For the October 2008 edition of Newsweek Select.
China’s Bush Years
The US Ambassador to the PRC recalls the administration’s challenges and triumphs
Only one sitting US president has ever attended an Olympic Games’ opening ceremonies (clue: it was Beijing’s), and only one US president has visited China more than once during their time in office. As the US looks back at 30 years of diplomatic relations with China in January, so too does it look back at George Bush’s presidency.
For most of the Bush years, US Ambassador to China Clark T. Randt was there to help navigate the challenges involved in the relationship between the two nations. As fraternity brothers at Yale, Bush and Randt have enjoyed an especially intimate cooperation– including personal phone calls. Taking his post in 2001, Randt has become the longest-serving Ambassador to China.
Early on, crisis negotiation–and diplomacy– proved key. The Bush administration’s first aviation disaster wasn’t 9-11 but rather an incident off the Chinese island of Hainan, where, after a brief skirmish, a Chinese fighter jet was destroyed and an American EP-3, allegedly spying on a military base, was forced to make an emergency landing; the administration issued a “letter of two sorries” to repair cuts that had reopened wounds caused by the Clinton-era NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
Still smarting from the Hainan incident, some Chinese adopted self-righteousness in the wake of Sept. 11, but the government extended its condolences. Months later it also worked with the US to defuse tensions between India and Pakistan, which had deteriorated into a nuclear standoff. US-Chinese cooperation was landmark for the countries’ relations.
Although China did not always approve of the US’s defense strategies in the Bush years — the war in Iraq and the labeling of the axis of evil, among them–both countries saw the need to cooperate. From this shared sense of responsibility–and a mutual desire to boost profits– the Strategic Economic Dialogue was born. Most recently, the US and China have also found consensus on the issue of Iran sanctions and the exception for India to the non-proliferation treaty.
Food and product safety scares, trade deficits and disputes, disagreement on currency value and human rights violations have remained issues for American critics of the Bush administration, but Chinese scholars have roundly given the 43rd president of the United States decent marks for his cultural deference, tough talk on Taiwan and mostly hands-off approach to markets. Here, Randt speaks about Bush’s China legacy. As told to NEWSWEEK SELECT’S Megan Shank.
If one takes a long view, the relationship (between the US and China) has improved dramatically. I first visited China in 1974. I would try to approach people on the street and practice Chinese, and their eyes would widen; they’d turn and run from me. It used to be dangerous for Chinese to talk to foreigners. Chinese citizens were concerned about one another; they had weekly sessions to report on one another.
I’ve been here for most of President Bush’s term. I arrived to my post in Beijing in July 2001, after the EP-3 incident landed in President Bush and Jiang Zemin’s laps. Five days after my arrival, Secretary Powell came. Considering the potential for difficulty, I think it worked out very well. We’ve been moving in a positive direction ever since.
I attribute that to several things, among them President Bush’s personal attention to and interest in China. I think it’s noteworthy to mention that before President Bush, no sitting US president had come to China more than once during their terms; and some of them also had eight-year terms. President Bush has come four times; he’s also met with Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao in the US. Just this year, Bush will have 19 to 20 face-to-face meetings with these Chinese leaders because they’re also meeting in multilateral conferences, for instance, the G8. Moreover, Bush and Hu have frequent telephone calls and exchanges of letters; there’s really a very robust, candid and straightforward communication–the president understands that with high-level political relationships, it’s personal.
I can assure you that from Bush’s inauguration onward there has been a deep commitment on his part to work on a candid and constructive relationship with China; he made this mission clear to me in the instructions he gave to me on my first day on the job. The depth and breadth of the US-China relationship has expanded dramatically. You can’t think of a US government agency that doesn’t have some sort of relationship or exchange with China. Last year, there were over 355 visits from officials at the deputy assistant secretary level on up. I can’t imagine any embassy getting more attention.
In working with the Chinese, they frequently tell me that the core issue in our bilateral relationship is Taiwan. In any sort of high-level bilateral meeting, it’s a staple. Clearly, we understand it’s a very sensitive issue. And I think no sitting president has been more consistent or firmer in our one-China policy than Bush. He had no secret agenda; he told them in a very straightforward way what was on his mind.
Also, I think his coming to the Olympics, which he understood was a big sporting event and of utmost importance to China, showed great respect to the Chinese people. Despite a fair amount of domestic and international criticism, he came. I think that’s proved to be a good thing for our relationship.
Of course, we still have trade disputes with China and a big deficit, but I think we should point to our Strategic Economic Dialogue, which Bush initiated and appointed Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson to lead. It’s held twice a year — once in China, once in US. In Washington, President Bush personally participates and meets with the delegation members, as does President Hu when it’s held in China. It’s really unprecedented to have the presidents that directly involved in the economic dialogue. The context given to given to our relationship by the strategic economic trade really had a stabilizing effect on our trade relationship. But, as people say, if you don’t have any trade disputes, you don’t have any trade. With more than $360 billion in two-way trade last year, of course there are going to be disputes. We’ve cooperated to resolve the issues and are trying to go forward to smooth the way for increased trade. We firmly believe trade, as long as it’s fair trade, is beneficial to people of both countries.
Bush placed a great deal of emphasis on human rights and religious freedoms. In every face-to-face meeting I attended with the Chinese leaders, he would raise that issue. We’re very proud of the fact that during our first two years, the administration, with the help of Congress and NGOs, had more prisoners of concern released than our predecessor did in eight years. We had a hiatus recently, but now the human rights dialogue with the Chinese is back on track. While there’s still difficulty in registering religion–some church groups still have difficulty — the registered churches, both Catholic and Protestant, are enjoying rapid growth. When I first visited in 1974, the cathedrals and churches were all boarded up and used as storage. We believe China should make changes not as a favor for us, but because we think it’s genuinely good for them –that China will be a greater and even better nation.
If we thought we could do something better than what we’re doing now (in regards to diplomacy), we would probably change it now. We think we’re doing pretty well, and the next administration should continue what we’re doing. In fact, I think the basic diplomatic policy has been the same for seven administrations. My sense is the Chinese leaders are not too worried that the fundamental policy would change with a new president.
The Strategic Economic Dialogue will continue, as will military exchanges where we’ve had a huge growth. The nature of those exchanges and the quality is much better now — from visiting US commanders visits to China to PLA leader visits to Washington. We’ve had Secretary of Defense Robert Gates here in Beijing, and Admiral Michael Mullen, now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But we’ve also tried to institute an exchange among non-commissioned officers and junior officers and defense universities. Recently, in search of more transparency and mutual understanding on sensitive but important topics, we started a successful session of strategic nuclear dialogue. Our militaries have also discussed how we can work together in disaster relief effort and tsunamis.
That China wants a modern military is hardly surprising. But it’s for what purpose? If it’s a stabilizing influence and can cooperate with us to provide a peaceful stable environment, that’s a good thing. If they have other ideas, we’d be interested. We think the more we talk to them and visit and understand the different programs, why they have this or that, the more comfortable we’ll be with one another.
Also, in communications we’ve made progress. After the EP-3 incident, we couldn’t get anyone to answer the phone in China. Now we have a hotline. After the EP-3 incident, we had several years where we didn’t have any military exchanges, zero. For the past two years, however, our programs have doubled every year. I should note too, when I arrived at the US embassy, its offices and agencies had roughly 500 people. When we move into our new offices shortly, we’ll have 1,100. There were 12 or 13 agencies in 2001; now there are approximately 26. The FDA never had an office overseas before; now they are going to have eight people in China.
One of the great stories in our relationship has been that, the thought that we would one day be cooperating with China to work constructively on a hot spot or a situation in a third country wouldn’t have occurred to us. First in South Asia, China played a very constructive role when India and Pakistan were looking at each other in very disturbing fashions back in 2001 and 2002. These are two nuclear-armed states, so it was a very dangerous situation. Of course, China also famously assisted in the six-party talks in Iran, voted for the three sanctions resolution on Iran, and just recently cooperated with us as part of the nuclear suppliers group to have an exception to the non-proliferation treaty, which brings India into the regime.
This January will mark the 30th year of US-Sino relations. As Qian Qichen (former Chinese foreign minister) once said, “Sometimes our relationship is good, sometimes our relationship is bad.” We’ve had our ups and downs, but now we’ll look at what lessons are there for the future, for the next 30 years.