Talking Point

Interpreting history

Nixon’s translator talks Sino-US tensions and Taiwan invasion prospects

Chas_W_Freeman w

Ambassador Chas Freeman: seasoned China watcher

Chas Freeman is a veteran American diplomat who has witnessed a half-century of Washington’s international relations with China and the Middle East. Among the vivid memories from his momentous career is the moment he started to smoke – in Beijing in 1972. The cigarettes were the Xiongmao (Panda) brand and it was Li Xiannian, a future president of China, who got him hooked. The urge for nicotine was part of a response to some frosty looks from US president Richard Nixon (the anecdote is retold later in this interview).

Freeman began his career in India and Taiwan before becoming Chargé d’Affaires in Beijing and Bangkok and later Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, where he helped to negotiate the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. From 1990 to 1992, he was Ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and from 1993 to 1994 served as US Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration. Freeman also served as the principal interpreter for President Nixon during his trip to China in 1972.

He is currently a senior fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, as well as chairman of Projects International.

Ambassador Freeman sat down with WiC on Monday for a wide-ranging conversation. A warning in advance: this is a far longer interview than WiC would typically run. However, the 79 year-old is one of a rare breed of American foreign affairs specialists with a deep understanding of China, as well as a significant personal contribution to Sino-US relations over many decades. His language skills and accrued experience from his time in China and the Middle East make him a unique figure, with insights worth time and consideration, especially during a period in which tensions between the two superpowers are rising, particularly over Taiwan.

That said, some of our readers may appreciate some signposting to the different areas of the Q&A discussion. The interview starts out by looking at the competing world views of the decision-makers in Washington and Beijing and how they have been influencing events in the Taiwan Strait.

Freeman then talks more about what might trigger military confrontation between the two sides over Taiwan, as well as how the balance of power is changing in the wider region.

After that Freeman discusses some of the economic damage from deeper antagonism between the two superpowers before finishing with memories of his time accompanying Richard Nixon on his seminal visit to Beijing in 1972.

In a final anecdote he even gives us the background on why the meaning of one of the most famous quotations from Zhou Enlai, Mao’s Zedong’s longtime deputy, has been completely misinterpreted for years.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s keynote foreign policy speech last month accused China of undermining the global order. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Saturday accused China of a “steady increase in provocative and destabilising military activity near Taiwan” at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore with China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe in the audience. Are such public rebukes likely to be an effective strategy for dealing with Beijing?

No, not at all. It’s basically rhetoric aimed at a domestic audience. It has considerable appeal in the United States, where it’s an article of faith that China is out to overthrow the existing international order in which it – of course – has prospered more than any other country. In terms of foreign audiences – of course – it’s not persuasive to Beijing at all because they have a very different view of American behaviour and their own, and probably equally inaccurate in terms of their own self-image.

But it’s not credible with third countries – given the extent to which the United States, with our invasion of Iraq for example and multiple other invasions of other countries, as well as the takedown of the World Trade Organisation and so forth – has in fact been enormously destructive of the post-World War Two, Bretton Woods and United Nations order that Americans helped form. So, the charge that it is China that is – more than any other country – destroying the pre-existing world order just doesn’t have a great deal of traction internationally.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi retorted that the US must “abandon its Cold War mentality” and that the US strategy towards China was pushing the two towards confrontation. How do you view this rather stark assessment?

Well, there’s no doubt that the two countries are on track toward confrontation and very likely a military confrontation, so that part of the statement is correct. However, Wang Yi – who I consider to be a very professional diplomat, a very competent one – characteristically does not acknowledge that his own country has been a contributor to the deterioration of the relationship.

I note that at this point I can’t tell whether the ‘wolf warrior’ mentality first gained favour with the current spokesman in the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, Zhao Lijian, or whether it was invented by Mike Pompeo. But the two were worthy emulators of each other, and both did huge damage to the image of their respective countries and contributed to the contentions that have risen to the extent they have that we’re now talking seriously about a possible war.

President Joe Biden’s comments in Japan recently were that the US military would defend Taiwan if China were to invade. Where does the policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’ stand now in your view? Given the White House soon walked Biden’s pledge back, are such comments deliberate efforts to confuse Beijing, or gaffes?

That is a very complex question. It involves the decision-making process in the United States under our constitution which – in a revolutionary manner – assigned the responsibility for the authorisation of war to the Congress – to the Legislative Branch – not the Executive. Since the Korean War, the Congress has tended to rubber stamp presidential decisions about wars. But the constitution is still there, and President Biden has no authority to commit the United States to war over Taiwan, not just because of the constitution but because in the case of Taiwan we have legislation, the Taiwan Relations Act, which prescribes a different approach, which is to enable Taiwan to defend itself while preserving the option of the United States being able to act in our own interest to secure peace in the region. It does not authorise going to war.

So, the first answer to the question is the policy of “strategic ambiguity” is imposed by the constitution and legislation. The second answer is, however, that in terms of attitudes in the American political elite there is now a very clear propensity to favour a military intervention in the event that China and Taiwan resume the Chinese Civil War, which we suspended with our intervention on June 27, 1950, during the Korean War. Now, that Chinese Civil War, of course, never ended. I noticed that in Singapore [at the Shangri-La Dialogue], the Chinese Defence Minister Wei referred to not wanting to see the Civil War resume, but it could. And that is a further complication.

So, I think “strategic ambiguity” is alive and well – in practice – but under siege from political forces that are determined to take a more belligerent stance.

Freeman standing behind President Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972

Freeman standing behind President Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai in 1972

Going back to the remarks by Defence Minister Wei, he kind of indicated yet again that for the Chinese side Taiwan is a non-negotiable issue and this is why they are building up their nuclear arsenal because ultimately the Taiwan issue is a sine qua non for China if pushed. So, does it concern you that the Chinese are now raising the spectre of potential nuclear war over Taiwan?

Of course. It’s clear that the reason that the Chinese are bulking up their nuclear ICBM force is to hold the United States at bay in the event of a war in the Taiwan Strait. Now whether that will succeed or not is uncertain, but it’s certainly very risky. So yes, I take it very seriously.

I note again that in the 20th century there were two revolutions in China, both of which had the same objectives in terms of nationalism. One was to eliminate all foreign spheres of influence on Chinese territory; and in the view of Beijing, Taiwan is an American sphere of influence still on Chinese territory. The second was to bring the entire country into a state of unity, eliminate local authorities, warlords, or whoever defied the central authority in whatever the capital was, whether it was Nanjing or Beijing. Both revolutions, 1911 and 1949, embody a spirit of Chinese nationalism which has not diminished – in fact in some ways it may be stronger than ever. So, I think this is in fact a serious statement of resolve and should be taken as such.

It seems like things only continue to escalate. In fact after what happened at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin made a major statement this week declaring that China claims sovereignty over the Taiwan Strait, saying it’s not international waters. Is this likely to provoke the American side and escalate tensions?

Well, on a technical level of course Wang Wenbin is correct. The phrase “international waters” does not exist under the Law of the Sea Convention, so the Taiwan Strait is within the territorial waters and part of China – both Taiwan and the Mainland. It is within the exclusive economic zone of China, again considering Taiwan is part of China. Therefore, it is not “high seas,” it is, however, an international waterway, through which any ship – military or civilian – can pass freely. So, the question of sovereignty is one thing. The question of whether you can transit through the Taiwan Strait is another.

The problem is that every transit the United States navy has made through the Taiwan Strait has been accompanied by a defiant tone which the Beijing government regards as provocative. In effect we have been rubbing China’s nose in our ability to operate right off China’s coast. So you get this kind of statement [about sovereignty over those waters] – which I consider really very stupid on the part of the Chinese – you get this sort of belligerent statement in response. It would be far better to conduct passage through the Taiwan Strait – which we have a right to do – without accompanying publicity. The Chinese would know we did it. Why rub their noses in it publicly?

There’s a well-publicised forecast by Phil Davidson, former US Indo-Pacific Commander, that an invasion of Taiwan will occur in 2027. Your thoughts on this date? And how has the Ukraine situation potentially changed President Xi Jinping’s military calculus?

First, 1927 was the moment in which the People’s Liberation Army was founded [so 2027 is the centenary year] and that is what Davidson has based his judgment on. I think that is not a sound basis for predicting Chinese action.

Second, far more dangerous is the 2024-25 US elections and transition into whatever new administration replaces the current one. I say that because the basic bargain that Washington and Beijing struck 40 some years ago was a diplomatic framework that deprived China of an incentive to regard the Taiwan issue as urgent and requiring forceful resolution. That framework has now collapsed; there is almost nothing left of it, and the result is that we are left purely with military deterrence as the answer to how to prevent a war in the Taiwan Strait. Instead of depriving Beijing of a motive for such a war, we have provided a motive and we now rely wholly on force. If in 2024, the election brings to power right-wing Americans with a commitment to Taiwan independence – such as Mike Pompeo has articulated – this is a direct challenge to Beijing of exactly the sort that the Anti-Secession Law [in China] requires a military response to. So that is a more dangerous point by far than 2027.

A final consideration is that the Chinese are a patient people. They are risk-averse. Nobody in China wants a war in the Taiwan Strait or with Taiwan, and certainly not with the United States. They will not initiate a war unless they feel forced to do so by external factors, whether they’re in Taiwan or in the United States. And they will not do so in a last minute, improvised and unprepared manner similar to that Mr Putin invaded Ukraine with. They have done the planning. If they move, it will be through surprise, there will be speed and mass applied, and a lot of other things will happen that will create a fait accompli, rather than the slow roll that Putin has created in Ukraine. He seems to be winning but at huge cost to Russia’s national interest, and even greater cost to Ukraine.

So, I think the danger is there – but it’s not linked to the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.

Do you think that President Xi is very aware of the fact that the Chinese military hasn’t really fought a war since Vietnam in 1979, and it is therefore somewhat untested? Invading Taiwan is more complicated than invading Ukraine – it’s more like the D-Day landings – does Xi think: ‘Do I really want to risk my legacy on something the military could get badly wrong?’

First of all, I would say there’s a tendency we all have to personify Chinese decisions as being made solely by Xi Jinping. He is primus inter pares. He is not a freewheeling dictator. He operates within a political structure with checks and balances from his colleagues and the Standing Committee of the Politburo. It’s not up to Xi himself to make this decision.

Second point is that, yes, the geography of Taiwan is far more difficult as a military operation, both for an attacker and for a foreign response to the attack. There’s no border with Poland over which to infiltrate additional weapons systems. NATO is not sitting off the East Coast of Taiwan prepared to deter a Chinese invasion of Taiwan as it was in the case of Ukraine. There have not been eight years of war in the Donbas as there were in Ukraine to prepare the Ukrainian army with NATO assistance to become the competent force that it initially showed itself to be during the Russian invasion.

My final point is that yes, it’s true that the People’s Liberation Army –especially in its modernised persona – has not fought a war with another country since the Chinese-Vietnamese confrontation of 1979, which taught the Chinese a great deal about the deficiencies of their own military forces. But it’s also true that the United States Navy has not fought a modern war since 1945, and that the United States Air Force has not fought a war with a competent peer competitor really since that time. So really, both sides are inexperienced at the kind of warfare that one would see in the Taiwan Strait.

The final consideration which must not be forgotten is that the nuclear ‘allergy’ – the reluctance to resort to the use of nuclear weapons that followed the Americans’ use of them in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the consequences of those attacks – has greatly attenuated. People are now talking in the US and in Russia and in India and Pakistan and elsewhere, and presumably in China, about the use of nuclear weapons on a tactical level. Now this is something that held sway in the 1950s and was very wisely abandoned.

If you cross the nuclear threshold, you are in unknown territory, so I think the contemplation of any kind of war in the Taiwan area is one that is very full of perils. Any war that happens would result in the destruction of both Taiwan’s democracy and its prosperity. That should sober up everybody.

Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao greets Freeman in Washington in 2006

Former Chinese leader Hu Jintao greets Freeman in Washington in 2006

A Taiwanese official told the Financial Times this month: “The danger comes from Xi Jinping and the fact that he will begin a third term later this year. Under China’s previous process where they would have a new leader every 10 years, their ‘historic mission’ in unifying Taiwan could be passed on to the next leader. But when a national mission becomes one man’s mission, the danger rises.” Do you agree with this assessment that Xi’s removal of the two-term limit has changed the invasion calculus for the US?

I think there’s a certain logic to that position. There have been instances in the past: Jiang Zemin for example tried to set a deadline for liberating Taiwan, Hu Jintao, his successor, successfully fended that off. There is a tendency as the Taiwan official noted for this sort of thing to influence decisions. On the other hand, as I said earlier, Xi is not a dictator. He is the pre-eminent member of a collective leadership and I think there are people in that leadership who are far less concerned about his legacy than they are about their own country’s future.

There have been repeated delays in the launch of China’s third aircraft carrier, but reports are widespread that it is imminent. The vessel’s naming – with the first two carriers named after the provinces Liaoning and Shandong – may be significant. Are you interested in what it’s going to be called given how provocative that name may potentially be?

Well, if it’s named Taiwan, I guess that would be pretty provocative. Short of that, I’m not too concerned. I think there’s been some speculation that it might be named after Fujian province which is the other side of the Taiwan Strait. And, of course, part of Fujian province, namely Quemoy and Matsu, is in Taiwanese hands. That is a symbol for the Chinese that what we’re dealing with here is not an international conflict, but one between Chinese, suspended by foreign intervention and the Cold War.

I hope it isn’t named Taiwan, but short of that, they can name it Xinjiang for all I care.

At last month’s seminar held by the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs – in which Wang Yi took part – he said there was a need for Sino-US dialogue and a better understanding of each other’s core concerns to avoid direct war. Would you say we are a long way past such advice being heeded? At a talk you gave to the Institute of Peace and Diplomacy last September you stated that “The United States and China are no longer on speaking terms”.

There was just a meeting in Luxembourg between Jake Sullivan, the National Security Advisor for the United States, and Yang Jiechi, the former Foreign Minister and member of the Politburo, but we have no idea what went on there. In the recent past, these meetings have been sterile. That is they have consisted of exchanges of warnings and talking past each other. I don’t think the statement that we’re not on speaking terms is yet incorrect. It would be far better if we returned to a polite and respectful dialogue, if we abandon the insulting style of diplomacy, but I don’t see a tendency towards that. In fact, on the contrary, talk on both sides is now very tough and getting tougher.

So, it’s very hard to communicate with anyone if you begin the conversation as the US did in Anchorage, by in effect saying to the Chinese “You are moral reprobates. You are very bad people. We don’t like you. We’re going to try to keep you from progressing and if we can push you back, we will. But, on the other hand, there are a few things we need your help on, will you help us?” This is not a diplomatic or promising approach.

So, I think the problem is that the American emphasis at the moment is on competition, confrontation and on cooperation only on a selective basis. The priorities are wrong. The emphasis should be on cooperation where we have common interests. For example, climate change, security issues in Asia, international regimes that facilitate trade and investment. Of course, we will compete, and we should say so and do so directly. Finally, of course there will be some issues on which we confront each other. But if you start with the premise that it’s all about confrontation, you end up somewhere you don’t want to end up, and that’s where we are.

So, would you say that the US position hasn’t really changed since the more belligerent period when Mike Pompeo was Secretary of State? Blinken’s tone might be somewhat different, but there is still a fear underlying the Chinese side that US policy is all about regime change, that you can’t work with Communist China, you need regime change?

That is very much the theme of a great deal of the political commentary in the United States and the Chinese read that commentary and they take it seriously and it has a very negative influence to be sure. But I think you’re right, the Biden administration delivers the same message as its predecessor and it does not address the legacies of the Trump administration; for example, on trade, the tariffs are still in effect. The export control mechanism is still being wielded to try to retard Chinese technological advance. The national security apparatus is impeding scientific cooperation between the two countries. Chinese investment in the US has dried up, and the two countries are in the process of decoupling in various ways. The basic trends have not changed.

I took the Blinken speech to which you alluded to at the outset as directed almost entirely at an American audience, not at the Chinese. It was ‘we’re tough, we’re going to hold the Chinese to standards and here’s our strategy for making ourselves competitive. We’re going to invest, align and compete’. Well, that’s a very good set of principles to apply to the US itself; it’s not a strategy vis-à-vis China at all.

You said in a 2020 interview that Taiwan was probably the most admirable society that has ever existed on Chinese soil, but that it is still Chinese soil. Can you explain your view and how it conditions whether you believe the US should go to war over Taiwan?

From the point of view of ideology, Taiwan is a tremendous success story for the United States. This was a society run by the Kuomintang under a dictator, Chiang Kai-shek, whose sole merit was that he was anti-Communist, and it has evolved into a society with a very high standard of respect for civil liberties, a democratic system that is robust and rambunctious, and it is, as I said, a very admirable society.

If foreign policy were all about druthers – what we’d like and what we’d approve of – there would be no choice. But that’s not what it’s about. And to risk going to war with Beijing over its ideology when the consequences of such a war would likely be a nuclear exchange does not appeal to me. So, my heart is with Taiwan perhaps; my head is not.

In terms of historical parallels, do you think a future Taiwan war could begin in a fashion similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis, with the tensions initially escalating because of a naval blockade of the island ordered by Beijing?

No, I don’t. There’s no reason for China to take an incremental approach that gives the US ample opportunity to consider options and intervene. That is not what the Chinese would contemplate. If they do move it will be sudden, it will be with maximum force, it will be with great speed, it will involve the decapitation of the leadership in Taipei and the destruction of Taiwan infrastructure simultaneously. It is not going to be a naval blockade, that would be disastrous because it would maximise international support for Taiwan rather than presenting the world with a fait accompli.

As Beijing watches the televised hearings about the January 6 attack on the Capitol, how might it be conditioning the Chinese leadership’s geopolitical thinking on what could happen in 2024 when the next US presidential election is held and the ‘transfer of power’ follows – or doesn’t – in January 2025? Might Beijing hold off till then, hoping for opportunities if there are disruptions in Washington?

If the transition between administrations from November 2024 to January 2025 is chaotic, if the US government is in a state of paralysis, yes this is a very tempting moment for anyone to challenge the United States, not just China. I note that in our system, unlike parliamentary systems, with more robust professional civil services, we essentially administer a frontal lobotomy to our government during these transitions. Huge numbers of political appointees depart and with them the decision-making power and expertise they acquire. The people who are left are career civil servants, foreign service officers, military people, who don’t have the political credentials to make the decisions that those who left had. So, this is a moment of weakness in our system and yes, it is tempting.

The question would be for the Chinese – since as I said they are risk averse, they don’t want a war – if they conclude that they cannot work with the incoming administration – that the die is cast, and it is committed to policies of confrontation with them over the Taiwan issue. Then I think that there will be terrible pressure on them to move. Against that, they are concerned to complete the preparations for whatever military operations they have planned on a contingency basis. And as you said earlier, the military operation in the Taiwan Strait would be a very difficult one. I think it’s less difficult than many imagine, given the existence of new ways of moving troops, for example air cavalry, paratroops and so forth.

Taiwan is not prepared as Ukraine was to defend itself. It does not have a territorial defence. Its armed forces have been more interested in buying fancy, expensive weaponry, than they have been in doing the hard slog of training for the kind of distributed warfare that the Ukrainians have mounted. Now, Taiwan has become interested in that and the US, I gather, is trying to encourage Taiwan to learn from the example of Ukraine and prepare its military to make Taiwan indigestible but it’s got a very long way to go and anyone who looks at the problems the Taiwan military have – whether it’s their inadequate number of pilots, aircraft that are wearing out, or their four month conscription with minimal and apparently not very demanding training – has cause for concern.

This raises the issue that some people in Taiwan have sensibly taken into their consciousness, which is that if you can’t defend yourself, why should you expect other people to come and do it for you? Ukraine has proven heroic in its resistance to the tremendous criminal mistake that Putin made. Would Taiwan be equally heroic?

Freeman in Taiwan in 1970

Freeman in Taiwan in 1970

Obviously, the one great unknown about any military conflict is the so-called ‘will to fight’ of the opposing forces, and clearly Putin has been quite shocked at the ‘will to fight’ of the Ukrainian people. Do you think there would be a comparable determination amongst the Taiwan population to what we’ve seen in Ukraine, which as you say has been quite “heroic”?

There are two questions: one is the ‘will to fight’, on which there’s polling data that isn’t very reassuring, the other is the ability to fight. If you want to find a society that has a credible ability to resist foreign invasion you might look at Switzerland where every male of military age, and they have quite a wide definition of what that is, is required to keep a weapon at home and to train in a territorial defence force. There’s no such thing in Taiwan.

There has been a considerable amount of reporting on a new Chinese pact with the Solomon Islands and a deal to build a naval base in Cambodia (according to US officials quoted by the Washington Post). How will this change the balance of naval power in the region, particularly as China continues to expand the PLA Navy?

I think that the fact is that China now has the world’s largest navy in terms of ships. It’s very much focused on protecting China from foreign invasions and wars, including the intervention on the Taiwan issue. China is expanding its navy and inevitably, the naval balance in the Western Pacific and indeed the South Pacific is shifting towards something less favourable to the United States, which has dominated the area since 1945. I mean, that’s an inevitability.

In regard to the specifics, the Solomon Islands, I think that’s vastly overblown. The Solomon Islands, in that agreement as I understand it, have the right to request aid probably from the People’s Armed Police to prevent the sort of race riots and criminality that afflicted it earlier. Basically, it has done this because its established patrons, Australia and the United States, have been very neglectful and did not come to its aid.

It’s not anything unusual for China to follow the United States and other countries in developing the ability to protect its citizens abroad. We’ve seen the Chinese evacuation of some 30,000 Chinese from Libya and I think what we’re seeing is the Chinese beginning to develop the infrastructure to do the same where it’s required.

Now, this obviously alarms Australia, which has regarded the Solomon Islands and other countries in the South Pacific as part of its own unique sphere of influence. It now feels challenged by a Chinese presence, that’s natural. But I don’t think we should get too agitated about this.

As for Cambodia, I suspect this is a facility intended to back up the Chinese sandcastles in the South China Sea with repair facilities and resupply and it will not be a base. It will be a place from which the Chinese come and go. I don’t see why we should ignore the statements of the Cambodian government that its constitution bans the presence of foreign troops and installations on Cambodian territory. But of course, Cambodia is free to allow anyone who wishes to use its ports to do so, much as Singapore has decided to allow the United States to use its facilities very extensively without objection from China or anyone else.

The world is moving beyond the post-World War Two order; the Bretton Woods framework has collapsed; the United Nations which embodied international law as we envisaged it is now being replaced by something else, something called the Rules Based Order, which a lot of people have some doubts about, which has nothing to do with international law, the Geneva Conventions or the other conventions that define international law (the Law of the Sea, the World Trade Organisation Charter and so forth). So, we’re in the post-post-World War Two period. The post-Cold War period has also ended and we’re in a new era and in this era, the United States is not going to be alone in Asia.

Japan is rearming. Germany is rearming. And, we’re going to see a continued set of shifts in power which demand two things: realism and sobriety, on the one hand, not to become hysterical about specific instances of change but to manage them, and second, we’re going to have to develop a sort of diplomatic agility which is quite different from the diplomatic trench warfare that characterised the Cold War, where there were two blocs of countries, each of which tried to hold the line against the other, and occasionally sent some sort of probe over the border without the expectation it would change much. But basically that was a big effort at maintaining the status quo. There is no status quo now, in that sense.

The world is in flux and China’s rise, India’s rise, Japan’s return to a political, military, as well as an economic role, Germany’s rediscovery of military power, Britain’s removal of itself from the EU, the loss of American hegemony in Latin America, all these things, plus the emergence of Africa as a major source of global growth and labour force, all these things present new realities that we have to learn to adjust to.

Do you think the end game for Beijing is to say, ‘Asia is our sphere of influence. If America accepts that Asia is our sphere of influence, we can co-exist. But, if America doesn’t accept this there’s going to be confrontation’?

No, I don’t think the Chinese see it that way. I think that is exactly what Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to impose after World War Two. He had this odd notion of the ‘four policemen’. He said: Britain would take care of the British Empire, China would manage East Asia, the Soviet Union would manage Eastern Europe and we would manage the Western hemisphere. That was embodied in the United Nations Security Council permanent membership, where we added France at the last moment, because Churchill insisted on it.

That was the idea then, but that is not the idea that the Chinese have. Their posture is very much ‘Leave us alone. Do not threaten us’. They are in a defensive posture, and they have reason to be in a defensive posture. For 600 of the last 1,000 years, they were ruled by foreigners, in whole or in part: Mongols, Europeans, Japanese, Americans, whomever. They have a reason to be apprehensive. But I don’t see any sign, despite the theories of some people outside China, that they have a desire for lebensraum, some sort of expansion of China into non-Chinese areas, or that they are intent on re-establishing a tribute system. In fact, on the contrary, they have been the primary exponents, if not the defenders, of the Westphalian system.

So, I think we attribute many things to them, many of which strike me as mirror imaging, that is, if we were they, this is what we would do. The United States has a Monroe Doctrine so therefore the Chinese must have some equivalent. But no, not necessarily. And I haven’t seen them make this argument, in fact they are elaborately contradictory to it.

I fear that, as has been the case elsewhere with our foreign policy misadventures, we are not dealing with China but with the China of our imaginations, not the China that exists.

Do you think that like the run-up to the Second World War in Asia, the Chinese will be very wary of being choked off economically by the US? For example, in the Second World War the Japanese were panicked by the US embargo on oil and what that meant for their economy. Similarly, is China going to feel threatened by US policy to embargo semiconductors technology?

No, I think the age of imperialism is gone. The theory of imperialism was mercantilist. You had to control the natural resources on which you depended through an imperial mechanism in order to be secure, and that was Japan’s concept. That is why, when the United States in 1941 imposed what the Japanese saw as an essential threat in the form of sanctions, they reacted with an attack on Pearl Harbour intended to knock out US naval power sufficiently to allow them to consolidate an empire in East Asia.

I don’t see the Chinese in this era at all thinking that way. Certainly not with respect to semiconductors. Their response to the various aggressive moves by the United States to choke off their access to the technology and the product has been to double down on a drive for self-reliance.

It’s very unfortunate because it basically produces conflict where there was cooperation. It disrupts trade. It menaces supply chains and so forth. But the Chinese are doing this, as far as I can see, reasonably successfully. I note that they now constitute about 15% of the production of semiconductors, not the most advanced ones, but even with key technology, like photolithography, they’re making breakthroughs.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years dealing with export controls in various contexts is that if a foreign entity knows that something can be done and vaguely how it can be done, cutting them off just stimulates them to do it themselves. So, I think the Chinese response is in fact to try to become more competitive and I think that is the right response. I wish my own country, instead of trying to tear China down, was trying to build our own competitive capacity up. But we can’t seem to get our act together to pass the legislation and direct the funds and develop the institutions to do what the Chinese have been doing in terms of focusing investment on key sectors that do bear on the competitive capacity of our nation.

Do you think that the Trump tariff policy worked against China or has it been ineffective?

There were several vague, incoherent justifications. One was that this would produce reshoring of industry. That has not happened. The tariffs have been very good for Vietnam, Mexico and other countries but they have not been good for the United States. They raised producer and retail prices, contributing to inflation. They disrupted supply chains in ways that have inconvenienced companies and forced them to make new investments in places they would never have considered investing.

So, have they retarded China’s effort to become self-reliant? No, they have not. They have in fact stimulated and redoubled that effort. So, no. They were a terrible disaster, misconceived. The people who thought those up were neo-mercantilists in mentality. Mercantilism and neo-mercantilism are inherently inefficient. Protectionism may have its uses in some fields, but it is not a path to competitiveness but a path to inefficiency. And that’s what the result of this has been.

Given Taiwan’s vital importance in the global tech supply chain (especially because of TSMC), would a potential invasion by China lead to economic chaos the likes of which we haven’t seen since World War Two?

Taiwan is important globally. I think if we look at the example of the Ukraine war and its unintended effects on matters like food security, energy prices, inflation, and a whole range of issues, I think the answer is yes. A war over Taiwan would be disastrous for the global economy, not just for China and the United States. Taiwan is a hi-tech centre with a dominant market share in the semiconductor field. This would be a horrifying development for the global economy which is a very good reason not to want to have a war and to do things to prevent it.

If TSMC factories were destroyed in a conflict, even by accident, that would obviously be catastrophic for the semiconductor industry globally…

It would, until the Chinese develop their own alternatives which they’re working on. At some point TSMC will be expendable in Chinese eyes because they will have independent capacity. I would also note that in areas of technology like semiconductor production, it is not so much the equipment but the brainpower and the production management capacities that go along with it that count. If you have engineers who know how to do things at TSMC who are not killed and they’re still around then TSMC can still be replicated, though at huge expense. But, yes, as I said earlier any war over Taiwan is going to destroy Taiwan’s prosperity.

Freeman in Beijing in 1972

Freeman in Beijing in 1972

How did you end up being chosen to interpret for President Nixon during his visit to China in 1972?

I turned out to be good at learning Chinese I guess, so whatever other defects I may have, I got that one right. I actually was in Taiwan learning Chinese and Taiwanese and starting on Hakka when I was pulled out to be the interpreter for the Warsaw talks. These were ambassadorial level talks, 136 of them over the years, between the United States and China, which exemplified the issue that we discussed earlier i.e. that we were not on speaking terms. So, we had many meetings, but we talked past each other. Nixon and Kissinger broke through that. I had been designated to be the interpreter for the Warsaw talks, which were superseded by the Kissinger trip to Beijing which I helped prepare without really knowing what I was preparing. And then I was slotted in as interpreter for the trip. There were two others with me, but they were not used.

What for you was the most personally memorable moment of that historic Nixon-Mao meeting in 1972?

One of the things that happens when you learn a language like Chinese, and I had learned other languages earlier, like Tamil, for example, is that you open a window on the world that has a different perspective. You see the world in a different way and if you are so inclined, you become empathetic not sympathetic. You understand where the other person is coming from, but you don’t necessarily agree with them.

No American official had been in Beijing for decades. But when I arrived, I discovered that the Chinese still had the amazing combination of exuberant disorganisation and organisation that defines them, and I enjoyed that.

My interpreting was actually almost entirely between the Foreign Ministers, who devoted their time to all the disagreements we had about the wars in Indochina, Korea, Kashmir, the Japanese role in Asia and so forth.

This was a set of encounters with a surprisingly sophisticated leadership. I had known the leadership in Taipei, who were ironically actually less upper-class, less well-educated than the leaders of the proletarian Chinese Communist Party were. And of course, it was after the Lin Biao incident, which was an attempted coup against Mao Zedong by Lin Biao, Mao’s principal deputy and the leader of the military. So, there were moments of tension, and it was very interesting. The whole thing is quite vivid in my mind still. But too many things happened: to single out one would not be correct.

Can you talk about your role translating for Nixon…

Actually, my first act as interpreter was to refuse to interpret for him when his minion asked me to interpret the banquet toast, which was the main public statement on the day of our arrival, and told me that Nixon planned to do it extemporaneously, which I thought was nonsense, especially since I had actually done the draft of the toast. The fellow was lying to me, and I called his bluff. Nixon was very unhappy. I was sitting at the head table between his wife and the future president of China, Li Xiannian. Nixon was looking at me with his jowls quivering in anger and Li Xiannian offered me a Xiongmao [Panda] brand cigarette, which I accepted. So, I know exactly when and where I started smoking. The condemned man did not forget that moment. My smoking went on for 30 years, but my wonderful second wife has cured me of the habit.

Was there anything that Nixon said that was very hard to translate into Chinese?

There were many things that in those days in particular didn’t have proper translations. Words in any two languages – and Chinese and English are probably farther apart than most – only have a limited overlap in meaning. Think of two overlapping circles, there is an overlap but there are also wide areas of the circles where the meaning differs. I remember on one occasion when a Chinese interpreter interpreted the term ‘parallel policy’, the point of that being if you can’t cooperate directly on something, you may be able to coordinate your policies and act in parallel. She translated ‘parallel’ as the mathematical concept, meaning two lines that never meet. 并行不悖 is the Chinese. I said “No. That’s 异途同归, to reach the same result by different paths”. Those were subtleties.

And then there was a great argument I had with the Chinese about the word ‘deterrence’, because the Chinese word would never be used by them to describe their own behaviour. [Their word for it] implied menacing intimidation, which is not the meaning of deterrence. Deterrence is a threat intended to prevent other actions or imply that costs will be imposed; it’s not an active threat.

I used the Taiwan term, 吓阻力量 and the Chinese used 威慑. Actually, the young lady concerned read the Chinese character wrong, which showed that she had never really used the word except in writing. Anyway, it’s taken the Chinese some 30 years, but they have finally come up with a decent translation which is 慑止, which means to threaten and halt, which is exactly what deterrence means.

There’s obviously the famous comment from Zhou Enlai about the French Revolution, where he said of its impact ‘it’s too early to say’. This was taken to be incredibly profound and a sign of how Chinese leaders sagely viewed issues over generations rather than election cycles. Was that an accurate translation or not?

I was there. It was not my interpretation. It was at a social occasion. It was too deliciously misinterpreted to correct. Zhou was referring to the 1968 Paris Commune or Student Uprising, if you will, and not to the revolution of the late 18th century. Anyway, it was so good that I waited many decades to admit that it wasn’t what people imagined.

Zhou Enlai was a very wise man. The Chinese are patient. They do have a historical view, a long view but not as long as that: 1968 was only about four to five years behind us in those days.

As Chargé d’Affaires at the US embassy in Beijing you had dealings with Deng Xiaoping. Arguably through his policies he lifted more people out of poverty than any individual in history. A big part of achieving this was his accommodation with the US and integrating China into the world’s trading systems. A hypothetical question: were Deng alive today would Sino-US relations have deteriorated as much as they have, or as China grew economically and militarily stronger was this inevitable no matter who the leader was?

That’s an interesting question. I don’t really know the answer. Deng was a nationalist. He was a pragmatist. He made several clear statements of his interest in having things work. He didn’t care about the theoretical framework for them. He was sort of the opposite of the famous French statement ‘they could see how this might work in practice, but it couldn’t work in theory’. He was on the other end of that.

So, would he refrain from using Chinese power forcefully if it were necessary? No, I don’t think he would, as he showed in his 1979 administration of a curriculum to Vietnam. This was hugely expensive for the Chinese side, yet it succeeded politically in dispossessing the Vietnamese of the notion that they could safely build an empire in Southeast Asia with Soviet assistance that encircled China. They refrained from that, but it took a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese lives to drive that home.

So, I don’t think the man was at all gentle. He was remarkably incisive in his strategic reasoning, but he was ruthless. I’m not sure how he would deal with the reality that China now has the many capabilities that it does. 

Additional reporting and research by Myriam Lynch.

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