the United States, opening businesses. I think there's great respect for American technological and financial wizardry, great admiration. The Chinese characters for the United States are the "Beautiful Country." The traditional name for San Francisco is "Old Gold Mountain." There's this image of the United States as a beautiful, powerful, clever nation and I think that's the dominant sentiment -- for the United States, in a sense, to be a role model for China.

But when the Chinese define you as a teacher or a role model, they expect the teacher to be deferential and considerate of the student. And so, often, Chinese people see the United States acting in what they believe is an arrogant, thoughtless way that basically is designed to keep China down. So there's this admiration that competes with this sense of victimhood, this sense of "You don't respect us," sort of what we call the Rodney Dangerfield-"I-don't-get-no-respect" kind of view of the United States. So I think it's deeply ambivalent. But, on balance, the prevailing sentiment is very positive.

How dangerous is the Taiwan issue?

... prior to the World Trade Center bombing and its aftermath, if you look around the world today and asked where in the world could two major nuclear powers come into conflict, I would have said that the only probable place -- and it is probably still the only probable place -- where two big nuclear powers could come into conflict would be the Taiwan Strait.

In effect, the prevention of Taiwan going independent is absolutely critical to the legitimacy of the Chinese communist regime. Chinese leaders believe that, if they were to let Taiwan go independent and not respond, they would probably be overthrown by their own nationalistic people. Therefore, I think they would be willing to engage in what we might call "self-defeating military adventures" in order to prevent that result, even if they knew they were going to lose.

So in my view, the key problem for the United States is how to deter the PRC from using force against Taiwan. We have to be very clear about that, because I think the United States would intervene if force were used under most circumstances I can imagine. But on the other hand, we have to deter Taiwan from engaging in such risky behavior that they precipitate an attack that will be destabilizing to Asia, destroy the Taiwan economy and drag the United States into a regional conflict.

And what would provoke this -- China?

They have a list of things that would provoke, but basically, certainly a ... declaration of independence would be one of those things.

That would mean war?

I would think it would probably mean war. It would certainly mean some form of military conflict or economic embargo or an attempt by the PRC to destabilize Taiwan's economy. But let's put it this way: It would mean a substantial escalation of conflict ... the inevitable result of that. If China, if Taiwan, were to be known to be acquiring nuclear weapons, this might elicit a response as well. If Taiwan were to provide bases for U.S. military, that might. In the end, of course, China still has a relatively weak military. And I don't think I know anybody who believes China could invade Taiwan successfully, almost even if the U.S. didn't intervene.

Taiwan's military is not trivial. But the point is that we have to, on the one hand, deter Chinese inclinations to use force, and on the other hand, deter Taiwan from engaging in provocative behavior that could be bad for everybody -- including Taiwan.

But isn't it right that a country Taiwan, which is democratic... Isn't it absolutely normal that they would also want to be seen as a sovereign country and independent? Doesn't democracy inevitably lead to independence?

Of course. And you can go further and say that the Americans have a great tradition, at least rhetorical, of rights of self-determination. The notion that people who want to be free and constitute their own society should have a right. Of course, as Americans, we didn't think that the South in the 1860s had that right. There are many small groups all over the world that would like to be independent of the authority of the sovereign, and we, in most cases, don't support that. It's true to say that many Tibetans would like to be independent, and no country in the world -- including the United States -- recognizes Tibet as a independent country.

So we're left with this. The Taiwan people have a perfectly understandable desire to have autonomy and dignity and independence in the world; that's an understandable impulse. But the fact of the matter is that big powers, the United States, other big powers, don't necessarily recognize all these impulses. And in the end, foreign policy is a trade-off of values. How much is the desire of 23 million Taiwanese to be independent worth, in terms of bringing two nuclear powers into conflict, destabilizing the region? In the end, Taiwan is 90 miles from 1.3 billion people. Is it viable for Taiwan for eternity to have a conflictual relationship with 1.3 billion people 90 miles that they're economically integrated with, and in which Taiwan is investing in the mainland like crazy? The PRC is Taiwan's natural economic hinterland. So there are lots of things that intervene beyond the subjective desire of a people to be independent.

So how long is China prepared to wait to make sure that Taiwan becomes part of China?

China's political leaders are like political leaders elsewhere, and that is they spend most of their time figuring out how to avoid the worst thing, rather than achieve the best. The worst, from their point of view is Taiwan going independent, because it will force them to take action that they know is self-destructive. As long as they have confidence that Taiwan is not going to go independent and that the forces of economic integration are gradually pulling Taiwan towards the mainland, I think they can be very patient; and by "very patient," I mean decades.

Why do they have this extraordinary military buildup of missiles opposite Taiwan?

I'm not quite sure that the word "extraordinary" is justified. But it is significant. They're probably adding maybe 50 a year short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles in the area of the Taiwan Strait in coastal China, and that's a significant threat.

But in the end, these missiles are, in effect, just large bombs. And the fact of the matter is, if you start using those missiles against the people of Taiwan, does anyone seriously think this is going to increase the willingness of the people of Taiwan to join in any significant political union with the PRC? So in some sense, you have to ask, what utility are those missiles to produce reunification?

I would argue all those missile are is a deterrent against Taiwan declaring independence. But those missiles and coercion cannot win the hearts and minds of people of Taiwan to want to join in a voluntary union of any sort with the PRC. So my general advice to the PRC is find more positive reasons that the people of Taiwan should want to be in some closer political association with you. You might be able to prevent them declaring independence with military force, but you will never achieve reunification with those means.

That may be your advice. But presumably they may use those if there is this declaration of independence.

In that event, they would find some use for at least some portion, if not many of those missiles. But in the end, what is going to be the result? They're going to end up scaring Japan and driving Japan in a more militarized direction, which they don't want to do. They're going to end up bringing in the United States. They're going to scare every smaller country on its periphery in Southeast Asia. In short, China will set back its modernization program and reunification with Taiwan by decades. So I think the Chinese are fully aware of these costs, and part of it is they can't be perceived by their people as not responding. But I think their top leaders are fully aware of just the cost China would pay if they used force.

Does America have an obligation to defend Taiwan if it's attacked?

We no longer have a treaty obligation to come to the defense of Taiwan. What we have is what's called the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979. This obligates the United States to sell weapons of a defensive character to Taiwan. It obligates us to be concerned about the situation in Taiwan and the region And it obligates the president of the United States to consult with Congress about what to do. So, in a sense, we are obligated to be concerned and give Taiwan the means by which it can defend itself, but we are not obligated to come to the direct rescue.

If you go from treaty legal obligations to moral obligation, of course, many Americans feel we have a moral obligation to a fellow democracy with which we've been friendly for many decades. I may agree with that moral statement. But if you say we have a treaty obligation that requires we come to Taiwan's defense no matter what, no matter what they do or the context, I would say I don't believe we do.

What about the differences over the years regarding China as it played out in Congress and with various presidents?

Congress and the president have been in various degrees of conflict over China policy probably for the last 50 or more years. The fact that you find people in Congress dissatisfied with any president's China policy is not at all unusual. And the situation is particularly acute when you have a president of one party and a congress -- either an entire congress, or even one house in the bicameral legislature -- that's of another party.

China has been a subject rich in symbolism for Americans, and we tend to project onto China our greatest fears, whether its military, or our greatest hopes for democracy, or economic and trade wealth. China becomes this kind of screen on which we project these images. So, frequently, Congress and the president find themselves responding to different images here. And frankly, Taiwan has been a master at playing to the congressional machinery.

Why did Clinton decide to send two battleships and their carriers and a fleet to Taiwan in 1995-1996?

... Here you had Secretary of Defense William Perry under Clinton who had long-standing ties with China, friendly relations, one of the more respected people in China. He wanted as much as any secretary of defense probably ever to have good relations with China. And yet, when China fired missiles to the south and the north, the issue immediately rose for President Clinton and Secretary Perry, "How do we respond?" And the issue immediately became, "Do we send one carrier taskforce or two?" And without a hesitation, they all said, "Send two." Because they all recognized that the American people could not support a large communist country attacking a small democracy with which we had had intimate relations for a long period of time. Intimate economic interests [were] involved, and about half of the Taiwan Cabinet was trained in the United States. So it's an elite that has deep association with the United States.

Even somebody who was wanting to have positive relationship with China, as with Secretary Perry, could see the writing on the wall, [could see] what was required of that situation. And I believe that almost any responsible American official, the president or defense secretary, the secretary of state, would respond almost similarly, irrespective of party. Of course, it will depend on the world circumstance at that time. But basically, in anything resembling a normal circumstance, I think you'd have to expect an American reaction.

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