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US leaders have often best served China's interests: William Stanton

Henry Kissinger (left), Chairman Mao in Beijing.

Henry Kissinger (left), Chairman Mao in Beijing. (Wikimedia Commons photo)

This is the second part of a two-part commentary. The first part can be found here.

Generally speaking, when we talk about People's Republic of China (PRC) political warfare — or variations on that terminology like sharp power — we mean the measures China undertakes to shape the policies, positions, or public opinion of other countries. We also need, however, our definition to take into account the efforts of our own citizens who, intentionally or not, effectively help to achieve PRC goals. We need, for example, to consider the words and actions of some of the Americans who have significantly shaped U.S.- PRC relations since 1971.

China watcher James Mann most clearly called attention to this phenomenon in "The China Fantasy: Why Capitalism Will Not Bring Democracy to China (2007)." Mann argued that U.S policy toward China needed to change but that to do so, Americans had to recognize that economic liberalization would not lead to political liberalization in China. Mann described how China had effectively used retired American officials to influence U.S. policies in China’s favor and how U.S. corporate leaders seeking business in China had, in turn, paid these former officials consulting fees for the high-level introductions they could arrange with the PRC’s top leaders.

Mann cited some of the many officials — both Republicans and Democrats — who had left office and become paid “consultants” to introduce American CEOs to Chinese officials. Henry Kissinger’s “Kissinger and Associates” was the forerunner, but he was followed by former Secretaries of State Alexander Haig and Madeleine Albright, former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger, former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, and former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills.

There have very likely been many others since then. Undoubtedly, they all believed they were acting in the U.S.' interest to foster trade ties, but at the same time, they would be well paid for doing so.

Australia has faced similar possible conflicts of interest. As University professor John Garrick reported on Feb. 17, 2019, just days before Australia’s new foreign influence transparency laws came into effect, former Federal Trade Minister Andrew Robb said he had left his A$880,000-a-year consultancy job with Chinese-owned Landbridge Group because it didn’t have anything for him to do. Former Victorian Premier John Brumby similarly said he had quit as a director of Chinese tech giant Huawei in Australia because he had too much else to do. And former Federal Foreign Minister and ex-New South Wales Premier Bob Carr resigned from his post as director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, an organization bankrolled by a Chinese billionaire.

The United States would do well to adopt a similar law.

One important group of American business leaders and former officials that exemplifies, in my view, the mingling of personal and political interests is the National Committee on U.S. China Relations. Significantly, both Maurice R. Greenberg and Henry Kissinger are executive vice chairs of the committee’s board of directors. Carla Hills is also on the board, and so are other former officials who worked on U.S.-China relations.

A breakfast meeting I had with a visiting delegation of the National Committee while I was the AIT director remains in my memory as an important indicator of the views of at least some members of this group. Asked to comment on the state of cross-strait relations, which they obviously thought were excellent while Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) was Taiwan’s president, I said I thought the relationship was not very good.

As evidence, I noted that each and every time a U.S. governor, senator, or congressman planned to visit Taiwan, they would inevitably receive warning messages and phone calls from Chinese diplomats in the U.S. saying such a visit would harm U.S.-PRC relations.

The head of the committee delegation quickly interjected that he had heard such stories before and that they were “all lies.” To which I had responded: “Are you saying that the U.S. officials who reported these PRC warnings were lying to me or that I am lying to you?” Awkwardly, the group immediately shifted to another subject.

U.S. views have finally changed, but is it too little, too late?

It was only with the arrival of the Trump administration, and in particular the strong China policy leadership of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, that the U.S. government caught up with the increasingly negative American public opinion toward the PRC. Even under Trump, however, and two years into his administration, Secretary of Commerce and billionaire Wilbur Ross remained on a PRC joint venture board even while the country was waging a trade war against China.

Similarly, Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin, who was known for his “panda hugger” views on trade with China, had produced and will likely continue now to produce movies invested in by the PRC that show China in only the best possible light. No Chinese villains ever allowed!

Fortunately, the Biden administration is continuing to adopt a tough-minded approach to China, treating it as the country that it is rather than the country we wish it to be. But the evidence for this was there all along.

Both sides always knew the PRC and the U.S. did not share common values, but for too long we assumed — and some of us continue to assume — that at least we shared common interests. The Biden administration optimistically now cites climate change, COVID-19, Iran, and North Korea as areas of common interest despite much evidence to the contrary.

Tsing Hua University academic Yan Xuetong ( 閻学通 ) — whom I used to meet in Beijing while he was a researcher at the Chinese Institute for Contemporary International Relations, which was often described as the analysis wing of the Ministry of State Security — wrote as long ago as 2010, even before the ascension of Xi Jinping (習近平), a very sobering assessment of U.S.- PRC relations: “The global importance today of China–U.S. relations is similar to that of U.S.–Soviet relations during the Cold War in being based on conflicting interests rather than common ones… There are more mutually unfavorable interests than mutually favorable ones between China and the United States.” The only common interest he found was the self-evident desire to avoid war.

As former U.S. Defense Department official Joe Bosco pointed out in a Taipei Times commentary on Nov. 4, 2020, titled “Kissinger Blindsided by Beijing,” Kissinger should have listened more carefully to President Nixon, who had actually studied China: “Unlike Kissinger’s five decades of reticence and empathy toward PRC leaders, former President Nixon was not hesitant about identifying the source of the global communist regime that “nurtures its fantasies, cherishes its hates and threatens peril at its neighbors.”

Bosco rightly pointed out that “Nixon… cautioned against overeager accommodation with China, ‘as many would simplistically have it, rushing to grant recognition to Peking, to admit it to the United Nations and to ply it with offers of trade — all of which would serve to confirm its rulers in their present course.’” As Bosco concluded, this is of course precisely what happened. Kissinger led the way, and too many of us followed in his path.

William A. Stanton is senior vice president of National Yang-Ming Chiao-Tung University. He previously served from August 2017 to July 2019 as a professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).

Updated : 2021-05-14 12:43 GMT+08:00