The evolution of U.S.-China relations — “Intelligence Matters”

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This week on the “Intelligence Matters” podcast, host Michael Morell speaks with Harvard Kennedy School professor and national security analyst Graham Allison as he re-examines his interviews on China with former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew. Allison revisits how their analysis and predictions on China have held up ten years later. He and Morell discuss Xi's plan for China, the negative consequences of bellicose rhetoric, and how Taiwan could potentially trigger a war between the U.S. and China. 

Highlights

  • Xi's plan for China: “If you ask Xi Jinping now, his grand narrative is China is inexorably rising, the US is irreversibly declining. And by mid-century, 2049, when they celebrate their 100th anniversary of the Communist Party dynasty in China, he believes China will be the center of the universe.”
  • Treating China as an enemy: “All of the natural juices in American politics are driving towards seeing China not just as a competitor, but increasingly an adversary. Actually, by that, people really mean enemy. That's exactly what Lee Kuan Yew said would lead you to a bad outcome. But secondly, I think the realities that make coexistence an imperative since the alternative is destruction, co-destruction, and since the first and most vital national interest for both the U.S. and China is to preserve itself as a free, independent nation.”
  • Taiwan and possibility of U.S.-China war: “If we were to wake up a year or five years from now and we learned that there had been a war, a real war, a big war between the U.S. and China, the most likely way that happened was over Taiwan. So I believe Taiwan is extremely, extremely dangerous as a potential trigger to a war that nobody wants. Secondly, for people who propose especially provocative actions, and I would give three examples, Nancy Pelosi's, I think very untimely and unreasonable visit to Taiwan this summer, which provided an occasion, which both raised the tension, but also provided an occasion for the Chinese response that improved their situation considerably. An even more so, this bill that Senators Menedez and Graham, the Taiwan Relations Act, have been trying to get through the Senate, which would propose or which in its original version proposed recognizing Taiwan as a non-NATO ally. Both of them,  if your objective is to declare war with China, you should say so.

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INTELLIGENCE MATTERS WITH GRAHAM ALLISON — TRANSCRIPT

PRODUCER: PAULINA SMOLINSKI

MICHAEL MORELL: Graham, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It is always nice to talk with you. There is literally no one who I learn more from than from you when we talk. So great to have you on the show.

GRAHAM ALLISON: And welcome and honored to be back with you. I love the show.

MICHAEL MORELL: Thank you. So Graham, you know that the idea for this episode came from a dinner that we had in Cambridge not too long ago when you and I went deep on China. I think they actually had to kick us out of the restaurant finally. But you remember that that idea was to go back to a set of interviews that you did with Lee Kuan Yew, I think about a decade ago now, and to see how his views on China have held up over time, along with your assessment of why they have held up or why they haven't held up. And by the way, that book that you did based on the interviews was titled Lee Kuan Yew The Grand Masters Insights on China, the United States and the World. And I think it's fair that our listeners might be asking, why do we care about Lee Kuan Yew's views from ten years ago and whether they were right or wrong? So I think that's the place I want to start the conversation. Graham, who was Lee Kuan Yew and why did you care about what his views were at the time you did the interviews? Let's start there.

GRAHAM ALLISON:  Three or four points. First, Lee Kuan Yew was, by everybody's assessment, the world's best China watcher. So as you Michael know very well from your days at the CIA, no one had a deeper understanding of Xi Jinping and China than Lee Kuan Yew. Secondly, this was a view that was held by virtually every serious strategic- a serious student of strategy in the world. In fact, for the little book that we did that you mentioned, Michael, we had Henry Kissinger do the foreword. He says this was the most insightful strategist whom he ever met. Lee Kuan Yew was someone whom every president of the U.S. during his term would go to Singapore to go see, to listen to, to talk to, and every Chinese leader would go see and talk to. So who was this guy? He was the founder. And for 30 years, prime minister and builder of Singapore. Which when he and his two colleagues started out, when Singapore was basically kicked out of Malaysia, was a poor port city known for its corruption and was poorer than the Philippines. And before he was done, it had become one of the wonders of the modern world with a per capita income today that's higher than that in the U.S. So Lee Kuan Yew was a true nation builder. He was a true visionary, and  he was the dream intelligence source for those of us trying to understand something as complex as China.

MICHAEL MORELL:  I met him a couple of times during my career at the agency. And I think it's fair to say that he was the best analyst on the planet on pretty much everything, including China. He just had so much insight to share on many, many topics.

GRAHAM ALLISON: Especially on China. And part of the reason why- just before I published the Destined for War book in 2017, our friend and colleague David Petraeus had recently become director at CIA. David, somebody I have a long friendship with over many, many decades. So I went to see him out of the agency a couple of weeks, maybe within a month of his taking office. I said, David, how are you finding it here?,He said, It's wonderful. David's always positive about everything. I said, What are you liking? He said, My goodness, these people are amazing. He said, You know, in the military, when we plan an operation to do something in Africa or here or there it takes us months, we have to have a backup. We have to track, we have to train. He said this morning some guys came in and they were going off to a foreign country and they have a mission to accomplish. And I asked them, What about their plan? They said they're going to make it up on the plane getting there. He was super impressed. So I said, well, David, have they let you in on any of  the jewel box, the secrets. And as you could imagine, his eyes get bigger. He said, yes, I've learned a number of secrets, but if I told you, I'd have to kill you. So I said, Well, what about the deep sleepers? Have they told you about the deep sleepers? He's looking puzzled. I said, These are people whom we established a relationship with decades ago. We never call on them, except occasionally. We asked them for some insights about the world they're living in. 

And I pulled out from my briefcase these 25 pages of the interviews with Lee Kuan Yew. And I looked at him, I said, for example, this this one, he said, the question is, is Xi Jinping and his colleagues, are they serious about displacing the U.S. as the predominant power in the foreseeable future? That's one question. Second question is, are they likely to succeed? Third, what is Xi's plan for doing this? I've got about three or four. He was almost jumping across the table to try to get at this thing. And I said, let me tell you, this is not a person who was working for American intelligence. This is an intelligent person who was trying to make Singapore succeed. And because of that he had a deep need to know who engaged with people like Xi for many, many hours in which they would actually call on him to talk to him. So he learned from that. And he was also a great strategic analyst. So he was like a dream team for your business.

MICHAEL MORELL: What I want to do is I want to throw out some of the points that Lee Kuan Yew made about China and just get you to respond to them. And you've already mentioned one of them. So, number one, Lee Kuan Yew said Chinese leaders are serious about displacing the United States as the number one power in Asia and eventually in the world. Is that still true?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Absolutely. I think the more you look at it and the more you listen to Xi Jinping and the more you observe China's behavior and the more you actually study the work plan that he outlined last week at the 20th party Congress. At this stage, actually, when he first said that Chinese would say, no, no, no, and most Americans would say, no, that's not real. But the Chinese, if you ask Xi Jinping now, his grand narrative is China is inexorably rising, the US is irreversibly declining. And by mid-century, 2049, when they celebrate their 100th anniversary of the Communist Party dynasty in China, he believes China will be the center of the universe.

MICHAEL MORELL: And so that brings us to number two. And that's what does being number one mean? And here's what Lee Kuan Yew said in your interview. Being number one means to the Chinese a relationship with other countries where China is dominant and is capable of influencing the policies of those countries in a way that furthers Chinese interests. Kind of a modern version of what was once known as the Middle Kingdom. Is that still true?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Yes, indeed. I think it's prescient as one watches their behavior and their strategy for doing that, which he also outlined, which is in the first instance, to become the dominant trading partner and secondly, the dominant supplier of the most important items in the global supply chain. If you ask the question, who is the number one overwhelming trading partner of every Asian nation, Singapore, Japan, Australia, Philippines. China, South Korea, for all of them. Twice as much trade as with the US. Who's the dominant supplier of the most important items in the most vital supply chain? China. So that provides the ground for demanding a degree of difference or for China's exercising a degree of influence when required. Lee Kuan Yew  had another comment about this, he said,  people say, well, how will China behave when it becomes number one? He said, excuse me, we already live next to China, which is number one. And they say always to us, we're not a hegemon. We don't throw our weight around. But when we do something they don't like, they say, know your place.

MICHAEL MORELL: Before we go to the next next Lee Kuan Yew insight I want to share. I want to ask you, how is China's desire to influence other countries different from America's desire to influence other countries?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Oh, great question. We should ask Lee Kuan Yew.

MICHAEL MORELL: Is it fundamentally different or is it fundamentally the same?

GRAHAM ALLISON:  I think there are many similarities. I'm not sure what Lee Kuan Yew would say, but I'm pretty sure what the Chinese would say. So they would say, you folks are fairly crude in the way that you establish your colossal position, namely, you lead with the military and with military bases. And that's why you have substantial military bases in a hundred places around the world. That's not that's not what we do. We in the Chinese tradition imagine or insist on a relationship between the center, the Metropole and the tributaries. And they have to pay respect and a degree of deference. But we're more subtle about the way in which we exercise our power. Now, there's one recently the Wolf Warriors and their extreme statements, which have largely led to a backlash in many countries. And if you look at the Chinese, where they're crude coercion of countries or attempt to coerce countries like Australia, which has mainly succeeded in getting their back up, because Australians are pretty pretty honorary folks. Their storyline may be better than their performance.

MICHAEL MORELL: When you asked him what is China's strategy to become number one, Lee Kuan Yew said China's strategy is to build a strong and prosperous future. But while doing so, to avoid any action that will sour relations with the U.S. So now we get to a really interesting place here. He said. Lee Kuan Yew said, and I want to quote, the mistake that Germany and Japan made was that their effort, too, was their effort to challenge the existing order. The Chinese are not stupid. They have avoided this mistake with the implication being that they would continue to avoid that mistake. Obviously, things have turned out a little bit differently.

GRAHAM ALLISON: That's a good one to remember. I think that was certainly his advice to Xi Jinping and to other Chinese leaders. And actually, I had talked to him about that. And he said that was his advice, but that he had a feeling that they didn't find it as comfortable or compatible as they thought. I think there is no question that under Xi the banner, which served China rather well for a long time. And I must say, from our perspective, not too many people stop to ask, well, hide what and until a when? Nonetheless, I think that Xi Jinping by 2016 was discarding that as he asserted a much more affirmative agenda in which he called on China to stand strong and tall. Partly this is to build a nationalist support for the regime since his first ambition, and that he understood very well and that Lee Kuan Yew understood well that most Western observers, I think missed. It is to be able to sustain his position as leader against what are clearly many opponents who would like to replace him. So if we watch what's happened in the past five years, I think the most remarkable performance of a political leader in the world has been that of Xi Jinping, who inherited what was a determined collective leadership in which people were terrified of the prospect of one man rule that would be a return to Mao and madness of the Cultural Revolution. But lo and behold, as we saw in the coronation last week, Xi Jinping is now the unchallenged unitary autocrat or emperor ruling China.

MICHAEL MORELL: Here's another one, Graham. I think it is really important, Lee Kuan Yew said Xi Jinping is a very impressive individual and he has iron in his soul.

GRAHAM ALLISON: I think we've seen that. 

MICHAEL MORELL: We're seeing that right now.

GRAHAM ALLISON: We're seeing it. Absolutely. And he was the first person to call out Xi Jinping. Xi Jinping became vice president in 2008 and he said, watch this man, he has iron in his soul. I think he actually found him to be for himself a bit of a soul mate. So a little story, too, with respect to that. Lee Kuan Yew thought that unlike most Western leaders, he had grown up in a very, very hard school of very, very hard knocks. Basically, to survive and to continue ruling Singapore, he even said, I had to do so many things that in retrospect, I don't feel proud of. And those probably included, they may have included the deaths of some people. Who knows. Of political opponents. 

For Xi Jinping, he was a princeling. His father was a colleague of Mao's. He was growing up in Beijing, lived a pretty cushy life. All of a sudden Mao comes along and has his Cultural revolution, humiliates his father in public over and over. And sends the two kids, his sister and himself, to the countryside to shovel dung, as he tells the story himself. And his sister found it so, so dispiriting that she committed suicide. And he thought of committing suicide, but determined, as he said, that he would become rather than rare. So this is a tough guy, and I think Lee Kuan Yew would admire, as a similarly tough guy leader. Here in a world in which Great Britain, a great story of democracy, has had four prime ministers in less than two months.  And here's Xi Jinping in control of the instruments of power. If the first requirement of a leader of a nation is to maintain his position so that he has the power to pursue his ambitions, even though I don't like it and I don't like his style in doing it, I have to stand back. And I think Lee Kuan Yew would stand back and say, well he's succeeding.

MICHAEL MORELL:In an immense way. Here's perhaps to me, the most interesting thing that Lee Kuan Yew said to you ten years ago. The United States should not treat China as an enemy. And I want to quote here again, Lee Kuan Yew said, otherwise it meaning, China, will develop a strategy to demolish his word, demolish the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific. And two more quotes from Lee Kuan Yew here. If the U.S. attempts to humiliate China, keep it down, it will assure itself an enemy. And one more. The fundamental choice that the United States has to make is to engage or isolate China. You cannot have it both ways. You cannot say you will engage China on some issues and isolate her on others. You cannot mix your signals. What's your reaction to that today?

GRAHAM ALLISON: I hadn't gone back to read that before. I think I remember that this was certainly one of his lines. But since you offered the additional quotations it becomes even more interesting. I think he would say that we failed to take his advice, that we have yielded to basically all the normal pressures that occur in what I've described elsewhere in the that Destined For War book as a Thucydidean rivalry that we've let the fear of the the rise of China so color our appreciation of the bigger geopolitical picture that we may be falling into just the pattern of behavior that he warned us against and I'm afraid likely with the consequences that he warned us against. He had the idea, which I I'm confident is exactly right that on this small globe in which we are trying to live and survive that particularly as China came to have a major nuclear arsenal which it has had now for a decade, it would be impossible to have a nuclear war without the U.S. being destroyed because we live in a so-called M.A.D world. 

As Cold War strategist reminded us, even if I do my best to destroy you, I can't prevent you're retaliating in a way that destroys me. So I've got to find some way to live with you, however uncomfortably. He also, interestingly, particularly for somebody that grew up altogether in the 20th century, he picked up on the climate risks early on and talked presciently about how could it be that Chinese and American leaders don't understand that either of them can make a biosphere none of us can live here. So they have to find some way to cooperate in that space. So his vision was that somehow we would find a way, he called it, to share the Pacific in the 21st century and very uncomfortably, but nonetheless still surviving. And I think that we probably should be reading his thoughts again and asking, are we stumbling down the road that he warned us would not lead to where we want to get?

MICHAEL MORELL: I want to kind of bring us to today and ask you a couple of really difficult questions and we can actually talk about these. We just talked that if China did the right things and the U.S. did the right things, I think Lee Kuan Yew imagined a world where the United States and a rising China could coexist. You just said it. The question is, was he wrong then? And if he was right then, has the last ten years eliminated that outcome from the set of possible outcomes? Is it no longer possible that we can co-exist? Or do we still have time? What's your view on that?

GRAHAM ALLISON: You and I talked a little bit about this at dinner, you made a number of points that I'm still trying to digest and reflect on. I think that you're certainly right that all of the natural juices in American politics are driving towards seeing China not just as a competitor, but increasingly an adversary. Actually, by that, people really mean enemy. That's exactly what Lee Kuan Yew said would lead you to a bad outcome. But secondly, I think the realities that make coexistence an imperative since the alternative is destruction, co-destruction, and since the first and most vital national interest for both the U.S. and China is to preserve itself as a free, independent nation. As Reagan told us, at the end of a nuclear war, there will be no winners because no matter how successfully you've destroyed your adversary, if your own country has been destroyed in the process, nobody can call that victory. 

So can we still find a way to manage a process in which there's fierce competition on the one hand, which inevitably there will be because we really do believe we are number one and should be number one. And that the global order, especially the Asian order of which we've been the principal architect and guardian since World War Two, has been extraordinarily successful. Basically, never before in history have there been such periods. This is, other than one long piece, the longest period without great power war. So this is unnatural. But again, remarkable and to be celebrated. There's also been stability that's allowed the fastest increase in human well-being that we've seen in history. Americans, I think, are rightfully proud of the international order we played the lead role in in constructing and maintaining. And don't want to give that up. And I think I understand that. 

On the other hand, from the Chinese perspective, the statement that says, wait a minute, we were not even there when you did all this. We weren't consulted. Our interests were taken into account. So we think that there need to be some very substantial adjustments. That's very normal and natural. Both the rising power and the ruling power are behaving precisely the way Thucydides said rising and ruling powers do. Now, can the parties, because we live in a M.A.D. world, remember that my survival requires finding a way, however uncomfortable, to constrain my competition and even cooperate with you. And can you do the same? In the Cold War, which was analogous not the same, but analogous, after some very close calls, including, as we're remembering this week, the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Kennedy thought there was about a one in three chance this was going to end in a nuclear war. But having had these experiences over time, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union developed a level of caution and constraint and even compromise that allowed us to have a peaceful or to coexist while we were competing. And so could we do something similar in the case of the U.S. and China? I believe this is not not beyond human imagination, not beyond statecraft. If it were great statecraft. But we should remember that the success of the Cold War strategists was not normal. This was extraordinary what was created as the Cold War strategy and then refined over the course of your career and my career. I would say, can we do this again? Well, if we do it once, why not? But are we doing it currently? I don't think so.

MICHAEL MORELL: I want to ask about Taiwan, which is obviously in the news. There has been several times in the history of PRC-U.S. relations, where there have been significant tensions over Taiwan, dating back to the communist revolution and the founding of the People's Republic. And tensions are on the rise again today. I'd say significantly so. And what I want to ask you is why are they on the rise now? How do you think about how we got to where we are today? It seems to me that the U.S. has actually taken steps here that have added to these tensions. I'm wondering whether those steps were strategically smart or not. How do you think about where we are on Taiwan and how we got here?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Great issue, very complicated, as you know better than I do since you've spent much of your career wrestling with it. But four or five points. If we were to wake up a year or five years from now and we learned that there had been a war, a real war, a big war between the U.S. and China, the most likely way that happened was over Taiwan. So I believe Taiwan is extremely, extremely dangerous as a potential trigger to a war that nobody wants. Secondly, for people who propose especially provocative actions and I would give three examples, Nancy Pelosi's, I think very untimely and unreasonable visit to Taiwan this summer, which provided an occasion, which both raised the tension, but also provided an occasion for the Chinese response that improved their situation considerably. An even more so, this bill that Senators Menedez and Graham, the Taiwan Relations Act, have been trying to get through the Senate, which would propose or which in its original version proposed recognising Taiwan as a non-NATO ally. Both of them,  if your objective is to declare war with China, you should say so. 

So if anybody wants to have a war with China, speak up and see who will agree with them. And I think the answer is nobody. Everybody knows that a war between the U.S. and China could be catastrophic for the U.S., which is what we care about most. But if you wanted to raise the risk of that to the highest level, recognizing Taiwan as an independent state has absolutely approached the brightest, brightest red line China has. No Chinese leader, not Xi, not anybody else could survive if Taiwan became an independent country. That's just a political fact in their system, and they're prepared to fight about it if it comes to that. I would say provoking that makes no sense. Third, mostly we've forgotten what an incredible success the policy of so-called strategic ambiguity, that was developed by Nixon and Kissinger on the one hand and Mao and on the other in the Shanghai communique and its aftermath. What an incredible success this has been. This is one of the great, great successes in American postwar policy. 

The past five decades have seen greater increases in the well-being of people on both sides of the strait than any in five decades in China's thousands of years of history. Taiwan is now a vibrant, self-governing, market economy and democracy with some of the great companies in the world. The world's leading semiconductor company, TSMC, is a Taiwan company, but there are other tech companies. This is a great success story. So why then are we stumbling towards what's likely to be a conflict that I think is extremely dangerous. Partly it's the demons or fairies in American politics. Where the imperative in domestic politics is never let anybody get to your right on a serious issue of national security. So both Republicans and Democrats are scrambling to try to show they can be tougher than the other on China. Partly it's because we haven't found a concept or a conceptualization of an ability to both compete and cooperate with China at the same time, not because we would like to, but because that's necessitated by the objective conditions we face, namely nuclear M.A.D, climate M.A.D, and partly because we have been sort of coasting, I think, in letting events take their take their course as opposed to thinking strategically. This will require and does require a big burst of strategic imagination, but that's a long answer. But I think this is an issue that we'll see arise over and over and very dangerously, possibly, in the 24 presidential campaign where it's quite possible the Republican platform will call for recognition of an independent Taiwan. And if it does so, I think they should simply add to it and therefore likely war with China.

MICHAEL MORELL: I couldn't agree with you more, Graham. I just want to take the next step in in your previous answer, Graham, if you were the national security adviser and you were about to run a policy process on our strategic approach to China, what are the key questions that you would ask your team?

GRAHAM ALLISON: Great question. You and I should wrestle with this one. Number one, start with the structural, the uncomfortable, sometimes ugly structural realities. Reality one, we live in a M.A.D. world in which China has an arsenal of nuclear weapons that, if used against us, will erase the U.S. from the map. 

MICHAEL MORELL: And they're growing that arsenal. 

GRAHAM ALLISON:  A growing arsenal, a rapidly growing arsenal. But in any case, if I end up with a war, a nuclear war with China, I've lost the U.S. That's fatal for all of my ambitions. Secondly, I live in a contained biosphere with China, in which China is now the biggest greenhouse gas emission emitter, twice as much as the U.S., but in which either the U.S. or China on our current trajectory, could make a biosphere none of us can live in in some decades ahead. So we have to find some way to cooperate in that space. Thirdly, actually, we've become economically so entangled and China is so much an economic backbone of the world today that the idea of building some new economic Iron Curtain and excluding China, there can be some selective decoupling. But China is not going to be decoupled from the global economy. It's the backbone of the global economy and even of our economy. 

So start with the reality. Secondly, you and I and Mike and Sandy wrote an article about this asking what is the hierarchy of American vital national interests. So American vital national interests start with the survival of the U.S. as a free nation with our institutions and values. So does that require a war with China? No. A war with China would defeat that objective. So we had to find a way to co-exist, to survive with China. Then next I then go to what lessons can I extract and adapt from the Cold War that may be helpful in this regard. As you remember, American leaders and Reagan probably most vividly, for whom I worked with enthusiasm, Reagan said the Soviet Union is the evil empire. I believe that was right. Reagan was serious about hoping ultimately to bury the Soviet Union. We did, and communism, we did. But he also said a nuclear war cannot be won and must therefore never be fought. So he was prepared to engage in communication all the time and at every possible level to engage in negotiations, sometimes compromising in which we agreed not to deploy intermediate nuclear forces in order to, as the price for getting the Soviet Union to eliminate its intermediate nuclear forces or we agreed not to deploy any ballistic missile systems as the price for getting them not to. So where it was in our interests, we were prepared to compromise as necessary. He didn't find it necessary to go, quote, liberate Eastern Europe by conflict, because he recognized that if we had a conventional war with the Soviet Union in Hungary or Czechoslovakia or Poland or elsewhere, that could escalate to a nuclear war. 

We competed vigorously on the one hand, but we found a way to constrain and even occasionally certainly coordinate, even cooperate on the other. And that then led for a long term peaceful competition. A vicious competition, ferocious competition, often. Sometimes with a lot of activity in the great shock which your intelligence community would tell us about, for example, in Afghanistan, but we didn't send troops to fight Soviet troops. We didn't use nuclear weapons against Soviet troops because we understood nuclear war could not be won. That would mean we couldn't be very imaginative. We couldn't be very competitive. We couldn't help undermined their system and we couldn't ultimately emerge successfully. I'd say that if the next 30, 40, 50 years were a ruthless competition between the U.S. and China, thus trying to show that we can make a democracy work. Xi and his company are trying to show they can make an autocracy, a party led autocracy, work better. And we see how it works out. And I'm deeply enough committed to the American creed to believe that I think in a fair and long term competition we will will not only hold our own, but will do better than that.

MICHAEL MORELL: Graham, I couldn't agree with you more. I could talk to you all day about this. Thank you so much for joining us. We'll continue the conversation offline. Thank you. 

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