Skip to main content /transcript


Henry Kissinger Discusses China

Aired April 14, 2001 - 17:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: From Washington, EVANS, NOVAK, HUNT & SHIELD. Now, Robert Novak and Al Hunt.

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: I'm Al Hunt. Robert Novak and I will question a leading authority on U.S. China relations.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: He is former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.


NOVAK (voice-over): The 24 crew members of the U.S. surveillance aircraft were released by China and returned to U.S. soil. But President Bush indicated that act does not fully restore U.S.-China relations.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: China's decision to prevent the return of our crew for 11 days is inconsistent with the kind of relationship we have both said we wish to have. The kind of incident we have just been through does not advance a constructive relationship between our two countries.

NOVAK: Future points of tensions between the two countries include return of what's left of the American plane, U.S. surveillance flights off the China coast, U.S.-Chinese trade, arms sales to Taiwan, and even Beijing's bid to host the Olympics.

Henry A. Kissinger was present at the creation of U.S.-Chinese relationship as President Nixon's national security adviser in 1971. The former Harvard professor later served as secretary of state under both President Nixon and President Gerald Ford. His latest book, "Does America Need a Foreign Policy?" will be published in June.


NOVAK: Dr. Kissinger, President Bush many times stated that he would not apologize to China. This was reiterated by his aides. But William Kristol and Robert Kagan writing in "The Washington Post" on Friday morning -- they have been the leading critics, I think, of the Bush policy -- said this. Quote: "Make no mistake, the United States has apologized and the fact of our apology is all the more humiliating because the United States was in no way to blame for the incident. An American surveillance plane flying in international airspace was bumped by a Chinese fighter and forced to make an emergency landing in Chinese territory" -- end quote.

Was it an apology, sir?

HENRY KISSINGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: The president made a distinction between the legal right to conduct surveillance flights and the presence of the American plane where it was and his attitude toward the loss of the Chinese pilot and the Chinese plane. And from the beginning, the president made clear that he would not apologize for the actions of the American plane, but he would express regret over the loss of the Chinese life. That seemed to me to be an appropriate distinction to be made, and it got to the essence of the problem.

I do not believe the United States was humiliated in -- in its conduct last week.

NOVAK: But Mr. Kristol and Mr. Kagan go on to write -- quote -- "We have suffered a blow to our prestige and reputation, a loss that will reverberate throughout the world if we do not begin immediately to repair the damage. The problem is not merely that we have lost face. The bigger problem is that our reliability as defender the peace and protector of friends and allies, especially in East Asia, has been thrown in doubt" -- end quote.

Do you think our credibility in East Asia has been thrown in doubt?

KISSINGER: I don't know what countries they might be talking about. In most of the countries, like Japan, for example, which is an ally, they were trying very hard to disassociate from us during this crisis. And I do not believe that we have been humiliated or that our credibility is thrown into question.

This was an accident that both sides had to handle in a difficult situation. I think the Chinese carried it on for several days longer than would have been appropriate, but I don't think it goes to the essence of our relationships and certainly doesn't go to the essence of the security of East Asia.

HUNT: Dr. Kissinger, a major decision is on the horizon. Should the United States sell sophisticated weaponry and especially the Aegis radar-equipped destroyers to Taiwan? Good idea or bad idea?

KISSINGER: Well, I've said all along that the decision on the arms to Taiwan should not be influenced by what happened to the surveillance plane and that whatever decision the administration was on the verge of taking should proceed. In my view, we should defer the Aegis weapon system and however do a considerable package of other weapons.

HUNT: Well, we'd -- in your view, we should defer the Aegis. They also are asking, the Taiwanese are asking, for Kidd destroyers. They're asking for submarines, air-to-air missiles, surface-to-air missiles and anti-sub patrol planes. Which of that package would you sell to them right now, sir? KISSINGER: Well, I haven't looked at the individual items that should be sold. The one item that I think would be a major political crisis, independent of what happened to the surveillance plane, is the Aegis system, which isn't ready to be delivered in any event for 10 years and which would tie Taiwan into the American command structure, which the Chinese would consider inconsistent with the 1979 agreement that was made.

Of the other weapons, I think there should be a -- I would back whatever decision the Pentagon makes as to what is necessary.

NOVAK: Dr. Kissinger, most of the China experts feel that there was a conflict between the military, the People's Liberation Army, on the one hand, and the civilian government on the other. But there are some people, including some officials in the current administration, who feel that this is -- this is just a sham for the West, that this is all one Chinese policy and they work together. What's your view on that, sir?

KISSINGER: Well, first of all, what is the one Chinese policy on which they're supposed to be working together, because this was an accident that could not have been foreseen.

I was struck by the following: Last Saturday, the defense minister of China, while the president was out of the country, made a statement in which he said that unless there's a full apology, it will not be understood by the PLA and the Chinese people. He didn't mention the Chinese government or the Communist Party, which is supposed to be the governing party in China.

So I believe this was an accident. From my own personal experience -- I was in China three weeks ago -- and there were -- and together with three or four other people who have some experience in this field. We were all struck by the fact that the PLA people we talked to took a more nationalistic and tougher line than the political people, by far.

NOVAK: Do you think, sir, that the PLA and/or the government is intent on getting the United States out of East Asia militarily?

KISSINGER: I think we need a sense of proportion here. The Chinese will not have a capability to represent a serious threat strategically to the United States for a decade or more. And if one looks at it as a geopolitical problem, China's historical difficulties have been with Russia, Japan, and to some extent, India around its borders.

Therefore, for them to take on in a military challenge the United States, which is further away, and leave itself then greatly weakened, whatever happens, toward its neighbors doesn't make any -- any sense.

Without any question, if China continues to grow economically, it will in time become militarily stronger, and if they threaten their neighbors and if they try to achieve domination in Asia, we will oppose them. HUNT: Dr. Kissinger, let me ask you just one question before we go to a break. Do you think that the United States gets enough valuable intelligence from those surveillance flights, such as the one that was the center of the controversy, that we should continue them without alteration?

KISSINGER: I can't judge that. We should certainly continue them without alteration for some considerable period after this incident so that it doesn't look as if we were drifting off. And this in general is a subject that should be studied, but it cannot be modified in any near-term future.

HUNT: And Doctor, we're going to take a break right now, but we'll be back in just a minute to ask Henry Kissinger about the -- should the Olympics be in Beijing, and China and human rights.


NOVAK: Henry Kissinger, once the 24 U.S. crew members were released, I thought the tone in Washington by the Bush administration changed markedly. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suddenly appeared after he hadn't -- he had seemed to disappear -- and let's just hear a sample of the language he used in saying that the Chinese were at fault in the incident.


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Why did the Chinese pilot act so aggressively? It is clear that the pilot intended to harass the crew. It was not the first time that our reconnaissance and surveillance flights flying in that area received that type of aggressive contact from interceptors.


NOVAK: Sir, what do you think the reaction is in Beijing to the really suddenly abrupt change in tone in Washington?

KISSINGER: A certain sharpening of the tone had to be expected in Beijing, and Beijing also blames -- or at least, Beijing media claimed that they have scored a big victory. I believe that it's important to calm the atmosphere now and not engage in endless analogies, although what Rumsfeld said seems to be factually true.

NOVAK: Do you think, sir, that there has been a, if not a permanent, at least a significant deterioration in the bilateral relationship as a result of this incident?

KISSINGER: Well, I don't like it when that relationship gets examined every day. Engaging in a confrontation with China, which some people seem to think is a desirable national policy, takes on one-fifth of the human race that has specialized in prolonged confrontations. And this is something we should not do unless we have a clear-cut strategic objective and unless we can define what the outcome of this will be and unless we are directly challenged, which we, at this moment, are not. This reconnaissance plane, I don't like some of the actions of the Chinese government, but both sides were improvising. And considering the passions, it resolved rather quickly.

HUNT: Dr. Kissinger, you have been a principal advocate of the notion that economic engagement with China gradually would produce better human rights in the Middle Kingdom. But the Bush administration's own State Department two months ago issued this report, in which they said of China -- and I quote -- "The government's poor human rights record worsened last year and it continued to commit numerous human rights abuses. China intensified crackdowns on religion and in Tibet, and it intensified its harsh treatment of political dissent and suppressed any person or group perceived to threaten the government."

Isn't it clear, when it comes to human rights, at least, that economic engagement has failed?

KISSINGER: Now, I have not been part of the group that stresses economic engagement as the principal goal. I have stressed the fact that we should not engage in needless confrontations with China and I have always emphasized the importance of the political relationship.

The paradox of the situation in China is that the economic progress is considerable, and as they progress economically, the political framework has not kept pace with this. There's large-scale unemployment as a result of the privatization of state-run enterprises. And so as the Communist Party control loses some of its legitimate structure, you can have a situation where the economy improves and the political tensions also increase.

I do believe, however, that it is not possible for a country to continue to grow at this rate and to engage in market economics without strengthening its legal framework and moving to some kind of constitutionalism.

HUNT: Well, let me just ask you...

KISSINGER: And I would put economics second to politics.

HUNT: Well, let me just ask you, on one human rights question, there's an American University scholar right now named Gao Zhan, who she and her 5-year-old son, her husband were detained over there several months ago. They let the husband and the child go. We have no idea where she is now. She has an irregular heartbeat. The Chinese won't communicate.

Shouldn't the American government say you cannot treat an American citizen that way and do something about it?

KISSINGER: Well, I have no personal knowledge of the -- of the facts involved. But from what I have read in the newspapers, I profoundly regret what the Chinese security organs are doing and I would hope that an American citizen would be released. I do not support that sort of act. NOVAK: Dr. Kissinger, I believe -- and if I'm not mistaken -- you have been sympathetic to the bid by Beijing for the Olympics in the year 2008. Has the events of the recent days either changed your opinion of that or do you think it has changed the prospects for Beijing getting the Olympics?

KISSINGER: I'm in a somewhat difficult position because I'm a non-voting member of the National Olympic Committee, and they have two problems that they will undoubtedly consider. One is the technical capability of the various applicants and then whatever political questions somebody might raise.

I have not personally engaged in this debate. The argument that people make who are in favor of it, of Beijing is that it would -- the political argument that is made is that it would give a high incentive for a seven-year period of restraint. But I am not -- I have not participated in this debate up to now.

HUNT: Let me ask you Dr. Kissinger -- we have 15 seconds left -- just quickly, could you tell us, do you agree with Secretary Powell that it would be a good idea to loosen the economic sanctions on Iraq?


HUNT: You don't? You ...

KISSINGER: I don't agree with it.

HUNT: All right.

KISSINGER: Can I explain?

HUNT: Yes, sir. Very quickly, if you don't mind.

KISSINGER: Because if we want to give -- if we want to give up the economic sanctions -- I objected to the phrase "smart sanctions," because I don't -- I think the issue is should there be any sanctions. And I believe that for America to take the lead in giving up the sanctions would be considered a huge setback all over the Middle East.

HUNT: Dr. Kissinger, we're going to be back just a minute -- in just a minute, with "The Big Question" for you.


HUNT: And now, "The Big Question" for Henry Kissinger. Doctor Kissinger, you argued for a long time there ought to be a pre-eminent American foreign policy voice in every administration. Sometimes, it's been the national security adviser, when you were there. Sometimes, it's been the secretary of state. Sometimes the defense secretary. Occasionally even the U.N. representative.

In this administration, who do you consider the pre-eminent foreign policy voice?

KISSINGER: I don't think there is, as yet, a pre-eminent foreign policy voice. But I think Secretary Powell conducted the crisis on the reconnaissance plane with great skill.

NOVAK: Mr. Secretary, Dr. Kissinger, when you came to China in 1971 to reopen it, it was a very different country than it is today. Are you, 30 years later, are you disappointed in the amount of progress that's been made? Did you expect that it was just about what you expected? Or do you feel it surpassed your expectations?

KISSINGER: Well, the economic progress that has been made in China went far beyond anything one could imagine in the 1970s. From that point of view it's an entirely different country, and also from the point of view of political structure it is a different country, though it has many of the human rights aspects that were described earlier in this program.

On the foreign policy relations between the United States and China, in the '70s the issue was how to contain the Soviet Union. In the 21st century the issue is whether the United States can coexist and cooperate with a growing China which has some competitive aspects. And that is a challenge that has not yet been solved, and on which both sides ought to be working more.

NOVAK: Henry Kissinger, thank you very much.

Al Hunt and I will return with a comment after these messages.


HUNT: Bob, I think Henry Kissinger said it would exacerbate the situation in East Asia to sell those Aegis radar destroyers to China, but I'll tell you, I think the political right now, because of China's atrocious behavior, will be energized, along with the anti-China left, and I think that's going to become a litmus test for George Bush, unfortunately.

NOVAK: Henry Kissinger, Al, has always been a respecter of military power and he says, contrary to a lot of things you hear from the right wing now, that China is not a military threat and he criticizes people who are trying to use this incident to drum up a hysterical fear of China.

HUNT: I suspect that privately he suspects his old adversary, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may prove to be one of those people. Today he kind of endorsed Colin Powell as the chief foreign policy voice for this administration. I wonder if that will help or hurt Powell.

NOVAK: Al, this whole policy, I think, is something that -- there's a great legacy of Henry Kissinger -- everybody was stunned when he suddenly showed up in China 30 years ago. It hasn't been always an easy path, but it's worked out a lot better than I and a lot of other people thought it would.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt. NOVAK: Coming up next: CNN's special coverage of the U.S. crew's homecoming at Whidbey Island Naval Air station. "THE CAPITAL GANG" will not be seen at its usual time because of the homecoming ceremony. "CAPITAL GANG" can be seen at 10:30 p.m. tonight and Sunday at a special time, 2:00 p.m. The GANG will talk about U.S.-China relations and the latest budget with Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

HUNT: Thanks for joining us.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

Back to the top