The Asia I Have Known: Changing Policy Perspectives
Abramowitz at the Annual Neuhauser Lecture
A lecture delivered on 26 October 2006 at the 15th annual Charles Neuhauser Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Fairbank Center and held at the CGIS south building. Ambassador Abramowitz served as ambassador to Thailand (1978-1981) and Turkey (1989-1991). He was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1991-1997) and is currently a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Most importantly, he is a graduate of Harvard’s RSEA program, class of 1955.
I must confess to a certain pleasure being here, since I was not one of Harvard’s finest graduate students in the EA arena. While I passed my PH.D orals, probably barely, I never did much on a dissertation. I picked a subject I decided I did not like, never looked for another one, and succumbed to the delights of Washington.
More seriously, I am honored to speak at this occasion that commemorates Charlie Neuhauser, because he was a good and valued friend, and those who knew and worked with him are dying out. I am very pleased to see his brother and his sister-in-law here.
Charlie and I worked together on East Asian issues, mostly China, on and off over two decades. He was the CIA’s China hand. Everyone knew that and many other China hands in that agency resented it. He dominated the discussion in the intelligence community at the height of China watching by dint of personality, knowledge and smarts, endless attention to detail, and an excellent policy sense not often present in CIA, which allowed him to work at State and the White House. He was always thinking where Beijing was headed and loved to argue who would fall next during the Cultural Revolution. His gusto for China never wavered. Charlie frequently played gotcha with me-- and countless others-- and invariably won. He was unequalled in getting people in the China field mad, both high and low. He was consulted, and if on occasion he wasn’t, he would find some way to put in his two cents. In short Charlie was a wonderful royal pain. His friends felt it fitting to hang on him the blue sign of national treasure. His early death was the end of a great and last generation of USG China watching from afar. We miss in Washington his dedication, vitality, and insight.
I spent much time thinking of what to say today that might interest a group filled with many mavens much more involved in China or East Asia in general than I have been the last 20 years. I decided that hopefully it would be more interesting to reflect back on how the USG’s policy focus on East Asia looked to me at different stages in my career and include a few war stories. I regret the title of this talk does not convey that approach; we hurriedly needed a catchy title. These are recollections not history.
East Asia was not my sole focus in government. But I spent 16 of my 31 years at State and Defense working on the region: in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Honolulu and DC. I was part of a small gathering of foreign-service officers, who lived in and endlessly discussed Asia, traveled widely, railed at USG inanities on China but were divided on Vietnam. We were an intimate part of the media, particularly in Hong Kong, where all of us searched for every scrap of information about China and waylaid anyone who came down from China or escaped. In fact, the Hong Kong consulate, the de facto American Embassy in China, to a great extent shaped public reporting on China in the fifties and sixties. I don’t mean top reporters like Stan Karnow, Joe Lellyveld, and Seymour Topping just wrote what we told them. They certainly did not. But the Consulate because of its resources and the quality of its people was an indispensable stop for reporters. It was fun to get our views into the newspapers. Such efforts occupy much of my time today, but they are no longer as much fun.
Because I spent a large bit of my career in Washingtom in policy jobs, I was often better able to watch events from the perspective of top officials, some of whom I directly worked for. I also wrote during this period a number of pieces, which permitted me to step back and reflect on what the US was doing, including one for Rod on the Taiwan economy in 1962 for his new journal, THE CHINA QUARTERLY, and a small book in 1970 with Dick Moorsteen of Rand, a Harvard economics PH.D and one of the most insighful persons I have ever met, called Remaking China Policy. That book provided one of the two phrases I contributed to our foreign policy lexicon—“One China but not now”-- which still remains a good description of our China policy. Han Shu, the first head of China’s liason office in Washington, whenever he met me would smile and invariably say: “Ah, Mr.Abramowitz, One China now” with a downward chop of the hand.
One way to characterize this whole period—from the post-Korean War to the present—would be as a movement from American domination to a continuing erosion of influence, which is still not recognized in much of the USG or in some conservative circles. Important in East Asia we indeed are, the indispensable state I am not so sure. During my time in the government much of the internal debate was over how best to maintain our dominance.
The decline began with our Vietnam disaster, which, paradoxically, was facilitated by the huge push the war gave to regional economic growth. 1978 marked the defining moment with Deng taking power and enunciating the four modernizations. Life in East Asia has never been the same since. Rapidly following from China’s growth has been its emergence as a regional player and now a world player. Declining American influence resulted largely from increasing Asian economic success, in which the American role and the American market were crucial. East Asian countries today have two “magnetic norths,” Washington and Beijing.
My introduction to America’s East Asian policy was in Washington in 1958 and Taiwan in 1959. For me it was an exciting period, not only because Taiwan was my first time living in Asia, but also because there was then still an exhilaration in public service—the sense, at least in East Asia, you were contributing to building something and you could see results. I was also the first generation of FSOs after the bloodletting of the State Department’s China experts- JPDavies, JSService, OEClubb among others-- and the focus on loyalty during the Dulles years. There were enhanced security tests in general and a cautious atmosphere on anything to do with China. The atmosphere was easing somewhat when I joined in 1959. In Taiwan you could pretty much speak your private mind, but you had to be careful: we called Taiwan China and China the Mainland; public criticism of the Nationalist government was to be avoided, and consorting too much with the nascent and harassed Taiwan nationalist movement was verboten. It is remarkable to remember now Bob Scalapino then writing the famous Scanlon report—which
called for One China and One Taiwan. Because it denied KMT soverignty over China, it was pilloried in Taiwan. Taiwan would love that situation today.
In the fifties and sixties our alliance system was put in place and the biggest focus for me was America’s role as nation builder to use a contemporary term: to establish states that could be self-sustaining, contribute to their own defense and resist communism. Included were Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Phillipines, Thailand, Burma, and the states of Indochina. In Taiwan and a little in Korea, what I was most involved in was the heavy aid emphasis: building physical infrastructure, commodity imports to offset large domestic expenditures, vast military assistance programs, encouragment of the private sector, and more effective public administration. AID (then ICA) counted for something and the US, year after year, put impressive amounts of money and capable people to the task of helping build those states. Unlike today we had in most countries few security worries, and while publics were envious of our power and wealth, they were grateful for our presence. Our efforts benefited enormously from having superb economic officials, often American PhDs in most of these countries, whose cultures honored hard work.
We danced with dictators--from Marshal Sarit in Thailand to Pak Chung Hee in South Korea. Our demarches were quiet and democracy promotion was a more peripheral consideration—certainly not preached with today’s decibel levels. As the U.S. moved toward military involvement in Vietnam, it emphasized political stability and each country’s support for the war. For example we wanted South Korean troops for Vietnam, and this consideration dominated our attitude toward military control of the South. While governments were not always stable—indeed incessant military coups occurred in Thailand, continuing when I was ambassador in 1980 and even to my surprise today—the systems, except for Indochina, changed little, and officialdom was permeated with a strong anti-communist animus, which added determination to their efforts. Finally corruption permeated almost all these countries, but it did not prevent rapid development so often asserted today for less developed countries. One last politically incorrect, perhaps erroneous reflection: today Taiwan and South Korea are vibrant democracies, causing American governments no little pain, but I doubt that these countries would have prospered so quickly under democratic governments. Chiang Ching-kuo and Pak rank high in the pantheon of economic developers.
China, not exactly then a beneficary of our nation building, was very much part of my various jobs. During my graduate days here professors and students including me sneered at Dixie Walker’s perverse views of Chinese communism during its early rule Walker supposedly had gone way overboard in his criticism in his book “China Under Communism: The First Five Years.” Well he was right and we at Harvard and most other universities were wrong. That came home in spades, except to the Concerned Asian Scholars, from the incredible human catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Cataclysmic events in China coupled with our extremely limited access and knowledge often prompted fierce interagency debates, almost always between the State Department and the CIA. The Great Leap Forward produced a huge fight over whether China would fall apart because of the severity of the food situation, “ the downward spiral” as Joe Alsop called it in the China Quarterly. The outside community provided little insight on China’s situation with the exception of the famous Father Ladany in Hong Kong. In the end the State Department was proved right in its more optimistic view of China’s ability to to get by terrible shortages, although it lowballed the number of deaths. Parenthetically such fights over ignorance have continued to this day about countries we are isolated from, including North Korea and most vividly Iraq
China’s potential for breakdown and our internal debate converged other times, One interesting episode that I followed closely in Taiwan in 1962 when the Nationalist government publicly started planning to “counterattack” the mainland and levying all sorts of taxes to support an invasion. A brief effort to rally US support for the KMT was led by elements in Defense and the CIA, particularly the station chief in Taiwan, a Harvard PhD and former junior fellow—Ray Cline. The Kennedy administration told Chiang Kai-shek to forget about it. It was Chiang Kai-shek’s last gasp and the end of the return to the mainland ideology. The Chiang myth began to erode and that contributed to greater openness on Taiwan.
Other interesting battles raged in Washington over a China we perceived dimly. One, similar to our problem today with Iran and with many of the same considerations, focused on what to do about China’s becoming a nuclear weapon power as we watched it proceed to its first test in 1964. Significant internal pressures to attack China’s nuclear facilities were rebuffed by President Johnson. A second was a great debate in 1964-65 over how China would respond to the vast buildup of American forces in Vietnam and the bombing of the North. Washington feared that the Chinese might come in a la Korea in 1950 and 1951 if we seriously escalated. The opposing views of the Hong Kong Consulate and Allan Whiting in INR became very public. Whiting, who helped George Ball argue against increased American deployments and of course wrote the book “China Crosses the Yalu,” would spell out to Max Frankel in Washington why China was likely to come in a big way. In Hong Kong we would talk with Times bureau chief, Seymour Topping, and give our perspective on why the Chinese would not do so. The public division within the USG was comic to the cognoscenti. The Consulate won that argument.
It was, of course, hard to evaluate in our policy delibertions the extent of China’s domestic turmoil and its impact on Chinese policy of those extraordinary two decades in China. The Cultural Revolution mostly produced shakings of the head in Washington. Despite what government specialists were long telling their masters about the depth of Sino-Soviet differences, there was also a fear or skepticism or more pertinent domestic political concerns that hindered trying to take advantage of the dispute. The Democrats had become gun shy on anything Chinese from the who lost China debate. The depth of animosity became clear even to Washington in 1969 with the incidents along the Sino-Soviet border. In the end the change in administration from spent Democrats to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, American difficulties in Vietnam, and China’s troubles with the Soviets led to what most China watchers had long and devoutly hoped for, even if we were surprised and captivated by Kissinger’s secret diplomacy.
The end of the Ford years and the early Carter years was marked by defeat in Vietnam and the first recession of overwhelming American dominance in East Asia. It was a difficult period for the US and for me personally at DOD. It was hard to be the chief Senate witness for military assistance outlays when communist forces mounted their final offensive against Saigon; it was terrible to be in the National Miliatary Command Center listening to the evacuation of our Embassy from Saigon and the demands for more helicopters to move Vietnamese close to us, who would not get them; it was painful to be called in the middle of the night by our ambassador in Cambodia to say the Khmer Rouge were approaching Phnom Penh, please help us, and it was disheartening my four years in the Pentagon to watch the incredible deterioriation of the US army, reversed in great part by the determination of General Abrams and ultimately by the all volunteer force.
Asian policy over these years focused on two issues: first, trying to preserve American influence and power in the area, despite constant assertions by leading administration figures that the fall of Vietnam would erode our influence and sweep away the dominoes.The second was finishing the establishment of relations with China. Years of nation building began to pay off with the emergence of economically dynamic countries. That also led to efforts, partly to help sustain Congressional support for Asian deployments, to get allies starting with Japan to pay for the upkeeep of our forces, which along with South Korea has mushroomed into annual multi billion dollar amounts. In Southeast Asia our writ diminished even as we tried to bolster the dominoes in a variety of ways. However, any whiff of military involvement, say in genocidal Cambodia, was politically impossible. It was also a period of great American humanitarian action in the region, which provided indispensable help to millions of fleeing people and to many countries, particularly Thailand, and helped refurbish American leadership. But Vietnam was not really expansionist, China had turned the corner focused internally, guerilla movements were abandoned, and nationalism was strong in Southeast Asia. In a few years we stopped worrying. Personally the years from 1973-1981 were my biggest involvement in East Asian policy.
The early post Vietnam atmosphere was a grim one. Both Democrats and Republicans clamored to reduce the American military involvement, particularly in Southeast Asia. Maintaining our position in East Asia not only ran against political demands but also the policies of the Carter administration, which wanted major reductions in the military presence.
The first skirmish, little noticed publicly, was a Hill effort led by Sam Nunn after Vietnam fell to reduce our base structure significantly including removing our remaining army division off the front line in Korea way south. There was no reason not to get out of most of our bases in Southeast Asia, largely in Thailand and reduce our presence significantly. But in the administration we were concerned about our bases in Japan, Korea, and the Philippines—the Taiwan bases, however useful, would have ultimately to go if the U.S. established relations with China. At Defense we did a massive study of base structure in 1975-76, and our strategy became to trade off a few second order bases for no impairment of major facilities. This modest approach was quietly accepted even as the presence declined.
Right after taking office in 1977 the Carter administration wanted to get out of the Philippine bases and most important to withdraw US gound forces from South Korea almost immediately. In a long contentious battle the bureaucracy, aided by figures like Hubert Humphrey, beat back these efforts. Carter’s early policy approaches in East Asia and elsewhere were, I think, a major contribution to the public belief that the Democratic Party cannot handle national security matters, a notion that still bedevils the party. Skepticism of Democrats was felt for a quarter of a century in East Asia. It became Republican territory so to speak.
I tried but never succeeded in finding out who helped persuade Carter during the 1976 campaign to advocate removing US ground forces from Korea. All the suspects resolutely deny it, and I never asked the President, who, of course, may well have decided on his own. I do know I got tarred with it, in great part because I was the point man for pulling the defense side together, defending it before a skeptical military, and making the case for the withdrawal on the Hill. The Reagan Republicans never forgave me until George Shultz came along. In fact I was totally against it and early on made my opposition known to my new boss at defense replacing Don Rumsfeld, Harold Brown. My first run-in with the new administration, a month after the inauguration, was on a plane to Tokyo with VP Mondale to “consult” with Japan, not South Korea, on the troop removal. In the briefing session I blurted out to Mondale “You can’t do this; we have at least to consult with the Koreans.” Mondale, a wonderful man, smiled and said “You know Mort there’s been an election in our country.”
The withdrawal was a campaign promise, and Carter unlike many other presidents was determined to carry it out over the strong opposition of the bureaucracy and many senior Democrats including some of his Cabinet. At the first meeting of senior officals to discuss plans for withdrawal Treasury Secretary Blumenthal at the end of the meeting got up and said “why the hell are we doing this?”
Korea was a disasater for the President from the start. The White House actually initially told the departments it wanted all ground forces out in one year. This produced a huge uproar and after much negotiation we got the withdrawal backloaded, a regiment in the first two years and the rest in 1982, after there had been another election. At Defense we came up with a huge military assistance program to help improve Korean forces. In the end Carter abandoned the project because CIA discovered-- rather conveniently-- that the intelligence community had badly underestimated Norh Korean forces by several hundred thousand. The withdrawal effort had one unintended major consequence. It consumed South Korea and undermined President Pak politically--he had lost the all important American mantle--and ultimately, I believe, led to his assasination by his CIA chief, although personal reasons were also involved. The efforts to get out of our two principal bases in the Phillipines were also delayed by the bureaucracy. Clark Air base was, nevertheless, abandoned in a few years and the Filipinos themselves pulled the plug on Subic a decade letter.
The Carter administration’s early moves led Dick Holbrooke, Mike Armacost and I (the EA triumvirate) to seek a meeting with NSC advisor Zbig Brzezinski. We made the case that there was no strategy behind our withdrawals, that it conveyed American loss of interest in the area creating further doubts about our comittments after Vietnam, that our allies were expressing privately deep worry, and that it could impact our China initiative and their view of our determination to stand up to the Soviets, the last an argument we hoped would particularly appeal to him. He listened carefully. He was of course loyal to the President and defended the policies, although I am not sure he really agreed with them. He subsequently labelled us the three Cassandras. Whether we had any influence I do not know. But policies gradually changed and toughened up, rightly or wrongly, particularly after Afghanistan. I have one other purpose in recounting this episode. I could not imagine this meeting or the whole Korean episode of visible disagreement with the President happening in the Bush administration. Nobody was fired or maligned and one major general quit in disgust. I think that tolerance is one difference between Democrats and conservative Republicans of this age.Unfortunately it also seemingly corroborates for Republicans one of their inherited wrong pereceptions, that the bureaucracy is disloyal.
Despite considerable derision from the bureaucracy and condescension from much of the cognoscenti, Jimmy Carter put human rights heavily into foreign policy and it caught on permanently—an impressive achievement although much less so in East Asia. He added also an enormous humanitarian perspective.
The Cambodian war and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia multiplied the terrible woes of Cambodians; huge numbers were again uprooted and fled to the Thai border. Hanoi’s conquest of the South and deteriorating relations with China also led to oppressive measures, which produced a vast outflow of mostly Vietnmese Chinese. Similar outflows came from Laos with their new communist government. Southeast Asia was in an uproar for fear of polical destabilization, because almost all countries were affected by the large inflows, particularly Thailand The US took the lead in helping feeding the people of western Cambodia from the Thai border and pressing all countries to provide first asylum to refugees. Mr. Carter’s most extraordinary act was paroling into the US half million Indochinese refugees in three years, and ultimately the figure rose to a million. This measure basically broke the back of the refugee problem and produced a change in perceptions about the vitality and generosity of the US.
The Cambodian effort required a huge PR campaign by the USG of which the capstone was a one day visit by Mrs Carter to the then only Khmer refugee camp in Thailand—actually inhabited by starving Khmer Rouge dependents which we downplayed -- with endless television cameras trailing. That one day in 1979 helped shape the American national perspective and the views at high levels of the administration. Mrs. Carter was terrific.
Digressing a bit I saw this similar phenomenon again from Turkey in 1991 after the Gulf War, when James Baker flew by helicopter to the mountain borders of southeast Turkey to witness half a million Kurds strewn along the mountain sides unable to enter Turkey or return to Iraq. He spent 12 minutes with the Kurds. It was enough to energize his personal intervention to secure an allied military effort to bring relief to the Kurds. Indeed four months later the US and its allies returned all Kurds to northern Iraq. In another manifestation of the wonderful law of unintended consequences, that return marked the beginning of a virtually independent Kurdish state in Iraq, which no one ever imagined myself included, except many Turks who told us we didn’t know what we were doing but who also did not want 500 thousand Kurds in Turkey.
The Cambodian episode had a wide impact in East Asia:
---Vietnam’s conquest of Cambodia did more than anything else to boost a still fledgling ASEAN and develop its cohesion. Led by Singapore and Thailand and prodded heavily by the US the countries of the area mounted a serious and ultimately successful diplomatic and military effort to support the Cambodian opposition to reverse Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia. It was a first for ASEAN and they persisted over ten years in achieving that goal.
--- Vietnam was much on our minds in relations with China, and Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia was on Chinese minds. After a serious internal battle between the NSC and State, which wanted to normalize with both countries, the administration in 1978 gave up on Vietnam, because Brzezinski feared it would harm normalization of relations with China. Some worried it would further upset the dominoes. Virtually all contact with Vietnam was severed following the invasion of Cambodia. The wounds of the Vietnam war were left to fester.
Deng Xiao-ping visited the US in early 1979 and signaled his intent to beat up on Vietnam. Carter did not indicate any disapproval. At one point before the incursion Mr Carter asked to see me. I told him the Thais would not be unhappy with Chinese action, that it was all Deng mad as hell at Vietnam, and that it could produce a worsening of a bad humanitarian situation. I was particularly negative about Chinese motivation. I felt Carter was annoyed with my views. Vietnam today is a strong but careful anti Chinese bastion and a forthcoming Asian dynamo.
One aspect of this episode shows how circumstances invariably overeride professed morality. Despite its attachment to human rights the White House enouraged senior Thai leaders to provide arms to the remaining Pol Pot forces to prevent Vietnam from consolidating control of Cambodia. China also mounted with Thai assistance a covert program to supply arms to Khmer Rouge remnants shortly after the war began. Interestingly enough the State Department through me and Holbrooke were telling the Thai not to supply the Khmer Rouge. The Thais did not need encouragement and guess who they believed .We both saw this as one more effort to build relations with China by sticking it to Vietnam.
I never returned to a full time focus on East Asia after 1981. I got involved sporadically on some Asian issues when I was head of State’s intelligence bureau like the fall of Marcos, an extraordinary effort by George Shultz to get Ronald Reagan to pull the plug on his long-time friend, which in the end required the help of the Chairman of the JCS, Bill Crowe, and Reagan’s buddy, former Senator Paul Laxalt. The US military’s desertion of Marcos was critical. Occasionally I would put in my two cents on Korea and China matters, but Shultz was a bear on separating intelligence from policy, which I do not believe he understood but was all bound up in his understandable animosity toward Bill Casey’s management of CIA. Casey, by the way, did not think much of Shultz either. He tried to get him fired.
After I left State and took over the Carnegie Endowment one part of me became an observer of the policy scene, organizer of numerous study groups, mostly East Asian ones, and inevitably a pontificator, frequently an advocate on losing international causes. So as an interested observer let me make a few observations—broad ones—about the new East Asia and where the US is now. I can only scratch the surface.
The North Korean nuclear test forced me to reconsider what I had been saying for the past five months, mostly from my short co authored book with the dean of Fletcher, Steve Bosworth, on American policy in East Asia. We were skeptical of a test because of China’s opposition but argued that if the US continued in fruitless six-party talks North Korea would not sit still. We speculated whether North Korea had given up on negotiations with this administration. The nuclear test quickly followed the North’s abandonment of its self imposed missile testing moratorium to the severe condemnation of the world of the world and showed Pyongyang’s willingness to test international pressures and endure some isolation.
The cognoscenti were quick to get out their pens the day after the nuclear test to say East Asia would be going to hell as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would be driven to acquire nuclear weapons, driving home to me again the need, impossible to satisfy, to keep quiet for awhile after major usually surprising events. Nevertheless I have changed my remarks somewhat to accommodate this unhappy development. It certainly adds a great measure of uncertainty to the East Asian strategic situation and can complicate our management of the Iran nuclear issue. I will return to this shortly.
I do not have to tell this group that East Asia is in the best shape it has been in our life time despite North Korea and we want to keep it that way. Its transformation has been dramatic and positive. There has been no war for thirty years and most states are internally focused. With Japan’s recovery East Asia is now the most dynamic part of the world. It is difficult, however, getting our hands around the magnitude and implications of change and recognizing that however important we are, the US is no longer the dominant presence in East Asia it once was. There are now two magnetic norths for most of East Asia—Beijing and Washington. I want here to discuss some important policy aspects
Every administration in recent times has broadly followed the East Asian policies they inherited with the exception of the Bush administration on Korea. After Tienanmen the nature of the Chinese government became the biggest bone of contention between the US and China, but over time the rhetoric of geo-strategists and Donald Rumsfeld have focused on the threat from China turning its economic growth into much greater military muscle. Both Clinton and Bush started out being tough with China on human rights and democracy, but as they discovered the vastly multifaceted nature of our relationship, they downplayed the rhetoric and retreated to a more modest posture. It is easier to beat up on Burma than China. Serendipity recently also played an important role—notably 9/11. While 9/11 led to a transfer of resources and attention out of East Asia, it also helped saved our relations with China and South Korea.
Instead of treating China as our major strategic enemy, after 9/11 we wanted China’s cooperation on counter-terrorism and we did not want any serious diversion from our focus on Iraq. That attitude plus our deepening economic ties have led to what is now claimed to be the best relationship with China we have had. I think that is true, even as China remains a politically divisive issue here from economics to human rights. The Iraq war also led us to reducing our emphasis on North Korea’s nuclear weapon program. Instead of threatening North Korea and increasing tensions on the peninsula we kicked the NK nuclear can down the road, perhaps indefinitely, with the creation of Six Party talks, and avoided an even more dangerous split with South Korea over their sunshine or engagement strategy. I do not preclude that the Bush administration would have gone after Pyongyang’s nuclear facilities if Iraq had not been on their minds. So instead of tensions on the peninsula it has been until recently the most placid—illusory perhaps-- in my memory. That was a product for good or ill of the “sunshine policy” of Kim Dae- Jung.
The most fundamental issue, of course, is how we deal with China. Working out a relationship with China and with the Middle East are our most difficult foreign policy challenges. Whatever the uncertainties of China’s evolution, and governing China and just keeping the place together are no easy matters, we have to learn to live with a new big time player. Unlike the Soviet Union whose only world impact was its military power, China is a world player in almost all realms, affecting the daily life of many Americans and billons of others —from its impact on prices of oil and other commodities to the profitability of Walmart and the benefit of consumers everywhere.
Its China policy is one of the few good things I can say about Bush foreign policy. The administration has worked hard and effectively to improve relations, establish a better dialogue, and remarkably —Bush publicly himself with China’s prime minister standing next to him—dampened Taiwan’s capacity to roil relations in defiance of the President’s strongest political supporters. In its more lucid moments the administration recognizes that the US cannot control China or manage it. What we can do is get along with it, which does not mean catering to China’s obscenities, and we can influence China—the way it develops and fits in to the international system. China remains as always a divisive issue here politically—human rights concerns, major economic differences, policy quarrels—that can severely complicate relations and also needs tending
I certainly am not smart enough to know what China will do with its capacity over time to generate military power, and we constantly hear the historical refrain about “rising powers.: And there are others who believe China will implode and the communist party delivered to the trash heap. Whatever the soothsayers, China has made it abundantly clear it needs us, is deeply interested in getting along with us, and wants to focus on enormous domestic problems. It likes tranquility on its borders and by and large China has been a non interfering neighbor. It has also shown itself to be absent humanitarianism judging by its friends—Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, etc. Certainly you can depend upon some US hedging against China’s potential military power. But we have to be particularly watchful of those who want Japan to join us in alliance against China, and we must be wary of pseudo strategic buzzwords and such phrases, which remarkably I heard from an outstanding China specialist, that China is trying to drive us out of East Asia, a ridiculous assertion. It is salutary that Treasury Secretary Paulson appears to have taken over the China portfolio.
How the US responds to regionalism in East Asia will become an increasingly important issue. My eyes use to glaze over when discussions of regional organizations in East Asia came up, but as an American official I dutifully praised the glories of ASEAN. That attitude has changed with my travels to Asia over the last few years, and hearing the seriousness of purpose in much officialdom and business figures on region wide political and economic cooperation. In late 2004 Japanese officials, high and low, told Bosworth and me that an East Asian community was Japan’s highest priority, while in Washington we hardly heard a peep about it. Much of the impetus to a broader East Asian organizational effort came from the belief that the US had abandoned the region during the 1997 financial crisis and their hour of need.
The regionalization of East Asian economies is well underway driven by China’s success and its economic integration of the region. This is almost entirely the result of private activity, not governments. Private companies inside and outside the region have been constructing production networks in East Asia. Few products today are produced in just one country. This process is drawing East Asian economies together. Also tying the region together is the huge growth in people to people contacts. Tourism is booming and labor from all countries is moving around. I don’t think I am gilding the lily by saying there is the growth of an East Asian consciousness.
The creation of an Easy Asian community has a long way to go and many hurdles to overcome. There is no notion of an EU but what precisely is to be established remains to be defined. Sino-Japanese tensions very much get in the way. Feasible or not Japan and China have been arguing--rather quietly-- how to build East Asian political and economic integration. China wants any region wide organization made up of East Asians, that is on the basis of the ten countries of ASEAN plus Three—Japan, China, and South Korea. Japan fearing Chinese dominance wants to include India, Australia, and New Zealand and probably eventually the US. The nations of the region are divided. My own view is that a Pacific based organization will end up as a talk show much like APEC.
The US has not yet sorted itself out on this issue and there is probably no hurry. Some Americans are shocked by the notion \that this is a process for East Asians and the US does not need to be involved. But this is a trend that will continue. We can encourage it or try to sink it by insisting in our involvement in any new East Asian institutions. I do not think this trend is threatening. We want any new institutions in East Asia to be compatible with international norms and to remain open. That is likely to occur anyway because of East Asia’s stake in the US and the rest of the world.
Most frustrating and costly is dealing with the remnants of the Cold War: North Korea and Taiwan. Instead of concentrating on 21st century issues like globalization and intellectual resources, a small, decaying, horrible state has become again the focus of our East Asian diplomacy. Our defense posture and military deployments in the region remain still bound up with contingencies in both countries. As much as the East Asian outlook has changed, these flashpoints could shatter our optimism. The US centurion role here is critical and we must remain actively and deeply involved in managing both issues. I will focus more on North Korea now much on our minds.
The Korean peninsula has changed radically, largely because of the huge economic disparity between the two Koreas, which had led to South Korea’s great confidence in their dominant position, to the view that the North is mostly a charity case, and to the need above all to avoid returning to the tensions of the past that could lead to war. That in turn has reduced their dependence on the US and the power of the US word. President Kim Dae Jong sought to change North Korea, not destroy it, through a long period of engagement, and with large-scale aid, making the North dependent on the South—the so called “sunshine policy.” He generated the first North-South summit, which he paid a half billion dollars for, and won a Nobel Peace Prize. In a meeting he sought early in the administration, instead of hearing that Mr. Bush would continue Clinton’s policy of engagement, Kim effectively heard that North Korea was a bad state and his “sunshine” policy was naïve. A few of us happened to talk to Kim after that meeting and he was shell shocked.
That meeting began another deep split between the U.S. and South Korea, which has grown worse with the more active engagement effort of Kim’s successor, making it difficult to manage a concerted strategy toward North Korea and its nuclear weapons program—one party handing out goodies one part denying them. China has pursued its own engagement policy-- to turn the North into a mini market-oriented China--and until the nuclear test refused to support the pressures America preferred. Interestingly enough Chinese consumer goods including cell phones and radios have been flooding the North, slowly helping open that opaque society.
The problem for any engagement policy with North Korea is that it is a long term effort-- many will say a triumph of hope over reality-- and runs up against the short term issue of the nukes so important to the US and Japan. Moreover it is hard to see that South Korean largesse has been met with much North Korean engagement. We also do not know whether North Korea really wants to negotiate ending its nuclear weapons programs in exchange for specified benefits. And the Bush administration has not shown serious interest in getting rid of the North’s nukes by negotiations, whatever it says publicly. America and Japan have basically pursued an isolation policy. Over the past four years the North’s nuclear weapons program has grown.
We cannot say with certainty why North Korea tested a weapon against Beijing’s clear injunction. I believe the military and scientific establishment wanted to be sure they had a usable weapon to improve their deterrence against the US. Perhaps they also thought they could tolerate condemnation and some isolation, believing China and South Korea after a slap on the wrist would come around, not wanting NK go to hell, and continue to provide aid as in the past. It would certainly catch the attention of the Americans. But right now a seriously isolated NK will have to decide whether return to six-power negotiations, which they have boycotted for over a year and apparently without the Americans relaxing the financial sanctions that the North insisted on for its return
It now all seems to have come down to what China, now a centerpiece of our security policy in East Asia, does. Beijing is clearly mad as hell at Pyongyang for sticking its finger in their eye twice. The leadership is deeply embarrassed. They also feel NK is imperiling their relations with the US and Japan. Right now it appears that China has been limiting North Korean financial transactions and its oil supplies. Declaring that only negotiations can solve the problem, it will have persuade, pressure or bribe Pyongyang—maybe all three-- back to the table.
If China succeeds in getting NK back to six-party negotiations, the US will have to face whether it is prepared to seriously negotiate with North Korea. Neither China nor Russia will likely give the US another free ride on that score. Both countries have openly complained about the American negotiating position. For the first time the US will have to put down a serious negotiating proposal—setting forth the obligations of each party, the benefits each derive, the sequencing of their actions, and the verification. That will occasion a huge battle in our government, given the profound split on how to deal with North Korea. How it will end I am not sure. As for the North we do not know whether it wants to wait for another administration or is prepared to give up its weapons period. In the best of circumstances successful negotiations will be difficult to come by.
Clearly the best way to solve the nuclear issue is to get rid of this terrible state. My own view is that it is so brittle that sooner or later there will be an indeed an implosion. But you can’t base policy on such an uncertainty. And we have been wrong on this score in the past. Much damage can happen from inactivity. Short of force, which both South Korea and China would strenuously oppose, there is no sure way for getting rid of their nuclear threat. If serious negotiations fail because of the North, the US should be able to bring more concerted pressure from its friends on Pyongyang with what results it is hard to say. If negotiations resume without serious content, it likely looks that we will be left for the next few years with a more isolated NK with nuclear weapons, still being helped by China and South Korea, and the US and others adjusting to it and trying hard to guard against any transfer of nuclear materials. This situation will continue to roil the strategic thinking of the neighboring countries and possibly produce a crisis on the peninsula.
As for Taiwan I have always expected that the enormous integration of its economy with China would lead to some sort of political resolution of their dispute. It hasn’t. Maybe one day. Taiwan’s desire for international recognition is natural given its enormous success. But it is not going to happen. As China’s influence grows it is harder for Taiwan to find international space. China has great ability to punish countries that try to deal with Taiwan. China does not care what a country does internally as long as it does not play footsie with Taiwan. However China also wants no trouble in the Taiwan Strait. Spikes of tension are bad for its image and hurts investment. Still any Taiwan attempt to change its status will certainly provoke a huge outcry from Beijing. The likelihood of conflict is not great but it cannot be ruled out. So the US has and will continue to maintain a dual posture of restraining Taiwan from doing something stupid and deterring China. But Taiwan is a flourishing democracy and the US cannot simply wave a wand. As for China it is building its forces in the Taiwan area and while it can not yet challenge us it is making things more difficult. The issue requires constant attention and management.
Finally for our purpose today is the problem of helping the great powers of East Asia--China and Japan— manage their relations in ways that do not threaten the stability of the region. For all the attention paid to China, Japan remains the second largest economy in the world. It is recovering from a decade of stagnation. Japan has slowly but impressively increased its defense expenditures and has become the fourth biggest defense spender in the world. Prodded by the US to do more in defense beyond its own territory and become a so-called normal nation, its leaders have done much of that, They are now seeking to change how Japanese should think about themselves, their history, their place in the world, and the threat to their security. Japanese nationalism seems on the rise; indeed nationalism is rising in all of Asia, and can be cynically employed in democratic as well as authoritarian countries. Japanese leaders often assert there is no militarism problem with the defense changes being proposed because Japan is after all a strong democratic country, and there is much to be said for that. Nevertheless concern abounds in East Asia and in many quarters in Japan.
That concern has obviously risen with North Korea’s nuclear test. Japan has become more bellicose than even the US in dealing with the North. It has virtually abandoned trade and sometimes sounds as if it wants to nuke the North Koreans. Pyongyang’s nuclear test has raised the specter of Japan going nuclear quickly. We hear constantly from many US commentators about its inevitability and in some quarters its desirability. But Japan quickly rejected developing weapons; that is what you would expect them to say at this time. A North Korean capability to marry a nuclear weapon to a missile would badly shake up the Japanese. And in the longer run they have to think about China and South Korea. There are strong factors mitigating Japan becoming a nuclear weapons state, namely the Japanese public and the attitude of the US and all countries of East Asia. I think it reasonable at least to expect the nuclear debate in Japan to grow.
All this enters into the problem of Sino-Japanese hostility, which flared under PM Koizumi, and produced much hand wringing in the world. I frankly find it hard to figure out how this rivalry, which exists, will turn into real military hostilities. The fantastic level of economic integration of the two countries certainly mitigates against but does not preclude confrontation. There are disputes over islands that might produce saber rattling or a little violence. And nationalism in both countries can always rear its head. The impact of intensifying rivalry is mainly, I believe, on worsening the overall economic climate in the region, moving more resources to defense and perhaps nuclear weapons, and making region wide economic and political integration harder if not impossible. That problem would grow if the US forms an avowed anti-Chinese military alliance and Japan becomes associated with the defense of Taiwan. The US must be able to straddle maintaining a strong US-Japan alliance without giving offense to China. Japan has real difficulty accepting a powerful China and values the American embrace. But it also does not want to be entirely in the arms of the Americans.
Nationalism is stirred by the legacy of history, which has been a big part of Japan’s problem in East Asia. Japan’s expressions of regret for the second war come grudgingly. Leaders are attuned to their domestic constituency, not to the feelings of foreigners. The visit of Japan’s leaders to the Yasukuni shrine are particularly provocative to the rest of East Asia and cost the Japanese dearly in regional influence, despite the billion of aid dollars Japan has provided East Asian countries, regional influence we would like to see grow. On taking office last month, Prime Minister Abe, moving deftly to reverse the decline in Japan’s relations with China and Korea, met with the leaders of both countries, meetings that had been denied to Koizumi. That was a promising first step and welcomed by the Japanese public. But it does not end the Yasukuni shrine issue, which despite China’s cynical use of it, has damaged Japanese foreign policy, however popular in nationalist quarters. If Mr. Abe resumes visits to Yasukuni, relations with China will really go down the tube. Although he made no commitment his sincerity is at stake. The US has, I believe, been unduly quiet on the Yasukuni issue and should have said something to Koizumi a long time ago. With his departure I still think it is advisable to find an appropriate way to make clear to Abe American interest in having this issue put to rest and Japan to find an adequate substitute for commemorating its war dead.
The center of gravity of the world economy is shifting to Asia. We have big issues to manage in a complex frame work. We have to think differently about the region and reconsider carefully our role there. We have enormous interest and an important role, but Asians will be in greater charge of their destinies.
Lastly, I have been asked to say a few words about the relationship between the executive branch and the academic world and the use of its expertise. So let me close with some thoughts on that changeable issue.
I am not going to discuss the periodic infusion, high and low, of academics into government and I am not talking about scientists, engineers, etc. That infusion has been a frequent Harvard occurrence and I think by and large has significantly improved the foreign affairs agencies and government policies. Occasionally I have seen a misfit or a real mistake, but I believe the phenomenon has been symbiotic. The government tends to be sclerotic and it always needs challenge. The experience probably produces more rounded scholarship. I will confine myself to the use of academic expertise on foreign policy outside of government, mainly area specialists, and make a number of assertions, which I cannot document.
First, I think the rise of the think tanks has dimished the connection of government with the academic world. They have proliferated enormously, their experts, go in and out of governement, and they dominate the oped pages. Senior level bureaucrats and many less august spend much time with them and they gossip incestously. Moreover think tanks are a pillar of the mainstream media. They help shape public discussion. Of course many think tankers are former academics but the emphasis is no longer on more exhaustive research but on immediate policy needs. They are policy junkies with a greater latitude to speak. Their budgets have sprouted.
CIA and the Pentagon are the main foreign affairs agencies which try to relate seriously to parts of the scholarly world through contracted research, consultations, and conferences. As I have witnessed it, not very extensively, the range of scholars contacted is not great. They look for a limited number they can call on regular basis, not an unrealistic way to proceed. Other agencies are not greatly interested and think there is little to be gained in spending time with experts. Understanding is not a prized objective as you can see from the current administration In fact outside experts are often called in less to get a message to policy makers than as a public relations exercise to demonstrate an administration is reaching out and able to listen. Or the purpose is to spread the word and get some understanding or applause for what is being done.
I have found with certain exceptions like George Shultz, an academic himself who had his favorites like Bernard Lewis, that Democrats have show more interest than Republicans in genuinely hearing outside expert views, perhaps because they do not see them as enemies, perhaps because they are more interested in looking intellectual. I notice that now President Bush, who shows little curiosity, is meeting more frequently with outsiders, but they seem mostly sympathetic critics like Bob Kaplan, Fuad Adjami, and Eliot Cohen. A certain scorn pervades the bureaucracy that many academic experts do not know what a policy problem is. Occasionally a senior bureaucrat hoping to change his boss’s mind will try to bring in outsiders. To be fair I am increasingly out of touch with the USG.
In two of my incarnations I have had research budgets of about half a million or more. That is not much to spread around. I felt that if our spending produced a five percent utility rate that was pretty good. I tended to use the think tanks, particularly RAND, because I found a high degree of knowledge, familiarity with government needs, and inventiveness even if they were usually cautious in their criticism. It was also easier to bring them up to date on what was concerning us since many of them had security clearances. If you want to maximize the chance of getting a good result from outside research one had to spend time with the outsider. Most senior level types are unwilling to do that.
I think the limited call for academic expertise is even further diminishing for East Asia, except in economics. That is because there is now so much greater involvment of Americans with China and the rest of East Asia that the numbers of people with insight and knowledge and on the ground experience have mushroomed. So, more and more non-academics are found in meetings and congressional testimony. I guess the burden of this message is to stick to your knitting and put whatever you have to say about policy to the Times or Post or Ariana Huffington’s blog. My comments do not apply to the Hill, where I believe academic views are of greater interest. Such are the quick reflections of an ex-bureaucrat, an ex-think tanker, but a continuing cynic.