BEIJING — Until January, Kenneth Lieberthal dealt with China from the vantage of the White House. As special assistant to former President Clinton, and senior director for Asia at the National Security Council, Dr. Lieberthal shaped policy and doused fires in US-China relations. He was dispatched by Mr. Clinton to Beijing in 1999 when Chinese leaders considered a military option with Taiwan. He was a chief implementer of the Clinton administration's policy of "strategic partnership" with China. Lieberthal, in Beijing for a conference, shared his views over the ongoing downed-aircraft episode with the Monitor.
Tensions between the US and China have escalated quickly.
Each side must recognize it is better to put this behind us with minimum damage, and not allow it to develop in a way that will be a significant disruptive issue. In a few days, the US public is going to start viewing the crew as hostages. Public opinion on both sides may start to mobilize. It starts linking to other issues, and becomes a source to be used by those on both sides who want to create trouble in the relationship.
You feel both sides have made mistakes.
Both sides took steps that left considerable flexibility; then both made mistakes.
I think President Bush's personal, public comment criticizing China ... greatly increased the pressure on Chinese President Jiang [Zemin] to show he could be equally tough. President Bush's comment was made well before the deadline the Chinese had for providing access to the crew.... We should want the Chinese to provide access as soon as humanly possible. But if they delay, they are still within their rights. We handled this in a way that nearly required President Jiang to take a tougher line.
What about the Chinese?
They portrayed this ... as a morality play with no shades of gray.... This new posture by China certainly gives Jiang Zemin greater control of the situation within China, by showing he is tough. But at the same time, he has set conditions that will be hard to meet.
I do not believe from what I know that the US is 100 percent responsible. I would be surprised if we accepted 100 percent responsibility for something that may have been ... a Chinese pilot's error. Without an investigation, you simply don't know....
That applies equally to Jiang Zemin, he doesn't know either. But he has declared a conclusion.... The Chinese have not told their own people that the US offered to assist in the search for the Chinese pilot. That the American ambassador expressed his concern for the fate of the Chinese pilot. Or that the landing of the American plane on Chinese territory was because the plane was so damaged it was not airworthy to get back to US base facilities. The average Chinese could get the impression that the US really doesn't care about the loss suffered by the Chinese side in this.
What should be done now?
Intensive private diplomacy. Both sides need agreement on two things. First, the bottom line - when does the US get the plane back, when is the crew released? What statements need to be made for getting this resolved? These are not things you can negotiate publicly....
Second, there must be agreement on what each side needs to do domestically in order to manage the issue. You have to work out both the substance and the packaging .... All of this assumes that each side wishes to limit the damage.
What's your characterization of the US role in the US-China relationship?
We have an interest in China joining the international community as a country that plays by the rules, accepts the rules, contributes wealth, and takes care of the roughly 20 percent of the world's people who live within its borders. That means a country where knowledge of weapons of mass destruction and means of delivery does not become a source of knowledge for rogue states and terrorist groups. We have a stake in helping China move in those directions. It is hard to have effective influence on those issues when you have a state of fundamental confrontation. China is not Luxembourg.
Are there more hawks in the current White House than there were in the previous administration?
This administration does contain a number of people at a policy level who have stressed in the past their view that America has dealt with China too leniently, too softly, and with too much trust. I think their view is wrong. If they don't handle China in a mature fashion, they will find they end up with a whole lot of trouble they didn't need, and with a lot fewer accomplishments than they expected.
Do China's recent actions confirm the opinion of the group that perceives China as a threat?
No matter what China does, it can be played as a threat.... At any given time, there is bad news coming out of here, and there is also good news coming out. People with different policy preferences pick the news they want to highlight, and run with it.
Regarding the potential sale of the Aegis radar system to Taiwan - why did you hold off?
We decided ... on the basis of our best judgment of what Taiwan needed and could use militarily; and also a recognition that Taiwan's security has a diplomatic as well as military component. During the course of the two Clinton administrations, we agreed to the sale of roughly $20 billion in military assistance to Taiwan. That is more than any country in the world, with the exception of Saudi Arabia. So the comment one sometimes hears from the new administration about the previous administration, that we neglected Taiwan's military needs, is simply absurd.
Our judgment was that the Aegis system was not necessary, it would not be available for many years anyway, it was not clear whether Taiwan's military could absorb it, and it would be diplomatically a setback. It would significantly raise tensions across the strait. So we did not reach a decision to forever deny the Aegis system, but a decision that last year there were things that made more sense to purchase.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor