Former Secretary of Defense Harold Brown on the US-China Relationship – Part 2 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 two of a three-part interview. Photo from US Air Force.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the new US-China relationship was being created, how were people in the Carter administration, and you personally, envisioning where this relationship would be headed in 20-30 years? Was there discussion about the long-term repercussions, or was it just a short-term hedge against the Soviets?
Did we anticipate China as a main rival to the US in three decades? I don’t think we looked ahead that far.
I think the answer is that most of the attention at the time was on the near-term. The key US concern was Soviet capabilities and how to offset them. China at the time was not a major military and economic power, as its foray into Vietnam had indicated. I doubt any of us in the administration had anticipated that China’s economic, technological and strategic rise would be as rapid and lasting as it has proven to be. Did we anticipate China as a main rival to the US in three decades? I don’t think we looked ahead that far.
In retrospect, do you think that the US overestimated the severity of the Soviet threat at the time? Do you think our relationship with China contributed to the Soviet’s collapse?
I felt and still feel that our encouragement of the rise of China was justified. But it is also true that we underestimated the size and scope of China’s rise, and therefore, the potential for adversarial relations between our two countries.
I think it was a little bit of both. I thought then and think now that the Soviets, despite what they have said since, would just keep pushing until we push back. The risk was that they would go too far so we would have to react with (or to) force. That scenario could escalate into a thermonuclear war. To say that China was a conservative and status quo power is probably true with respect to their internal behavior. Because of this, I felt and still feel that our encouragement of the rise of China was justified. But it is also true that we underestimated the size and scope of China’s rise, and therefore, the potential for adversarial relations between our two countries.
The following two quotes from your book seem to capture current US policy towards China. You wrote, “We need to keep China and its neighbors from confrontation, yet not have any of those neighbors fall into China’s orbit. And we need to avoid conflict with China, yet not accept a Chinese hegemony in East Asia and the Western Pacific.” Those were pretty prescient remarks. Do you think these remarks capture what we are doing right now?
…all the elements of a confrontation are there and it’s not going to be easy to avoid.
Yes, I think most people would agree with my formulation. But how to translate it into action is not at all easy because the US-China relationship is complex. It is akin to any relationship between a status quo power and a rising power in past centuries. Most such relationships have resulted in conflicts in the past. It is true that historically China has not been a globally expanding power. It has not tried to venture out far from its own borders. On the other hand, it has tried to dominate the countries around its periphery, so all the elements of a confrontation are there and it’s not going to be easy to avoid.
Finding the right balance between accepting whatever ambitions the most aggressive of the Chinese seek and accepting what is inevitable and perhaps reasonable – an increase in China’s influence in its own neighborhood– is not going to be easy. To some extent, we and the Chinese are at the mercy of China’s neighbors in this regard because China clearly will want to have influence over its neighborhood, just as the US did in its own backyard. And those neighbors will want to offset China’s influence over them by enlisting US help. At the same time, they don’t want the US and China to go to war, so it is going to be a difficult dance – for us, for the Chinese, and for the other East Asian countries.
In August of 2014, Obama told journalist Tom Friedman that he thought the Chinese were essentially free riders, living off of the global governance structure that the US and the West have helped to create, but haven’t really done any of the heavy lifting. Then, recently, China has made some moves to build some institutions of its own. The United States seems to be pushing back. Are we doing the right thing?
Yes, I guess my comment is that you (and I mean the Chinese, primarily) should be careful about what you ask for. Chinese assertiveness is going to be seen as an attempt to replace or overthrow the existing system, which was set up without their participation. They have a legitimate reason to say, “Why should we accept the system that exists? And why should we ask to be admitted to a club for which we had nothing to do with setting the rules?”
On the other hand, rather than trying to negotiate a change in the rules or a change in the relationship, the Chinese appear to be setting up a separate club. You invite conflict when you do that.
So I find something to criticize in both positions. I think that it is time to get together and say what changes should be made in the existing rules of global governance, which, at least on the economic side, has not been working too well for us. One has to consider the security side as well. But to set up a separate grouping is counterproductive as this creates two separate and likely adversarial systems.
Do you think that the two nations coming together and rewriting the rules is feasible, given the domestic politics in both countries?
Before things get better, they usually have to get worse.
I’m not sure it’s feasible in domestic politics in either country! At present, it’s probably not feasible, but when the present situation gets dangerous enough, there may be a way out of the dangerous situation. Before things get better, they usually have to get worse.
Speaking of getting worse, I read an essay you wrote where you said, “Getting to 2030 without a major confrontation between the US and China would be a major achievement.” I am wondering if there is any thing that can be done to help the relationship in the intervening decades?
One answer may be more exchange between the two countries. A very large number of Chinese students are being educated in the United States, and an increasing, although still small, an increasing number of American students are getting education in China. Such students inevitably see the unattractive as well as the desirable features of the host country. So it is hard to say if such exchanges will lead to better relations in the end. But we must try.
Why do you think that more exchange may make things worse?
I think the outcome depends on the students’ experience and on what they see. An initial attraction can easily turn into repulsion, into a negative attitude after a short period of time. Historically, there was a great deal of interaction among the students in one country and another before the First World War in Europe. England and Germany were good examples. What was initially an attraction turned into enmity. Now I don’t think that will necessarily be the case here, but I can’t tell.