Sunday, June 14, 2009

Betrayed by Wisemen

To commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, Washington think tanks and Congress had a full week of programing and choreographed protests. The Carnegie Endownment for International Peace held a special luncheon program, Twenty Years After Tiananmen, that put the historic day in perspective. It was not the usual sentimental mourning of China's democracy movement, instead it praised the Bush Administration's success at maintaining the US relationship with Beijing.

Besides featuring an excellent buffet with seared tuna, chicken satay, and a very nice green bean and potato salad, there was TV commentator Ted Koppel "interviewing" foreign policy wiseman Brent Scrowcroft. A second part to the program was a discussion with lesser lights, but few stayed for that. The food was gone.

Skip the Carnegie summary of the event. It misses General Scowcroft's message. Instead, go either to the transcript or the video. There he describes President George H W Bush's adamant desire to maintain the US-China relationship, at all costs.

Koppel prodded Scowcroft to repeat to the crowded room what he had written in his book with Bush, A World Transformed. This was that the President had sent Scowcroft on a secret mission* less than two weeks after the Massacre to reassure Beijing that the fundamental US-China relationship was strong and would be maintained. President Bush believed strongly that the lines of communications needed to be retained.

Fundamentally, the Bush I Administration supported the Chinese government and clearly signaled to Beijing that there would be few repercussions for its harsh suppression of its citizens' rights. Protests condemning the Chinese suppression and massacre were mere background noise to the importance China to the US.

At the time, there was little to bind the two countries. The US had minimal financial or trade ties with China. The disintegration of the USSR decreased Washington's need for a Chinese security counterbalance to Moscow. There was little that China could do to threaten back and much that they wanted from the West.
This situation gave the US choice: support the protestors in China or support Beijing's efforts to restore order. Either way, it was an opportunity to affect Chinese behavior. But, it was an opportunity considered too risky, or maybe one the White House did not really believe possible.

No matter, the result is that Beijing learned early there was little risk for bad behavior. China was reassured of US support and that repercussions would be light. Moreover, with ties with the West still so limited, few of sanctions would matter.

Essentially, the human rights advocates never had a chance.

Or in his own words:

LT. GEN. SCOWCROFT:….I think one of the ways we need to think of the Tiananmen episode is one that is not talked about very much. And that is, it was a pretty fundamental watershed in not only the relationship, but in the evolution of China – because in the days before Tiananmen, Nixon had established a relationship, and it was a good relationship and very profitable for both sides. But it was very narrow. It dealt with Soviet hegemony – things like that – nothing else. We had no trade. We didn’t have any of the other things that go in international relations. Suddenly, that was broken.
The end of the Cold War meant that we had nothing to talk about, basically. And, at the same time, sort of, our ability to talk was destroyed at Tiananmen Square – or that was the danger. So when it happened, there were two things. First of all, we had to respond. We couldn’t just ignore what had happened there, so we had to take action. We took the action basically against the Chinese army – against the relationship we had with the Chinese army – which was pretty good at that time.
….But the president was adamant: This relationship is too important to sacrifice. So we tried to reach out, and I won’t go through all of that. Anyway, at the end we met, and we managed to rescue the dialogue part of the relationship.
….Well, we started out with a whole list of possible sanctions – from the State Department, Defense Department, so on – a whole big list of what we could do. The President was clearly ill at ease with it. He knew we had to do something – but foremost in his mind was the importance of this relationship.
….And he picked the sanctions that he thought would do the least harm to the psychological relationship. And then he immediately said: Now, what can we do to offset this?

[Scowcroft was then sent on a secret mission to see Deng Xiaoping less than two weeks after the massacre.]

MR. KOPPEL: And you guys are already trying to smooth things over.
LT. GEN. SCOWCROFT: And we’re already trying to smooth things over, and that was a big issue: Well, now, you know, we want to smooth things over, but Congress was in an uproar.
Everybody was in an uproar.
MR. KOPPEL: Right.
LT. GEN. SCOWCROFT: How does it look to send an emissary, as if you’re, you know, kowtowing [vague in the transcript but the word I heard]. So we said: Well, let’s do it in secret. So I got on a transport airplane – a military aircraft. Had aerial refueling over there. They parked the aircraft behind the terminal building in Beijing, so nobody saw it, and we went over and back completely clandestinely.
MR. KOPPEL: And you met with Deng?
MR. KOPPEL: Can you tell us a little about that conversation?
LT. GEN. SCOWCROFT: Yes. He met me warmly and said: You know, I have really relinquished my official position. I’m meeting with you as an old friend. And so we went in and we sat down. And after the pleasantries he said: Well, it’s wonderful to see you, but I don’t know why you’re here. He said: What we’ve done is our own business. It has nothing to do with you or anybody else. And why are you here interfering in our business? And so I said: Well, you’re absolutely right. What you did is completely your own business. But the consequences of what you did have great effect on the United States and U.S. policy, and that’s why I’m here. So we went through this. And, in the end, it became clear to both sides – we didn’t do a lot of business then. Both sides know: We want to retain that ability to communicate.
MR. KOPPEL: So the main thrust of this meeting – and this is – have you written about this? Forgive me, I should have –
LT. GEN. SCOWCROFT: Part of that is in the book President Bush and I wrote.
MR. KOPPEL: Essentially, your concern, quite literally, less than two weeks after the events of Tiananmen, and the concern of the Chinese government, is: We can’t let this relationship suffer.
LT. GEN. SCOWCROFT: Absolutely – yes.

For the transcripts and video: HERE.

*So secret, he claimed, that the flight to China had to be refueled in flight.

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