American Policy Toward China: Will Changes be Necessary?

Donald P. Gregg (Ambassador to Korea, 1989-1993)


Northern Asia is headed into a period of great political fluidity. By early 2013, there will be new leadership in China, South Korea and perhaps in the United States and Japan as well. In North Korea, a young new leader has emerged who appears to be taking his country in new and promising directions, a development that bodes well for improved inter-Korean relations after the new president takes office in South Korea. By contrast, in Japan, there seems to be a fractious scramble for leadership taking place, among dangerous signs of emerging jingoism. Tensions between China and Japan are rising over the Senkaku Islands, and Japan and South Korea have a seemingly intractable dispute over a tiny island lying between their countries in what Tokyo calls the Sea of Japan, and Korea calls the East Sea.

Already under way is a re-emphasis of US interests in the Asia-Pacific region as our military commitments/entanglements in the Middle East slowly diminish. Some re-positioning of US forces from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region will accompany this “rebalancing” process. The Chinese are already showing signs of hostile suspicion toward this process, concerned that it may reflect an American decision to try to either confront or contain China.

China’s economic growth is strong but slowing, as it contends with economic, demographic and ecological issues, along with the steady growth of the Chinese people’s willingness to openly criticize its government, particularly at local and regional levels. Endogenous corruption is a growing problem for China, and will be a major issue facing the new leader, Xi Jinping.

Underlying all these issues remains the basic positive fact of economic interdependence. China needs markets for its goods in the United States, Japan and South Korea. An American businessman who gives generously to many charities very recently attended a conference organized by Chinese philanthropists in the city of Fuzhou. One Chinese who had given $2 billion dollars to charities in this city said that his factories were now operating at less than 50 percent of capacity and were absolutely dependent on recovery of the US market in order to move back to fuller production.

I have been watching the impact of American diplomacy on the Asia-Pacific region since 1952. We have scored major successes in Japan and South Korea, helping both war-shattered countries to re-emerge as stable democracies and major American allies. And the Nixon-Kissinger decision to open relations with China in 1972 stands out in my mind as the single most significant diplomatic move made by the US since the end of World War II.

Mike Mansfield, who ably served as our ambassador in Tokyo from 1977 to 1988, used to say that the US-Japan relationship was the most important one in the world. That is no longer the case. I believe that maintaining a productive, stable relationship with China is now America’s most important diplomatic challenge.

China may never be our ally, but it must never become our enemy. This will call for flexible, sophisticated and forceful diplomacy, carried out by outstanding, linguistically qualified ambassadors holding solid relationships with the president and those around him. President Obama’s choices of Jon Huntsman, Jr. and Gary Locke fully meet those criteria.

Our relations with China have never been easy, and probably never will be. I was with Vice President George H. W. Bush in Beijing in May 1982 when he strongly defended our continuing support of Taiwan, and reached a long-lasting agreement with Deng Xiaoping that established stability in our relationship with Beijing. Bush had served in Beijing as head of our Liaison Office before diplomatic relations had been established, and was well known and respected by the Chinese.

I was a close friend of the late Jim Lilley who did a magnificent job as our ambassador to China at the time of the Tiananmen crisis in 1989, getting all of our citizens safely out of China, while maintaining the diplomatic foundations upon which our relationship with China could be re-built. Lilley was born in China and was fluent in Chinese.

I believe that we can find issues and areas where we can work cooperatively with Beijing. One such area is North Korea. The Chinese are not at all happy with Pyongyang’s emergence as a nuclear power, and they have been even more concerned about either political implosion or explosion in North Korea that could lead to dangerous instability on the Korean peninsula. The recent hardening of North Korea’s position on the conditions for the surrender of its alleged nuclear weapons also is a disconcerting development. The establishment of long-term dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington designed to end North Korea’s drive toward nuclear weapons and to help strengthen its economy would be something China could support. North Korea’s emergence as a more normal country would contribute directly to greater economic development throughout the Northeast Asian region, something clearly in the interest of both China and the United States.