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Is an illiberal regime at home also illiberal in foreign policy? Do governments that break basic rights of their citizens ignore international rules outside their borders?
Throughout his three decades of government service, ambassador David Shear has seen both ends of Chinese policy: starting his career at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, then ending as assistant secretary of defense handling Chinese assertive claims in the South China Sea in 2014-17. Ambassador Shear explains the importance of a regional strategy for advancing U.S. interests in Asia and with China.
James Green: Welcome to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University.
This podcast series explores diplomacy and dialogue between China and the United States during the four decades since normalization of relations in 1979. We'll hear from former ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, and White House advisors -- who will share how they shaped the course of the most complex relationship in international diplomacy today.
I'm your host, James Green.
Today on the podcast, we talk with Ambassador David Shear.
Dave Shear began and ended his thirty-plus-year career in the U.S. Government on the front lines of a critical question the world faces with a resurgent China: will Beijing play by international rules or break existing frameworks in pursuit of its own policy objectives? Shear was a young political officer on the ground in Beijing as units of the People's Liberation Army entered Tiananmen Square in June 1989; he saw first-hand the will of the Chinese Communist Party to spill blood in order to stay in power.
A career Foreign Service officer, Shear then served in other posts in Asia, including managing the military alliance relationship with Japan and as Ambassador to Vietnam, before returning to Washington to be the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia. In that position during the second part of the Obama Administration, he had to orchestrate the U.S. response to the PLA’s campaign to militarily fortify a string of land features in the South China Sea. These are disputed waters, and despite an international tribunal's ruling against Beijing, this building campaign continues and is seen as the pointy end of the spear of Chinese assertiveness in the region.
On the South Lawn of the White House in September 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping very publicly declared that China "had no intention to militarize" the South China Sea. President Obama addressed the issue in an interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria in 2016 with a bit of a warning:
President Obama (audio): “Part of what I’ve tried to communicate to President Xi is that the United States arrives at its power in part by restraining itself. And when we bind ourselves to a bunch of international norms and rules, it’s not because we have to; it’s because we recognize that building a strong international order is in our interests. And I think, over the long term, will be in China’s interests as well. So where we see them violating international rules and norms, as we have seen in some cases in the South China Sea or in some of their behavior when it comes to economic policy, we have been very firm, and we have indicated to them that there will be consequences.
James Green: But our discussion with Ambassador Shear starts with a much different China: grey Beijing of the 1980s when popular unhappiness with inflation and internal political jockeying among senior leaders would lead to the bloodshed of Tiananmen.
Ambassador Shear, thanks so much for taking time. So great to have you.
David Shear: It's great to be here, James.
James Green: I wanted to start with your first posting in Beijing, and just talk a little bit about what it was like, and what China was like at that time.
David Shear: Well, I worked on China between 1984 and 1989, and I did that on two assignments, one with the China desk at the State Department, one as a political officer at the embassy in Beijing. My first visit to China was in 1984. And it's hard to describe the contrast between the China of 1984 and the China of now. But I think if I try to do that, I'd use Shanghai.
If you go to Shanghai now and stand on the Bund and look across the Huangpu River, you see a vast burgeoning 21st century global city. And in 1984, all you saw was a tidal flat with a lot of scrap steelyards and shipbreaking areas. So, as Shanghai has come a long way, so has China.
James Green: And so, when you went to Beijing, what was your job?
David Shear: I was a political officer in the political section of the embassy. My job was to cover Chinese domestic politics. And in that capacity, I followed Chinese human rights practices, I followed Chinese policy in Tibet, as well as overall domestic politics. And I cut my teeth as a Pekinologist in the Foreign Service and reporting on what I could find out about domestic politics from my perch in the embassy in Beijing.
James Green: And so, at that time, Mao's died, Deng Xiaoping ascends. There's some move since 1978, '79, at the third plenum to Reform and Opening. What did China feel like then, and what were the kind of debates that people were having at that moment?
David Shear: Well, in Chinese terms, it felt a little like the Wild West. Deng Xiaoping had put a very positive sanction on economic reform. People were looking for opportunities, both to reform and to make money. Zhao Ziyang was the premier who was very strongly pro-reform. There was talk not only about economic reform in those days in the late '80s, but there was also talk of political reform.
So, on one hand prospects looked pretty bright for reform and opening in China, generally. On the other hand, China was experiencing heavy inflation. There were huge movements of people from the countryside to the urban areas. There was a great potential for urban unrest. So, you had these two, the yin and the yang of Chinese politics playing out before our eyes in the years and months just prior to the Tiananmen massacre.
James Green: And so, then you were there right before? Did you leave in the summer of '89?
David Shear: I covered the student demonstrations leading up to the massacre. I followed several student marches all the way from Peking University to Tiananmen Square. I remember in that huge, huge square in the course of one demonstration, just being shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of thousands of other Chinese people, not just students but workers and bureaucrats, as well, who were discontented with the way the Communist Party was running things.
James Green: And how did they see you as a foreigner, an American diplomat? What was that discussion like?
David Shear: Some Chinese, of course, were very reticent and very suspicious. Others just wanted to talk. And I made sure that everybody I talked to knew I was from the American Embassy, just so they could weigh the risk in their own minds before they said something to me. But I found people who were willing to talk. I found students who were willing to talk. And we learned a lot as the Square faced disaster that late May and early June of 1989.
James Green: You've gone back to China many times since then. Were people at that moment, knowing you were an American diplomat, in some ways, more open or more willing to discuss what they thought was happening than they are today?
David Shear: Well, even then, at the height of the Deng Xiaoping-Zhao Ziyang reforms, people were pretty wary. People wanted to be very careful about how they related to a foreigner, especially a foreigner who worked for an embassy. So, my sense is that Chinese are always careful. They may be a bit more careful now, given Xi Jinping's imposition of greater discipline on people.
James Green: So, then you left right before the crackdown, or were you there?
David Shear: No, I was there during the crackdown. I was on the Square until the evening of. I spent all night in the Square the night before the massacre. And had to go back to the embassy for a rest. And on my way back, I encountered, in front of the Jianguo Hotel on the way to the embassy, a long PLA convoy full of what looked like hardened PLA infantry men whose weapons were, as we say, cocked and locked. And that convoy had been stopped by a crowd of Chinese civilians who, at least temporarily, were preventing it from proceeding to the square.
I went back to the square very soon after, like the day after the massacre to have a look. And I remember vividly what a tank with a 50-caliber machine gun looks like, and it's pretty intimidating, as are Chinese armored personnel carriers. I watched multiple convoys pass my apartment on Jianguomen Avenue the evening of the massacre. And along the sides of Jianguomen Avenue were some very irate Chinese civilians who would try and pick off stragglers and beat the you-know-what out of stragglers if they could pick them off. As these convoys went into the Square, I'll never forget the smell of the transmission fluid of that armor.
My family was evacuated in the days immediately following the massacre, which was a good thing. My assignment ended about a month after the Tiananmen massacre. I spent the days and weeks after the massacre basically doing two things. One was trying to determine, for the embassy, how many Chinese had actually died in the massacre. And I put out a cable on that which I think has been declassified since. The second thing we did-
James Green: What was your estimate at that time?
David Shear: If I recall correctly, it was around 500.
The second thing we did was help evacuate American citizens from Beijing. And the embassy formed its own convoys with minivans very clearly marked as embassy vehicles and circulated through the city to places known to have American students or American expatriates to pick them up. So, we spent a fair amount of time traveling through streets still barricaded by protesters and still manned by young PLA soldiers with their AK-47s on the ready.
James Green: And this is a time, hard to think about, but before email and before there was an easy way to...before cell phones, before there was an easy way to connect with American citizens and who might be studying or working in China. What was that like to drive through the streets of Beijing at a time when it was almost on lockdown?
David Shear: It was very challenging. And we had a group of army attachés at the embassy who knew every street in Beijing, almost knew every military license plate in Beijing, and could scope out the situation pretty well and find ways for us to either bypass barricades or get through them safely.
James Green: Was it a surprise ending of your tour there? That is, when you got there, there was talk of reform and there was consideration of different aspects of reform and then, when you left, reform seem to be off the table?
David Shear: Well, of course, when I arrived in China in 1986, everybody was talking about reform, or at least informed elite people were talking about reform. And it looked like great possibilities lay before the Chinese people. And when I left the government had shot 500-plus of its citizens, had established martial law, and had clamped down quite considerably nationwide. And remember that the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, those demonstrations and that unrest was not restricted to Beijing. It happened all over the country particularly in places like Shanghai, Guangzhou and in Sichuan, as well.
I learned a lot about Chinese politics throughout my assignment there. But I think it's important to understand that what happened in connection with the Tiananmen massacre happened because a struggle for power was taking place among the Chinese leadership for the succession to Deng Xiaoping. And the winner was Li Peng, and the loser was Zhao Ziyang. But the demonstrations and the massacre happened because the Chinese leadership just, in the context of the power struggle, couldn't make up its mind what to do about the demonstrations. So, things got out of hand from the perspective of the Communist Party. And I think that experience, combined with what the Chinese saw happening in Gorbachev's Russia, may have imparted some lessons on current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, about the fragility of communist rule and the need for the party to be very disciplined.
James Green: And Zhao Ziyang had been on a foreign trip, some point during the demonstration.
David Shear: He’d been to North Korea, if I recall correctly. Everybody who followed the massacre remembers Zhao Ziyang’s descent to the Square where he went to what was being used as the headquarters for the students and he said, “It's too late. I have come too late.”
Let me just follow that up by saying there were a lot of developments between the United States and China after the Tiananmen massacre. One was the imposition of Tiananmen-related sanctions by the Bush administration, followed in the 1990s by a loosening of an improvement in U.S.-China bilateral relations, and the entry of China into the WTO during the Clinton administration. But those of us who worked on China in the 1980s, particularly those of us who worked in connection with the Tiananmen massacre, never ever lost our wariness about how to deal with China and never ever lost sight of what American interests were with regard to China. I think the 1980s bred a very hardheaded generation of China hands in the U.S. government, not just in the State Department.
James Green: Are there other folks that come to mind, colleagues that you…?
David Shear: Richard Boucher, Jim Keith. Jim Lilley, of course, made it through all that as ambassador. Steve Schleicher; all great China hands.
James Green: After that time in China, you then…my sense was spent a fair amount of time working on Japan and that alliance relationship. How would you contrast your tour in China versus working with an allied country like Japan?
David Shear: From the standpoint of a diplomat, working with a country like China is very different from working with the country like Japan. After all, Japan is a longtime ally. We have been working closely with the Japanese since 1945. We have very strong common interests, and a very deep reservoir of trust. And nothing promotes smooth effective diplomacy like trust between two sides. And that's something, I think, the U.S. and China traditionally have lacked. There is much less trust between Chinese and American diplomats and leaders. Although we have defined common interests, and we have cooperated with the Chinese and pursuing those common interests, there is a good deal less trust between China, which is a potential rival, and Japan, which is a very close ally.
James Green: I know you're a student of history and geostrategy. Joe Nye and Rich Armitage have kind of different views about how to manage U.S. relations with Asia, inside-out or outside-in. That is, do you build pattern of alliances and think about those sorts of relationships with, say, Japan and Philippines as a way to lead your Asia policy, or is dealing with the mainland and China really the way to go forward? At this moment in our discussion, if you have thoughts about how to manage U.S. relations with Asia from that kind of broad strategic picture?
David Shear: Well, as you say, the classic distinction in Asia as in Washington is that between the people who want to engage China and the Ring strategists who want to emphasize the importance of our allies, and I've always thought that you have to do both. You can’t engage China effectively without building strong alliances and using those alliances as leverage in your approach to China. And that I think was the point of the pivot in the Obama administration, and I think that's where the Trump administration ultimately will head as well.
James Green: So, moving on to your time back at the State Department. You were head of the China desk at the beginning of the Obama administration and there was a discussion of what a dialogue structure should look like with China. The Bush administration under Hank Paulson had set up the strategic economic dialogue, which brought a number of different Cabinet secretaries on the economic side together to, in some ways, force an interagency discussion on the Chinese side, which didn't happen too much on economic issues. The Obama administration came in and, under Secretary Clinton, there was a decision that this discussion had to be broadened so that it would include not only economic but also foreign policy issues. Could you talk a little bit about your role and how you saw that?
David Shear: Before I came back to the State Department in 2008 to be director of the China desk, of course, the Bush administration was winding down. And the overall context was the 2008 financial crisis. That led people to believe that on the economic side in the U.S. government that we had to use the already existing strategic economic dialogue established by Secretary of the Treasury Paulson to coordinate as closely with the Chinese as possible on maintaining global financial stability, and then encouraging the Chinese to stimulate their economy and maintain their exchange rate. And we thought that that would help stabilize the global financial system, the global economy.
And my sense was that President Bush and Secretary Paulson were using the strategic economic dialogue at the end of that administration to pursue those very important economic goals. And my sense was that they were fairly successful. I think the Chinese took a fairly constructive approach both towards global systemic issues, and the role their own economic policy played in stabilizing the financial system. But as the financial system stabilized following the crash, and as the Obama administration came in, I think…I certainly believe that we needed to expand our senior-most level contacts beyond the economic sphere to look at other areas where we might potentially cooperate with the Chinese, particularly on global issues.
But that wasn't the only reason for expanding the strategic economic dialogue. There were two other important reasons, I think. One of them was not just to look for areas where we could cooperate, but to manage areas where we clearly disagreed. And a third reason was because U.S.-China relations remain stable when we maximize senior-level interactions. And I saw the strategic and economic dialogue, which succeeded Paulson's strategic economic dialogue, as a way primarily for senior most people in the U.S. and Chinese leaderships to get to know each other, to define perspectives on the issues that face us, to look for areas where we could cooperate, as well as manage issues on which we didn't agree.
And I remember in the May 2010 strategic and economic dialogue in Beijing, how sharp our exchanges with the Chinese were on two issues. One was the North Korean sinking of the Cheonan, the South Korean patrol boat, which had happened just before the strategic and economic dialogue took place, and the second issue was the South China Sea. And I remember Dai Bingguo leaning over the table and looking at Kurt Campbell and saying, on the South China Sea, “We know what you're doing behind our back.”
James Green: Why do you think it's important for the leaders of the two countries to talk and have some sense of what's going on on the other side of the world?
David Shear: One reason is that decision-making in China is very top-down. So, to get decisions made in China, in many cases you have to start at the top when hard decisions are involved. Second, leaders just need to be in the habit of communication. And if they're in the habit of communication, the President can pick up the phone and call his or her Chinese counterpart and talk through a crisis. It's been said for a long time that the President is the real director of the China desk in the U.S. government; I think that's true. And that's important for the Chinese. So, it’s critically important that senior levels maintain regular contact because the risks of miscalculation or miscommunication are so great in U.S.-China relations.
James Green: I think one of the frustrations for the U.S. participants in these series of dialogues is sometimes they felt like they didn't get much from their Chinese counterparts. They got talking points. And I'm sure the Chinese complain the same thing about our side, that we give talking points. Now I'm thinking more of the kind of economic discussions. But even in the foreign policy ones, it's quite staged, and it's quite different from what a U.S. politician would think of as a natural discussion. Given the almost falseness of some of the preparedness in these discussions, you still think it's worthwhile to sit down and have them?
David Shear: Well, a large formal gathering of senior leaders, between China and the United States will always be somewhat formal. But, often, what's important is less the formal meetings than the meetings on the margins, the informal meetings, the dinners, the lunches, the breakfast, not just between the senior most people there but among the working level people, as well. It’s just a tremendous opportunity to communicate, and to air out grievances, and to look for areas of cooperation.
There are lots of ways of doing this. You don't have to do it with a forty-car long motorcade full of Cabinet-level people. You could do it separately. What's important is that the senior most levels of both governments have regular contacts. That's one thing I'm a little worried about in connection with the Trump administration's management of the relationship. Senior level contacts have been minimal, as far as I can tell, particularly moving into the President's encounter with President Xi at the G20 meeting.
James Green: Can you just say from your time as the head of the desk and then moving into the Deputy Assistant Secretary position, how did you see your role, and how did you try to use that to advance U.S. interests, and how did the structure of the S&ED or having some sort of dialogue help you do that?
David Shear: Well, I was the deputy assistant secretary for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and Mongolia, 2009 to 2011. And the deputy assistant secretary occupies an interesting position because they're not only responsible for ensuring that the, the working levels get things done and keep the trains moving; they're responsible for helping the assistant secretary and more senior officials in the government think through the issues and find creative or effective ways of addressing our problems or establishing our strategy or implementing our strategy. So, the deputy assistant secretary is sort of like a master sergeant, in terms of the liaison role he or she plays between the senior most levels and working levels.
James Green: In your recollection, are there a couple of issues that come to mind that you really felt the S&ED was an effective place to talk about them, even if they weren't resolved? Are there things that come to mind that you thought, “Yeah, we really did a good job,” at least explaining U.S. position, if not kind of moving China towards us?
David Shear: Well, I go back to the May 2010 S&ED in Beijing both on the subjects of the sinking of the Cheonan and the subject of the South China Sea. We had very lengthy, intense sometimes angry discussions with the Chinese. And there's just no better way for them to understand what your interests and goals are than for an irate senior official to sit down across from you and give them, in this case, her mind. Secretary Clinton had very strong things to say to her Chinese counterpart, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, on these subjects. And I think the Chinese got the message.
James Green: You had mentioned the Obama administration's pivot to Asia. Maybe now we could talk a little bit about how the S&ED or the relationship with China fit into that broader picture. Could you just lay the groundwork of what the policy was and then how China fit into that dialogue?
David Shear: Well, as I said earlier, you've got to use a combination of engagement and ring strategy in your approach to the Chinese. And the S&ED represented the engagement piece of the Obama strategy vis-à-vis China. The Pivot represented the ring strategist’s approach to strengthening allies and generating leverage vis-à-vis the Chinese. I think the Chinese understood this. I think the Pivot and the extent to which we strengthened our allies helped us in managing the region and in making sure that the Chinese were aware of our interests and in pressing our interests throughout the region.
James Green: Were you also with Secretary Clinton when she went to the ASEAN meeting in which the South China Sea became particularly contentious?
David Shear: Secretary Clinton went to the ASEAN Regional Forum in Hanoi in July of 2010. And it was at an event in connection with the ASEAN Regional Forum that she articulated an American strategic interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. As far as I can recall, that was the first time a senior American official had articulated a strategic interest in Southeast Asia since the early 1970s when we pulled out of Vietnam. So, her remarks in Hanoi with regard to the South China Sea, I believe, were historic. And I think the Chinese thought they were quite a departure as well, given the angry reception her remarks received from the Chinese at that meeting.
James Green: And this was Yang Jiechi who had some choice words to say.
David Shear: That's right. The preparations for the Secretary's speech actually began in, I'd say late 2009, early 2010. And one of the events that led us to consider what the Secretary would say in Hanoi was the Chinese harassment of an American military vessel in the South China Sea in March of 2009. I think that event plus other assertive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea signaled to us that the Chinese were taking a different approach, a more assertive approach in the region and that we needed to start thinking of ways of responding to that.
Well, I want to go back for a minute to 1996, if I may. 1996, I think, will be viewed as an important year in U.S.-China relations because of the crisis relating to the Taiwan Strait. In late 1995 and early 1996, the Chinese announced closure areas in the seas next to Taiwan and fired test missiles into those closure areas. This caused a crisis not only in Taiwan-Mainland relations but in U.S.-China relations as well. And I think both sides took a lesson from this event. One was on the American side that the Chinese were going to get more assertive and that we had to start thinking about how to handle, how to manage a region in which China was becoming more assertive. And, in connection with that, what role a strengthened the U.S.-Japan alliance would play in managing the region.
I think that the lesson the Chinese took from that crisis was that they needed stronger military force deployable to the East China Sea. And the events that we're seeing unfold today in the South China Sea and the East China Sea can, in part, be traced back to the crisis over the Taiwan Strait in 1996.
James Green: You think that PLA felt like they need more options than simply closure areas off, Taipei and Kaohsiung, if called upon by the civilian leadership.
David Shear: That’s right. And I think it marked a much more mature, shall we say, way of Chinese thinking about, area denial.
James Green: Your time in Hanoi, you arrived in 2011. Is that right?
David Shear: 2011.
James Green: It was a time when the U.S. was starting to negotiate more in earnest the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
David Shear: There are some strong similarities between China and Vietnam in this regard that they’re two of the only remaining Communist countries in the world following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Among the only countries still organized politically along Leninist lines. The two Communist parties have historically very close relationships, and the Vietnam-China relationship is managed primarily between the two parties.
James Green: Two Communist parties.
David Shear: The two Communist parties. So, there are some very strong similarities but there are also some strong differences. One is that China has 1.4 billion people, and Vietnam has about 93 million people. While Vietnam borders China and has a long history of economic and cultural exchanges with China, the Vietnamese distrust of the Chinese runs very deep. And there's a very strong current of anti-Chinese nationalism among the Vietnamese people which Vietnamese leaders have to pay attention to.
James Green: How did, at that moment, in 2011, 2012, 2013, how were Vietnamese-Chinese relations at that time, and then how did, say, the Trans-Pacific Partnership play into that?
David Shear: Well, Vietnamese-Chinese relations at that time were very complicated, particularly with regard to the South China Sea. The Vietnamese clearly were interested in cultivating stronger relations with the United States in order to generate leverage vis-à-vis the Chinese. And I think the U.S. was eager to respond positively to that. The challenge one has in going to Vietnam as an ambassador charged with building the relationship is, one, Vietnamese leaders walk on a tightrope when it comes to relations with China. So, Vietnamese relationship with China is one of the limiting factors on what you can do. The other limiting factor on what you can do as ambassador to Vietnam is the fact that, Pivot notwithstanding, East Asia and Southeast Asia is not a high strategic priority for United States leaders. They don’t have the time. The Obama administration was clearly, justifiably, preoccupied with the Persian Gulf and South Asia. And when they turned their attention to Asia, they usually turn it to North Korea. So, Southeast Asia is not a high priority and does not get the pick of resources for us to pursue our goals, so we have to think of creative ways of maximizing our influence given those two limitations on how far we can go.
And, for me, one way of maximizing our influence was to bring the Vietnamese into the negotiation on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And we made three arguments to the Vietnamese in this regard. One, of course, was that they would derive a huge straight economic benefit by further opening their markets and taking advantage of the benefits of a more open American market, as well as open markets among the other TPP participants, so that the first good reason for Vietnamese participation in TPP was that they would benefit economically. And it was clear that among all of the TPP players that Vietnam would probably be the one that benefited most, given its economic circumstances.
The second reason for pressing TPP on the Vietnamese was that it would promote Vietnamese economic reform. It would help Vietnamese leaders promote economic reform with Vietnam because they could point to the United States and say, “We're not doing this because we want to. We're doing it because the Americans are forcing us to do it.” That's what the Japanese call gaiatsu. It's worked for Japan; it's worked for Vietnam.
James Green: What were the issues on opening or reforms? What were they trying to push through?
David Shear: Well, they have to expand the scope of the free market. They've got to reform the state-owned enterprise system. They've got to privatize more state-owned assets and they've got to reform the financial system, as well, and create more scope for the private economy. They understand that those reforms are very difficult for them politically and economically. TPP would have helped them do so.
The third reason that appealed very strongly to the Vietnamese was the strategic reason, that is, as members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Vietnam, like the other members of the TPP, could maximize diversity in their trading partnerships. They would not have to rely solely on their largest trading partner, China. And it's important to note that China is everybody's largest trading partner in the region now, not just Southeast Asia. So, diversification is very important for them, and it's important not just for economic reasons but for strategic reasons as well. And that's one of the tragedies of this administration's failure to move forward on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We have lost a strategic opportunity.
James Green: At that time, I think the PRC ambassador to Vietnam, was it Kong Xuanyou? was it someone that you had dealt with in your time as ambassador, or you didn’t see him that much?
David Shear: I saw Kong Xuanyou while he was ambassador. I saw his successor in Hanoi as well. We dined together periodically and had good conversations.
With regard to TPP, I think it’s also important to note that, before I even left Washington and as it became clear that we needed to get the Vietnamese on board, that Vietnamese participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership would not gain strong Congressional support unless the Vietnamese made demonstrable progress in how they handled human rights.
So, I went out to Hanoi, determined to achieve demonstrable progress or help the Vietnamese achieve demonstrable progress in human rights using the Trans-Pacific Partnership as leverage. And we succeeded. I found allies in the Vietnamese government who understood the problem. We sat down and worked out a human rights to-do list. I distilled that to-do list onto a plasticized pocket card for my staff which they pulled out at every opportunity in the presence of a Vietnamese official to discuss.
And as a result of that, the Vietnamese ratified the UN Convention Against Torture. They increased the number of registered churches which were legally sanctioned churches that could worship freely. They released a fair number of political prisoners. And I have to say that since we pulled out of TPP, the Vietnamese have walked back on some of that progress.
Some of the areas other than TPP in which we sought to improve, of course, were defense relations. I remember sitting with the Deputy Defense Minister Bình, in my introductory courtesy call on him in September 2011, and I raised the subject of human rights, and he gave me a long disquisition on Vietnam's approach to human rights and Vietnam's independence. And as soon as I heard the word independence, I interrupted and I said, “Mr. Minister, your independence is what U.S. policy toward Vietnam is all about.” And on that basis, I started saying publicly that the United States wants a strong, prosperous, and independent Vietnam. And I got Secretary Kerry and, finally, President Obama to start using that term. And I think the Trump administration is using it now to describe our approach to the whole region.
James Green: I want to shift to your time at Department of Defense in 2014. So, you came back from Hanoi and first just a cultural question, how was it to move from your three decades in the State Department, in the Foreign Service into the Pentagon?
David Shear: Well, I have to confess that for many of those decades, I viewed people in the Office of the Secretary of Defense or OSD partly as rivals. So, I went to OSD with a somewhat prejudiced view, and the people in OSD dissolved that almost immediately on my arrival. These are people—civilians—in the Office of the Secretary of Defense responsible for civilian oversight of the military. And I haven't encountered a more dedicated and energetic and loyal group of people in my career. They are first-rate American public servants.
James Green: Although the State Department feels like it's quite small, it's actually quite a large organization, but not as large as the Department of Defense. To go from the Foreign Service to a civilian at the Department of Defense, what were the difference in assets that you were looking at and your kind of management day-to-day? What was the difference in those two systems? How did you see it?
David Shear: Well, one difference between the State Department and DOD is that, in the State Department, it's all civilians and, in DOD, it's a mix. And that mix is defined by the difference between the Office of the Secretary of Defense, on one hand, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Joint Chiefs of Staff on the other, along with the individual services. So, DOD, as an organization, is much bigger and much more complicated. And it's a much more interesting, shall we say, place to navigate in many ways than the smaller and simpler State Department is, even though in the State Department there are some big organizational differences among bureaus.
DOD has a lot more resources. We, we not only can move around a lot of iron, but we can move around a lot of money. And knowing that, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific Security Affairs, I got a five-year appropriation of $450 million dollars for the Maritime Security Initiative which was designed to build capacity among our Southeast Asian partners, primarily.
James Green: When you came into OSD in 2014, what did you see as your main goals for the region and your responsibilities for Asia?
David Shear: I saw my main goal as carrying on our tradition of ensuring that no single power dominates the East Asian portion of the Eurasian continent. And in order for that to happen, the countries around China's periphery have to be independent. They have to be able to pursue their interests vis-à-vis China, and the other great powers involved in the region, as vigorously as possible. And in Southeast Asia, in a region that is not the highest American strategic priority, that means ensuring that our likeminded friends in Southeast Asia, particularly around the South China Sea, are strong, prosperous, and independent.
I spent a lot of time working on South China Sea. And there were two focuses in that regard. One was the Chinese reclamation of land on the seven features they occupied in the South China Sea, and the Chinese militarization of those features once reclaimed, and the strengthening of our alliances and partnerships in the region and in the vicinity of the South China Sea.
What the Chinese were doing on those features wasn't the only issue. The other very important issue was who's friends with whom. Frankly, we lost the first round in the South China Sea at the end of the Obama administration only partly because the Chinese successfully militarized those features. The other reason was because the Chinese flipped our allies, the Philippines, on us. They turned the Philippines around after President Duterte was elected. And that took a lot of the diplomatic wind out of our sails and out of the sails of other likeminded countries like the Vietnamese on the South China Sea. That was not the last round.
James Green: On that, there was a lot of discussion with China on raising this issue and you had mentioned Secretary Clinton's speech at ASEAN Regional Forum in 2010. But then there was a number of other series of engagements to tell the Chinese that this is an important issue for freedom of navigation for the United States in our bilateral relationship. Some of that culminated in Xi Jinping's visit here in 2015, in which he came to the South Lawn of the White House. And my writing of the English of that agreement was him saying that the Chinese had no intention to pursue militarization of the South China Sea.
David Shear: Well, I think the Chinese have not lived up to President Xi's South Lawn declaration. I think they've continued to militarize the features they occupy in the South China Sea and I think that should remain an important focus of our attention.
James Green: And in terms of the…just stepping back, at that time you were at the Department of Defense, and you had a voice at the interagency table, of elevating an issue to that level and really making it clear to the Chinese side that, “If you want a successful visit of your president to the United States, this issue needs to be addressed in a satisfactory way.” Can you talk a little bit about how that issue got put forward?
David Shear: My experience is that when we approach a particular visit to the United States by the Chinese president, two approaches on the U.S. side are in play. First is, historically, we have always believed across both Democratic and Republic administrations that the Chinese will often sacrifice substance for form when it comes to a visit to the United States by their leaders, whether it's a state visit or an official working visit, that the Chinese want to be treated right and we want to have understandings on substance about the relationship or about issues in the relationship, and the Chinese are willing to trade substance for form in many cases.
The second approach is that in order to get what you want on an important issue in connection with a visit of the Chinese president, you have to reduce it to one issue. You have to define what you want from the Chinese very, very clearly and carefully and then you have to press them relentlessly in the months leading to the visit at all levels of the government.
We did that successfully, I think, in advance of the March 2015 visit by President Xi on the subject of cybersecurity and cybertheft. And I think we did that perhaps somewhat less successfully in the run up to the President Xi's September 2015 visit in which we focused on the South China Sea.
James Green: What do you think we should take away from how to deal with China and what works in a negotiating sense and in a discussion with Chinese officials?
David Shear: Well, I think first is that I want to go back to the 18th- and early 19th-century French diplomat, Talleyrand, who is known at the time as a shifty, but resourceful, corrupt survivor who survived as Foreign Minister or in other capacities through six French administrations during and after the French Revolution, including the revolutionary government, the Napoleonic government, the restoration government, and the provisional government that made peace with the allies in 1815. And even someone as wily as Talleyrand believed that the essential element in successful diplomacy was good faith and trust. And I believe that that's the case with diplomacy today, and I believe that's the case with diplomacy between the United States and China, that you need to have at least a minimum reservoir of trust on both sides in order to conduct effective diplomacy, and that's something I think that we see is lacking right now and needs to be built.
Secondly, you have to be very clear about your goals and how to achieve them with the Chinese, and you have to be very clear in conveying to the Chinese what those goals are. And that's something that successive administrations, I think, have not done as effectively as they could.
Third, in order to generate leverage, diplomatic leverage, vis-à-vis the Chinese, you need to have a strong regional position. In order to engage them effectively, you need to be a good rim strategist. You need to have the strongest possible allies. You need to have friends. And all of them need to be saying the same thing to the Chinese.
James Green: Ambassador Shear, thank you so much. Such a pleasure to work with you, and great to talk to you again and have you recollect your amazing career.
David Shear: Thank you, James.
James Green: Ambassador David Shear, speaking with me from Washington, D.C. You’ve been listening to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University. I’m your host, James Green.