How US fears over the Russian threat led to the rise of China
Robert Boxwell wonders whether US interests may have been better served if the ‘normalisation’ team had had a less sanguine view of ties and trade with China
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who died on May 26, was the man who, as US national security adviser under president Jimmy Carter, drove the final laps in 1978 of the “normalisation” of diplomatic relations with China. The process began seven years earlier, when Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, gave his American travelling companions the slip during a Pakistan trip and flew secretly to Beijing to meet premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來). It was an accident of history that the two men most influential in advising the presidents who would make the decision to, as Nixon and Kissinger put it, “sell Taiwan down the river” and throw in with Beijing, were immigrants from second world war Europe – Brzezinski from Poland; Kissinger from Germany – who carried the baggage of a repugnance of the Soviet Union into their influential positions. Four decades later, it’s clear that China benefitted tremendously from a belief by the two that Beijing was less of a danger to the West than was Moscow.
China’s growth into an economic and technical power rivalling US supremacy in the Pacific was an unintended consequence of what Nixon and Kissinger began in efforts to bring the Vietnam war to an end and counterbalance the Soviet nuclear threat, which they saw as the critical issues of their time. But by the time Brzezinski and Carter finally completed normalisation in December 1978, Vietnam was in America’s rear-view mirror and the Soviet nuclear threat was being brought under control.
The danger that China would grow strong from trade with the US – and other advanced countries – was debated widely before normalisation. The debate was a broad one, addressing, as a technology assessment report commissioned by Congress noted in 1979, the “costs and benefits of the United States’ selling technology to and expanding its commercial relations with the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the People’s Republic of China”.
One side argued that such technology transfer was necessary and would contribute to “a lasting structure of peace”. In any event, the argument continued, “corporate interest should be more than adequate to protect the US from suffering substantial economic losses through trade in technology; it is, after all, in the interest of every corporation to protect its position of technical leadership”.
The other side’s argument was not so optimistic: through trade, “the West is being slowly bled of its most important assets by nations it has every reason to distrust ... The only safe course is to deny assistance to our adversaries wherever possible, using trade only as necessary to extract political concessions.” The irony of the mention of an economically strong country “using trade to extract political concessions” is hard to miss in the current environment around the Asia-Pacific.
Clearly, Carter and Brzezinski adhered to the hopeful first argument, not the cynical second one. It’s hard not to look back on their decision to open the US to trade with China and ease export restrictions on advanced technology, and think American interests may have been better served by a less sanguine view of US-China relations.
Their victory proved controversial at home, and was perhaps not too cemented to prevent reversal by a determined Republican Party, whose candidate, Ronald Reagan, was running in part on a promise to do just that. One can’t help but wonder what kind of political uproar might have ensued in 1980 had Brzezinski’s conversations, published years later by the US State Department, been leaked at the time.
In the summer of 1980, Brzezinski met with China’s US ambassador, Chai Zemin, to discuss an upcoming visit to Asia by Republican vice-presidential candidate George Bush. Reagan, a staunch anti-communist, had vowed to undo normalisation if elected. The Republican Party’s platform on the issue began with, “We deplore the Carter administration’s treatment of Taiwan, our long-term ally and friend.”
Brzezinski, who read the platform’s Taiwan language aloud to Chai, sought Beijing’s help. “A visit to China by Mr Bush is … clearly part of the presidential campaign,” he said, “and how it is handled will in some manner influence that campaign. From Bush and Reagan’s standpoint, the ideal outcome would be that Bush go to Beijing, be received by the top officials and be able to do so on the basis of the Republican platform ... He might even include a visit to Taiwan in the process. Then they would be able to say that the Republicans have stated publicly their criticism of President Carter’s normalisation of relations with China, that they have stated publicly a different approach toward Taiwan, and yet they have been cordially received at the highest level in China. That kind of political manoeuvre might not be constructive for our relations”. Four days later, they met again and Chai assured Brzezinski that China “would make certain not to let a visit by Mr Bush convey the impression that Beijing would be prepared to continue US-[China] ties on the basis of the Republican Party platform”and “would take care so as not to allow the Republicans to reap any inappropriate propaganda value from contacts with [China] in Washington or Beijing”.
Brzezinski “thanked the ambassador for being so informative and forthcoming” and said he had mixed feelings in dealing with this subject: “one patriotic and the other partisan”. There’s no indication in the State Department archives that Brzezinski told Chai the US doesn’t do “propaganda”.
If the nature of these conversations makes you think of Trump and Russia, you’re not alone. Brzezinski reaching out to Chai is a philosophical cousin to the uproar Trump’s people are facing over their contacts with Russians before last year’s elections. Except in one key detail: Carter lost.
Whether Carter and Brzezinski could have negotiated a “normalisation” that obviated the growing strategic challenge of Beijing decades later is debatable. Even if they had, it’s naïve to think that American CEOs, with their financial goals, would have gone along once the door was opened and placed their own interests behind the political and strategic interests of the country. It’s not how capitalism, at least the American variety, is supposed to work, though, ironically, China’s “capitalism” seems to keep national strategic interests in mind quite well.
So, here we are, with President Donald Trump, elected on a platform that included getting tough with China – regarding the South China Sea, North Korea and trade, to name a few issues – facing a complex challenge made all the more difficult by his predecessors’ apparent belief that Moscow was a bigger threat to US interests than Beijing.
That may have been true – it may still be true – but they haven’t left him an easy task.
Robert Boxwell is director of the consultancy Opera Advisors