Former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown on the US-China Relationship – Part 1 of an Exclusive Interview
Harold Brown was the 14th US Secretary of Defense (1977-1981) during the Carter administration, and the author of Star Spangled Security: Applying Lessons Learned over Six Decades Safeguarding America. He also served in the Johnson administration as Director of Defense Research and Engineering (1961-1965) and Secretary of the Air Force (1965-1969). In 1980, Secretary Brown became the first American Secretary of Defense to visit the People’s Republic of China.
Lei Guang, Director of the 21st Century China Program; Jude Blanchette, Assistant Director of the 21st Century China Program; and Jack Zhang, Senior Advisor of China Focus, sat down with Secretary Brown for an exclusive, wide-ranging interview about his thoughts on China and the US-China relationship, from its early days to the present time. This is part one of a three-part interview.
In your book Star Spangled Security you wrote that “…In many Secretaries of Defense, there is a Secretary of State striving to break out.” I am curious how important was the Department of Defense to the foreign policy deliberations that led to the normalization of relations with China?
from a strategic perspective, the right way for the number one power to improve its position vis-à-vis the number two power was to enter into an arrangement of convenience – not necessarily an alliance – with the number three power.
The Defense Department was not the initiator of the China policy, but it worked within the administration to ensure that the China policy was in keeping with our broader strategic vision. As far back as 1967 or 1968, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze had made the point that, from a strategic perspective, the right way for the number one power to improve its position vis-à-vis the number two power was to enter into an arrangement of convenience – not necessarily an alliance – with the number three power. Clearly, the United States was number one, the former Soviet Union was second, and China was third.
Nothing came of that thought immediately because at the time there was still belief in the US that China and the Soviets were allied. Clearly China was supporting North Vietnam at the time. But after the Vietnam War wound down, President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger clearly had the same thought about an opening with China. In 1978, the Carter administration thought seriously about how to further the relationship with China. By that time, Leonard Woodcock had succeeded George H. W. Bush and Tom Gates in Beijing as the US official representative.
The question before the Carter administration was: should we go further and normalize our relations with the PRC? Any move in the direction of normalization clearly required changing our relationship with Taiwan. All that deliberation was carried on in the State Department and in the White House. Negotiations between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski carried that burden, and then I was brought into it at a later stage. It was very important that the defense department be brought in, especially because of the Taiwan issue.
I engaged in some deep discussions with the Chiefs, making the point that our primary security concern at that time was the Soviet Union. Having China in a favorable and cooperative relationship with the U.S. would change the balance in our favor.
I became deeply involved because it was necessary for the Department of Defense, and specifically the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be on board because they had to agree that it was in the US national security interest to normalize relations with the PRC, even though that meant we would have to give up bases in Taiwan. I engaged in some deep discussions with the Chiefs, making the point that our primary security concern at that time was the Soviet Union. Having China in a favorable and cooperative relationship with the U.S. would change the balance in our favor.
It had become clear that the Chinese-Soviet relationship was not what we had thought it to be. On the contrary, there seemed to be considerable tensions between them. The Chinese were actually concerned that those tensions could lead to a Soviet attack on them. Indeed, in the early 1970s, the Soviets had made approaches to the US suggesting a joint attack on the Chinese nuclear facilities to prevent China from becoming a nuclear power. One of those approaches was made in Geneva at the strategic arms negotiations. I was present at the negotiations and had heard those approaches. All this was in the background when the US acted in the late 1970s to normalize relations with China.
My discussion with the Chiefs led to their endorsing the normalization of relations, including the recognition of the PRC as the sole legitimate Chinese government. Some of these had been foreshadowed earlier with Kissinger and Nixon’s visits to China, which had begun the normalization. Formally, when the Carter administration took office, our relationship was still with the Republic of China government in Taiwan. Therefore, dropping that relationship and formally recognizing the PRC was a major further step.
In 1980, I visited the PRC and instituted the military-to-military relations, which was not part of the original agreement. That was another big step. At that time, China felt threatened by the Soviet Union so China was eager to have such a relationship. Chinese leaders wanted to be sure that the U.S. and China looked at things the same way vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.
How close did the US and China come to becoming military allies in the 1980s? After all, your visit happened barely a year after the normalization of the relationship.
When I was in China in January 1980, there was an extensive discussion of the geopolitical situation, which the two sides saw very much in the same light. There was discussion of what might happen if there were Soviet military action and how we might then cooperate.
Not close. To the extent that we both faced the Soviet threat at the time, the Chinese were prepared to cooperate with us against the Soviet Union. Cooperation was very different from a formal alliance, however. It was more political-military cooperation, if you want to think of it that way. We talked about making some technologies available, but that proceeded very slowly. There was some action, but not very much. But, just saying that we would be prepared to discuss and coordinate things militarily had a deterrent effect on the Soviet behavior. In military terms, it was also a very unequal partnership because the degrees of sophistication and capabilities of the two militaries were very different. It was a very different situation from the present one.
There was considerable progress in terms of discussing and coordinating Chinese and US political action by the early 1980s. When I was in China in January 1980, there was an extensive discussion of the geopolitical situation, which the two sides saw very much in the same light. There was discussion of what might happen if there were Soviet military action and how we might then cooperate. But the discussion was very broad in nature. I mentioned in my book that the State Department was concerned that we not appear to be encouraging joint US-Chinese action against the Soviets. Indeed, then-Secretary of State Cy Vance objected to my visiting the PRC because the signals my visit would send to the Soviets might undercut the US-Soviet relations.
One of the key things the Chinese leadership was interested in was to end the US arms sales to Taiwan, and perhaps, to transfer arms sales to the PRC as part of the new relationship. What was the defense establishment thinking about arms sales at the time?
We found a way to talk about it that satisfied both sides by limiting, but not ending, the arms transfers to Taiwan.
I’d separate the two issues you mentioned: ending arms sales to Taiwan and arms technology transfer to the PRC. The Chinese were adamant about the first issue, and like the Nixon administration before us, we found a way to talk about it that satisfied both sides by limiting, but not ending, the arms transfers to Taiwan. The PRC was very interested in getting some kind of arms from the US. During my visit I established the criterion that defensive arms and technology related to defensive arms would be available. Of course there was considerable ambiguity here because it was not always easy to say what is defensive and what is offensive. Anti-tank is a defensive weapon, but depending on where the battle is, it can be part of an offense as well. But we did establish that line. There was some progress on the transfer of some technologies in 1980 and 1981 after we had already left office, which I think never satisfied the PRC’s wishes.
Who was your Chinese counterpart at the time? Was it the military, or ministry of defense, or some higher-level officials?
It was a little complicated. The senior political person who dealt with me was Geng Biao, but I also dealt with Zhang Aiping, the head of China’s defense procurement at the time, who later became a member of Central Military Commission (CMC). I think Xi Jinping was in Geng Biao’s group as his personal assistant at the time. Chinese defense minister Xu Xiangqian hosted one dinner, but he was not in good health so he did not play a significant part in my visit.
A series of people had headed the defense ministry around the time I visited China. Our handler was someone who headed the defense ministry’s foreign affairs department. The first person I dealt with in that post was quite substantial. He participated in the Long March and had been a student in the Soviet Union along with Chiang Kai-shek. So he was from a much older generation. Geng Biao was a vice premier at the time, so he was the appropriate person to deal with me because it was a strategic relationship rather than military hardware or military-to-military relations.