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U.S.-China Bilateral Relations: The Lessons of History

A Speech by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell

U.S.-China Bilateral Relations: The Lessons of History

December 13, 2019

Bonnie Glaser: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m Bonnie Glaser. I’m director of the China Power Project here at CSIS. Thank you all for coming today.

We’re privileged to have the Assistant Secretary of State, David Stilwell, to give a speech today. Assistant Secretary Stilwell assumed the post of the Assistant Secretary of State for the, of course, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs on June 20th of this year. I’m guessing it seems like a lot longer than that, but it’s just about over six months. His position immediately prior to that was as director of the China Strategic Focus Group at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.

Mr. Stilwell served in the Air Force for 35 years. We were just chatting about linguistic backgrounds. So he began as an enlisted Korean linguist, learning Korean when he was 18, and retired in 2015 with the rank of brigadier general. His last position as a military officer was Asia advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

Assistant Secretary Stilwell served multiple tours of duty, as you know, in Japan and Korea as a linguist, as a fighter pilot and a commander. And he served as the defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing from 2011 to 2013.

So given the growing complexity of the U.S.-China relationship, we definitely need to have a steady hand at the tiller at the Department of State, and we know we have that with Assistant Secretary Stilwell. Please join me in welcoming him.

David Stilwell: Good afternoon, and thanks for waiting a week. You know, things happen at the worst possible time.

It’s great to be here. I’ve been – I think it’s my third interaction with CSIS since I’ve gotten this job, in six months. That’s a good pace, I think, to go.

The title of today’s presentation is “U.S.-China Bilateral Relations and the Lessons of History.” If I were to translate it into Chinese, it would be shi shi qiu shi, “seek truth through facts.” The goal is to plow through a lot of misinformation and assumptions on both sides, and just sort of identify what has been a very productive interaction, you know, at least in one respect with the Chinese country, with the people, and with the government, and to clear the air – to help, you know, lay out the facts. In particular, I want to focus on a part of this history that’s hugely important and yet often overlooked, namely the vast range of official U.S. contributions sustained over decades that have empowered the People’s Republic of China and aiding in its development.

So why recount history? Well, I’m a historian. That’s what I studied in school. My master’s degree was in Chinese military modernization. That’s going to come up later in this speech. And it’s always good to take a pause and reflect.

So if we don’t acknowledge this history, we can’t claim to understand the current state of U.S.-China relations.

Second, the history is colorful and dramatic. It involves secret presidential directives, sensitive diplomacy, some of the most consequential economic and technological shifts the world has ever seen, and it’s a very long history. Which means it’s going to be a very long speech, and I’ll apologize in advance, but I think you’ll enjoy hearing the story.

But the most important aspect of this is that recounting this history refutes false claims of propagandists who claim that the Trump administration’s competitive posture toward Beijing is motivated by some longstanding American animus or some desire to, in their words, quote, “keep China down.” The fact is that for decades American policymakers have extended the hand of friendship to the PRC, and yet that has not been reciprocated. This historical record will show that clearly.

When commentators occasionally discuss how American policy has contributed to Chinese empowerment, they often focus on America’s general role in sustaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, sea lanes, and all the rest. Their point is that, you know, like a more passive form, this international order provided by the

U.S. is what allowed China and others in the region to focus on economic growth and trade and the rest. That certainly is a large part of this story, but – and to create and preserve that international order required enormous U.S. expenditures of blood, treasure, and ideas – but there’s more to that story.

China was not just the indirect beneficiary of all this; U.S. support for China’s development was deliberate, direct, and specific. It took many forms. In short – we’ll get to the details here – we provided military and intelligence assistance, we made generous technology transfers, we ensured preferential trade and investment access, we sponsored and arranged for vast educational exchanges – and we still do – and we provided development financing and organized government-to-government capacity building, and much more.

So before we get into details, I want to note that the primary drivers of China’s strengthening were the Chinese people themselves. China’s greatest achievements in recent decades reflect the intelligence, the talents, and the courageous and entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese. Those traits fueled China’s growth when the Chinese Communist Party finally loosened the disastrous stranglehold that it had placed on the people in the PRC’s opening decades. Once Communist Party leaders recognized the failures of the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and the chaotic fight for succession following Mao’s death, and they moved to liberalize China’s system, the Chinese people were able to get to work. And the United States and others were enthusiastic about offering our help. But acknowledging the centrality of the Chinese people in this story shouldn’t bind us to the important contributions – or shouldn’t blind us to the important contributions of others, especially to the contributions of the United States.

Unfortunately, the PRC has acted in recent years with increasing hostility toward the United States, our interests, and our principles. This has prompted the American people and the current administration to reevaluate these policies. As Secretary Pompeo has said, “We accommodated and encouraged China’s rise for decades, even when that rise was at the expense of American values, Western democracy, security, and good common sense.” Unquote. So Beijing’s hostile behavior was not inevitable. It was not justified, and it is, in fact, a choice by Chinese leaders. It is by no means what American officials desired or expected 40 years ago when they initiated this multifaceted U.S. policy of intense support for Beijing’s modernization and its liberalization.

America’s willingness to help China achieve its ambitions was clear to leader Deng Xiaoping even before he inaugurated the era of reform and opening at a Communist Party conference in December of 1978. Indeed, on the very day that he presented and opened this concept of reform and opening, he also accepted an invitation from the U.S. government that had been tendered prior to become the first PRC leader to visit the United States. By the next month the U.S. and China had announced normalization of their relations and Deng was on an airplane to Washington.

I mentioned this story in another speech earlier this month, but I’m going to repeat it just because it needs to be restated. On that flight to the U.S., as historian John Pomfret records, Deng’s foreign minister asked Deng Xiaoping why he picked the United States for his first trip as leader. “Because,” answered Deng, “America’s allies are all rich and strong, and if China wants to be rich and strong it needs America.” Sound logic.

For Deng, the engineer of China’s modernization and prosperity, it was clear that America could be relied on to help. He was pushing longstanding PRC plans for the four modernizations – we know what those are – addressing science and technology, industry, agriculture, and defense. And the U.S. would help in all four areas, and then some. And this produced results.

So after the horrific privations caused by the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping intensely desired that Chinese students would study in the United States. I believe we have some here. When Deng received White House Science Advisor Frank Press in the runup to normalization, Deng insisted that Press call the president immediately with a request to accept 5,000 Chinese students. Awakened by that call at three in the morning, President Carter replied, tell him to send 100,000, and so he relayed that suggestion. By 1987, less than 10 years later, there were indeed 100,000 Chinese students studying in America, part of a boom in visas, scholarships, and other educational exchange that transformed science and technology in the PRC. And that process is still booming.

Technology was a key theme of Deng’s 1979 first trip to the U.S., and he visited Ford Motor Company, Boeing, and NASA. He signed an agreement for U.S. aid to science in China and he agreed with the White House to establish a joint intelligence station in northwest China known as Operation Chestnut. It led to deeper military and intelligence cooperation.

Several months after Deng’s trip Vice President Mondale visited China and he told Deng Xiaoping, we have insisted repeatedly – and I will state it again – we strongly believe in the importance of a strong China. Mondale showed it by previewing a major accommodation on trade policy and human rights: the United States would grant China most-favored-nation trading status, cutting tariffs on Chinese goods to the preferential level offered to friends and allies, even though Beijing did not meet the political and civil rights standards required for that status under U.S. law, kind of hoping. Creating this kind of exception for the PRC would become common U.S. practice.

The Carter administration also used America’s leading position at the World Bank to clear the path for China’s membership in 1980. Beijing began receiving World Bank loans the following year, and it has since received some $62 billion, making it the world’s second-largest beneficiary of World Bank support.

After President Carter left office many U.S. foreign policies changed, but the approach to aiding China’s modernization endured. It even intensified. The Reagan administration helped the PRC especially in the military and technology domains. In 1981 President Reagan issued National Security Decision Directive – NSDD – 11, opening the path to sell the Chinese air, ground, naval, and missile technology. This built on Carter’s 1980 authorization of the sale of PRC of nonlethal military equipment. In 1983 Reagan’s NSDD 76 authorized peaceful nuclear cooperation to boost Beijing’s civilian nuclear program. And by the mid-1980s the U.S. had agreed to sell the PRC hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of torpedoes, anti-artillery, radar, and other military systems and equipment.

In 1986 the U.S. and China announced the Peace Pearl program to modernize Chinese F-8 fighters with sophisticated navigation, radar, and other electronics. Peace Pearl, the Pentagon said, would improve the security of a friendly country which has been an important force for political stability and economic progress in Asia and the world. Those are very optimistic and positive words. And if you have any questions on Peace Pearl, you can talk to Ken Allen back there, who has photos, stories – he’s got the entire program that he can relay to you, and I encourage you to talk to him because it is eye-watering.

The Reagan administration loosened controls on export of technology to the PRC in 1983, again furthering the work that began in the Carter years. Before a 1984 visit by PRC Premier Zhao Ziyang Reagan signed NSDD 120, directing the administration to lend support to China’s ambitious modernization effort, especially through our liberalized technology transfer policy. The classified policy document stated that the U.S. seeks a strong, secure, and stable China that can be an increasing force for peace both in Asia and the world.

In 1986 the Reagan administration even helped the PRC establish research programs in genetic engineering, automation, biotech, lasers, space technology, manned spaceflight, intelligent robotics, and supercomputers. That year the U.S. also worked with Japan and others to usher Beijing into the Asian Development Bank, which later extended the PRC $40 billion in loans for transport, energy, water, agriculture, finance, and other projects.

So let’s recall that in the first decade after normalization in 1979, as in the years immediately before 1979, a key U.S. consideration in America’s China policy was, of course, the Cold War, in which the PRC was a counterweight to the Soviet Union. But even when the Cold War ended, U.S. policy toward China remained highly favorable. So as the Cold War was drawing to a close, U.S. leaders went out of their way to show their intention to remain committed to China.

Recall that George H.W. Bush response to the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. Here was a brutally violent refutation of the optimistic notion that modernization by the Chinese Communist Party would mean political liberalization, something I assumed all along. But nevertheless, President Bush decided not to fundamentally reassess U.S. relations with the PRC after 1989. The senior Bush suspended new arms sales, but he decided to follow through on many existing programs – to include Peace Pearl, which was terminated later by the Chinese and not the U.S. President Bush also opposed economic sanctions favored by a majority of members of Congress. Now is the time, he told the public, to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States. Though the administration announced it had suspended high-level contacts with the PRC, Bush dispatched the national security adviser on a secret mission to Beijing carrying letters that stressed the importance of getting our relationship back on track. And so the two sides did.

The measured U.S. response to the massacre reflected a hopeful and accommodationist frame of mind that continued to shape U.S. policy toward China for years to come. Across decades, we accommodated the PRC’s human rights abuses without significant protest. We mostly shrugged at the PRC’s proliferation of nuclear and missile technology to Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea, and others. We largely overlooked the PRC’s division of U.S.-origin dual-use technology to the military. We offered little opposition to the PRC’s theft of intellectual property, piracy of trademarked goods, and countless other unfair trade practices. Policymaking requires balancing interests, and we often had reasons to let this or that PRC offense go unanswered. But the consequences mounted.

Following Tiananmen, one change that did come was the PRC leaders introduced a harsh patriotic education campaign in China into the schools and culture. The aim of this campaign was to shore up support for the Communist Party by playing to nationalism and vilifying foreigners, especially Americans and Japanese, as so-called hostile forces seeking to contain China and block its rise. Stoking this mythology of U.S. hostility was itself a hostile act against the U.S., but U.S. officials hardly took notice. Instead, we concentrated on producing the next chapter in our policy of support for the PRC. And this was probably the most favorable and consequential of all – PRC accession to the World Trade Organization.

President Bill Clinton entered office highly critical of Beijing’s human rights record. He promised to reestablish the link between the PRC’s trade privileges and human rights as the Jackson-Vanik amendment concerning most favored nation status had intended. However, by 1994 Clinton had dropped that insistence. He began to favor bestowing on the Chinese, on the PRC, permanent normal trade relations and backing its membership in the WTO, even if there weren’t improvements in human rights. He embraced an idea, long part of U.S. thinking about trade with the PRC, that became dogma: If we expand international trade links with China, it would inevitably liberalize politically, benefitting the Chinese people, the cause of human rights, and the world in general. And that’s a lofty ideal. And, you know, it’s very laudable that we pursued that.

Unfortunately, this view dominated U.S. thinking as U.S. played an indispensable role in bringing about China’s WTO accession. And WTO accession was rocket fuel for PRC’s ambitions, giving it the global market access that turned China into the world’s manufacturing and export powerhouse. No policy has strengthened the PRC more. And like so much else, helping China enter the WTO involved our purposefully ignoring PRC and proper trade practices and empty promises. As Secretary Pompeo has said, we encouraged Chinese membership in the World Trade Organization and other international organizations premised on their commitment to adopt market reforms and abide by the rules of those organizations. And all too often, China did not follow through.

So the friendly U.S. approach to China in the 1990s was evident when the Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan visited Beijing in 1994. It is very important to the United States, as well as the whole world, that China succeed, Greenspan told PRC Premier Zhu Rongji. Therefore, we’re willing to provide as much assistance as we can to your central bank in those technical areas where we have many years of experience.

Generous technical assistance was a U.S. policy priority for decades. Even before normalization, President Carter issued Presidential Directive 43, instructing federal agencies to support PRC capacity building in education, energy, agriculture, space, geosciences, commerce, and public health. Soon there was hardly an agency in Washington, D.C. without a program to provide training and know-how to strengthen PRC government capacity, to expand trade, and generally to aid PRC integration into global affairs. These programs lasted for decades and they continue to the current day. No other country has received such an outpouring of U.S. capacity building as the PRC has.

The U.S. government similarly helped American businesses help Beijing. In the 1990s, American investment banks worked with PRC leaders to create state- owned megafirms such as China Mobile, and then raised money via stock listings in places like New York and London. U.S. policy meanwhile allowed them to raise money from U.S. investors, despite not meeting basic regulatory requirements. Tens of billions of dollars flowed into PRC state coffers. The 1990s also said U.S. aid to Chinese civil society. At the request, I should stress, of PRC government. The Asia Foundation and Ford Foundation partnered with PRC officials on economic reform, international relations, and Beijing’s own overseas assistance programs.

The Carter Center signed an MOU with Beijing’s Ministry of Civil Affairs in 1998 to help with experiment village elections. I think we all remember those. The American Bar Association spent two decades working with PRC judges, officials, and lawyers on criminal justice reform, legal training, and combatting domestic violence. Heifer International helped thousands of Chinese farmers raise livestock more sustainably. And such efforts often received funding from the U.S. government, transparently in alignment with Beijing’s own policies.

Unfortunately, the PRC has grown inhospitable to foreign civil society groups. Beijing today paints foreign NGOs as insidious subversives, not partners in Chinese development. It’s not that the NGOs have changed. Beijing has. It has lost its former enthusiasm for openness, transparency, and foreign links.

Nor is the CCP keen to share any credit with outsiders for China’s development, less the starring role of the party be diminished. So Beijing today claims that U.S. civil society groups are a black hand, undermining China. Beijing also enforces a 2016 law designed to drive foreign NGOs out of China. And it has successfully done that, reducing the number of NGOs from 7,000 in 2016 to mere hundreds today.

These were not the outcomes sought by U.S. leaders before the 1990s, or since. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both had concerns about aspects of Beijing’s behavior, just as their predecessors had. And both took measures to hedge against risks posed by Beijing. But both ensured that the United States engaged the PRC fundamentally as a partner and a supporter. Both expanded trade and technology ties with the PRC. Even as Beijing cheated on the U.S. and trade – U.S. trade deficit with China soared to a cumulative $4 trillion. Both supported elevating Beijing’s status in important international organizations, even as Beijing often subverted the mission and spirit of these organizations.

Both believed that Beijing – bought into the line that irritants in the bilateral relationship could be worked out by an ever-more diplomatic pageantry and high-level dialogues. And both welcomed more and more PRC students, with some 270,000 in America by 2015. And just for the record, to clear the air and to counter the misinformation, the number of PRC university student in the U.S. is now a whopping 370,000, contrary to allegations of us closing down that pipeline.

So we’re proud of America’s long record of pursuing friendship with China and the Chinese people. In this 40th year since U.S.-PRC normalization it’s worth recalling that U.S. optimism and friendship toward China and the Chinese people dates back centuries. American missionaries established hospitals and universities in China in the 1800s. American diplomats backed the open-door policy in the late 1800s. And then they set up the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship in 1909 that seated Xinhua University. American soldiers defended China during World War II, sacrificing thousands of lives to support our alliance commitment and resist an expansive and aggressive force. After the war, America insisted that China receive a seat among the founding members of the United Nations and a veto on the Security Council.

So, in conclusion, it’s natural that once the PRC turned to reform and opening 40 years ago, America would extend our hand in friendship. And it is altogether bogus that Beijing today claims that America’s new competitive posture toward the PRC betrays some long desire to keep, quote, “China down” as a nation. On the contrary, our posture today is based on disappointment that Chinese Communist Party leaders decided to respond to our good faith with such an aggressive and consistent bad faith.

Just want to relate a personal story on this. While in Beijing I became associated with a group that actually fostered U.S.-China relations through the memory of World War II. The exhibit that they put out is called Guójiā Jìyì, National Memories. It was here at the Reagan Building, sponsored by the Wilson Center, and then I sponsored it, and the Pentagon, in March of 2015. These photos began with a black and white photo handed to a friend of mine in 1999 of a funeral happening obviously in China, in southern China, with an American chaplain and an American officer, a Major McMurray being buried, and a bunch of Chinese soldiers are – or Chinese people in soldier’s gear.

He saw this photo. And based on the educational process he went through, it tilted his world. He couldn’t believe this actually happened. So he went into the Chinese archives to find the evidence that supported this. And he didn’t find anything. But someone said, you can go to the U.S. National Archives right here in D.C. and find more. He came here, he found 60,000 black and white photos of this very mutually beneficial cooperation during World War II. And being disappointed in the history that he was taught, intentionally has been spreading that word inside and outside of China ever since in the form of coffee table books, just full of these photos with stories, and these displays that I discussed.

We have to recognize this history. It’s key. It’s what we in the open press world and those who can read whatever we care to understand as our history.

Original Source: https://www.csis.org/analysis/speech-assistant-secretary-state-east-asian-and-pacific-affairs-david-r-stilwell

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