Ross Terrill: How Not to Gain China's Respect

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[Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of The New Chinese Empire and several books published in Chinese in the PRC.]

The excellent obituaries for Alexander Haig showed his many facets—four-star general, crisis manager at the White House, national security deputy to Henry Kissinger, commander of NATO, charming though prickly secretary of state—but left out his revealing collision with Beijing’s “bite your friend” syndrome in 1981-82. This syndrome, which predated Haig, lives on to threaten President Obama.

Beijing often tries to instill in any “friend of China” a feeling of obligation to do even more for the People’s Republic. Show yourself susceptible to the Middle Kingdom, and smiles lead to demands. Call it bite-your-friend. Someone known to be wary of China, by contrast, does better, as Beijing must snap to reality for the encounter.

Serving as President Carter’s national security adviser in the late 1970s, Zbigniew Brzezinski tilted dramatically toward China to draw it into an anti-Soviet phalanx. Responding, the Chinese asked more and more of Carter—and mostly got it.

As President Reagan’s secretary of state, Haig in 1981 touted China’s global strategic importance and offered to suspend Washington’s prohibition on arms sales to the PRC. China quickly demanded Hawk missiles, Mark 48 anti-submarine torpedoes, and armored personnel carriers. Haig, excited about his Oriental initiative, hoped to swap arms to Beijing for China’s acceptance of Washington’s sale of the F-X fighter plane to Taiwan, to which Reagan was committed. Haig miscalculated.

China not only angrily objected to the F-X for Taiwan, but demanded of Haig a firm date for ending all arms sales to Taiwan. Haig faced two problems. Reagan decided his secretary of state had gone too far toward accommodating Beijing. And the Chinese, noting Haig’s gesture, pushed for the extra mile.

Haig persisted. When John Holdridge, assistant secretary for East Asia, told Haig it would be difficult to get the Pentagon to agree to sell missiles and armored personnel carriers to Beijing, Haig shouted at him: “Get it through your thick head. We’re going to sell arms to China in September [1981], so we can sell arms to Taiwan in January!” Haig soon resigned, largely over this mess—and China lost a friend.

In June 1982, Haig was replaced by George Shultz, who had a less expansive view of China’s capacity to balance Moscow than Haig (or Kissinger) and felt China needed the United States more than the United States needed China. Shultz spoke of China’s important “regional role” but reserved the term “strategic” for Washington’s relationship with Japan.

It must have stunned Haig that Reagan and Shultz sharply improved relations with China. Wrote James Mann in his 1999 book About Face, “Surprisingly, between 1983 and 1988, the Reagan administration forged a closer, more extensive working relationship with China’s Communist regime than the two governments had before or have had since.”...
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