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When Dennis Wilder joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1980, he was one of only a handful of analysts covering the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).
From military cooperation with the United States in the 1980s, to the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, to the 1995 missile firings off Taiwan, China's unique Communist Party military has been at the heart of much of Chinese foreign and domestic policy. Wilder was often the go-to person to brief senior officials and Congress in times of bilateral crises. He brought those decades of experience analyzing China with him when he began working in the George W. Bush White House. He then used that understanding of China to craft U.S. policy handling some of the most challenging bilateral issues including Taiwan, human rights, trade, and North Korea. As the son of missionary parents who grew up in Asia, where understanding foreign cultures is critical for success, Wilder underscores the importance of personal relationships in making high-level diplomacy work.
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 Dennis Wilder.
What do Methodist missionaries, the CIA, and the Chinese People's Liberation Army have in common? No, this isn't the beginning of a Graham Green novel. Those touchstones outline the life and career of longtime China-watcher Dennis Wilder. For the first two decades of his career, he was a CIA military analyst and manager closely following and writing about the rise of China for the senior-most U.S. officials privy to the President's Daily Brief and other top secret publications. From the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989 to the 1995 Taiwan missile crisis, Dennis had access to the world's best intelligence on China. Then, breaking through the wall that separates intelligence analysis and policy-making, he joined the George W. Bush National Security Council responsible first for China, then all of East Asia.
Perhaps the capstone presidential visit of his career was working on President Bush's attendance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The visit highlighted the President's personal ties to China -- his father had headed the Liaison office there in the mid-1970s; and the Olympics provided a ready-made platform for the Chinese leadership to demonstrate the country's arrival as a global superpower. Here's USA basketball dream team captain Kobe Bryant in a promotional video talking about those very special Games.
Kobe Bryant audio: I remember being very excited I had never experienced it before, and so coming into the opening ceremonies I was just like this is amazing because you have all the top athletes in the world all in one place. It's a different feeling playing for your country. When you're playing in the NBA you're playing for a particular city, a particular market, and when you're playing for your country those lines go away. We're all together. We're all playing for USA basketball.
But first, Dennis Wilder talks with me about his upbringing in Asia as the son of Methodist missionaries, and how that experience helped shape is thinking about and understanding of the world's largest standing army.
James Green: Dennis Wilder thanks so much for taking time out today and for your continued support of this project.
Dennis Wilder: Pleasure.
James Green: I really look forward to our conversation. Before we get to your long career at the agency and the NSC working on China, I've heard you talk before about your background growing up in Asia. Can you just talk about your parents and where you grew up and why you got interested in China?
Dennis Wilder: Sure. My parents were Methodist missionaries and they entered the mission field just as I was coming on the scene. So I was born in Singapore the year that they arrived in Singapore. And my father was at Wesley Church, Singapore. A Methodist church. He then served churches in Penang and Kuala Lumpur. In Malaysia were many overseas Chinese, many whose families had come from Fujian and those provinces and many who actually had a Christian tradition in their families. And so the churches that my father served were, many of the people in those churches, were Chinese.
James Green: And he was serving as a minister of those parishes?
Dennis Wilder: Right. And also training the local ministers because this was in the '50s, before the church in Malaysia had really come into its own. The whole goal was to localize the church. Of course, almost all of the ministers he trained were ethnic Chinese.
And so I grew up around the Chinese community. I remember going to people's homes, for example, a Chinese New Year and receiving red packets as a child. So I was very eager during Chinese new year to make the Parish calls with my father. But I certainly got my love of Chinese culture while in Singapore and Malaysia. And when I went looking for a school back in the United States to go to college, I chose Kalamazoo College, which was in my mother's hometown actually. But I chose it because almost all the students there do their junior year abroad. And so I went back to Chinese University of Hong Kong through the Yale in China program to do my junior year.
While there, I started reading the works of a man named William Woodson who had studied the Chinese military in depth as a defense attache. And I was absolutely fascinated. This was in the mid seventies, right at the end of the cultural revolution. One of my roommates was actually from a family in Guangzhou and his brothers were Red Guard. My other roommate was the son of civil servants in Hong Kong. And so I got this rich experience. We were all on the swim team together and I just knew that China was gonna be what I wanted to study. And the Chinese military in particular.
James Green: So without getting into the doctrine issues of the Methodist church-
Dennis Wilder: Mm-hmm.
James Green: -do you feel like growing up in and around the church gave you certain views about society or Chinese society or humanity that influenced the way you think about China or you think about U.S. foreign policy?
Dennis Wilder: Well, I think that the key would be that my parents, you would have to say were globalists that in the Methodist church, we think globally. In fact, you can argue that today the Methodist church is stronger in places like Africa and Asia than it is in the United States. So consequently, I guess I would say that I came out of the experience quite multicultural in my outlook. One of the things that has been studied among missionary children or children who grow up overseas is that they have a perspective on their own culture and foreign cultures. That's quite different from those who simply grow up in one country. And I think it was a huge gift that my parents gave me and I'm very appreciative of that upbringing that kind of made me a multicultural in sort of my view of the world.
James Green: I wanted to move to your time joining the Agency in 1980.
Dennis Wilder: Right.
James Green: W were normalizing relations. What was the atmosphere like in the agency? We were starting to do some cooperative things with the Chinese government and the PLA.
Dennis Wilder: Right.
James Green: When your first day you kind of came in and thought, “Wow, here's what I'm working on.” What did you see and what did you start working on at that time?
Dennis Wilder: Well, first of all, let me explain how I ended up at the agency. I was here in the School of Foreign Service, master's of science in Foreign Service program. And at the end of that program, at that time, and still today you take an oral final with experts in the field. On my panel was William Colby, former director of central intelligence. And the panel went well and afterwards-
James Green: Congratulations, you graduated.
Dennis Wilder: -I graduated, I got my degree. My language proficiency was a little harder to pass than my orals final, but I met him and afterwards he said to me, “What are you gonna do with your life?” And I said, “Well, I have an offer from First Chicago Bank. And so I think I'll go out to Chicago and try that out.” And he said that's the wrong answer. I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “No, let me introduce you.”
Dennis Wilder: So I on across the river. Basically they enticed me with the fact that if I came on board in what was then called Eastern Forces Division of the Office of Strategic Research, I could see all of the secrets of the Chinese military; that was just too much for me to refuse.
James Green: It's hard to think about in a kind of pre-internet, pre-Google earth days just how little was known about what was happening behind the iron curtain.
Dennis Wilder: Absolutely. And, you know, there were maybe four books written in English on the People's Liberation Army at that point in time. I may be generous, they might've been three. So I ended up at the agency. Well, when I got there, what I found out was that I had joined the backwater of the agency. Right. There were perhaps-
James Green: Did you call Colby back and said, hey what did you promise me?
Dennis Wilder: Yeah. When I got there, there were, and I actually this morning named them all for myself. There were seven China military analysts at the CIA.
James Green: At that point PLA was the world's largest standing army?
Dennis Wilder: Largest antique army in the world as we used to call it. Because after the cultural revolution, of course the PLA had almost no resources. Most of their equipment was the same equipment they had used during the Korean War. And so the interest in the PLA as a military capability was only an interest in so far as how the United States could use it in relation to the Soviet Union. And so there was very great interest in what was going on on the border with the Soviet Union. And of course, as you mentioned earlier, an important factor was a great deal of interest in how we might work cooperatively against the Soviet Union. And there were obviously two areas of greatest concern at that point. One, the Vietnamese and their aggression in Cambodia or Kampuchea as it was known and the situation in Afghanistan.
And so a great deal of my time was actually spent figuring out what kind of weapon systems they had that might be acquired and passed to the Mujahideen and how the Chinese, we're keeping the pressure on the Vietnamese down along the border in what was called the long war on the Vietnamese border because one of the things that people forget is that while China attacked in 1979 and withdrew within 17 days, they actually kept the pressure on the Vietnamese through border fighting in very mountainous terrain for four years after that.
James Green: So they had incursions in?
Dennis Wilder: Incursions into Vietnam and I would follow those. I wrote a paper at that point, for then president Bush 41 that he was absolutely fascinated by. Because the nature of what they were doing out there was actually to train a whole new generation of Chinese military officers. So Deng Xiaoping very smartly. Both kept pressure on the Vietnamese, but also took a military that had been really hollowed out by Mao and the cultural revolution and had very, very poor training and skills and build their skills up by testing them against battle hardened troops of the Vietnamese armed forces, which of course had fought against the Americans. And were very, very well trained.
James Green: And the Cambodians.
Dennis Wilder: And the Cambodians.
James Green: Well, so you mentioned those kind of cooperative programs. What was the, I don't want to say mood like about China, but in 1980 and the kind of mid eighties, normalization starts, there are these cooperative programs. Were people starry eyed about what we could do with our new communist friends in Beijing? Or was it, uh, let's try this out, put a little crumbs down and see what kind of nibbles we can get.
Dennis Wilder: I think there was a great deal of fascination with the door opening up. Remember that, and you know, I remember talking to the China hands at the CIA at that point in time. The old guys who would say to me, you don't know how tough it was. We used to have to buy Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong that were used to wrap chickens and take the chickens out of the wrapping and read the newspapers to find out anything about what was going on in China. The Cultural Revolution was unbelievable in terms of how closed China became. I don't think people understand the depth to which the country really closed down and information just was not flowing out of China at that point in time. So suddenly Deng Xiaoping opens the doors in the 1980s. My first trip to China was on a tour group. It was easiest way to go into China and millions of Americans went in on these tours because it was the hottest, latest. It was almost a fad.
James Green: What year was that?
Dennis Wilder: That would have been around '82, '83.
James Green: Pretty early.
Dennis Wilder: There were very few First Class hotels. In fact, the Chinese hospitality industry, you would have to say was rudimentary.
James Green: State owned.
Dennis Wilder: State owned. You would find, you know, rice pebbles in your rice and I mean, there'd be all kinds of, you know, problems with the services provided.
James Green: Can I guess what the word you heard most was? Was it Meiyou? There is none.
Dennis Wilder: There is none. Bu fangbian, that's just not convenient. One of my favorite stories is I had decided on one of my early trips to China that I would try all the local beers in China. I thought, why not? And I went to the Beijing Hotel, which was still very Stalinist in nature at that point and I ordered up Wuxing beer, five star beer. And the man said yes. And he went over to his station and he got out a green bottle and then he started rummaging around the drawer in front of him and I couldn't figure out what he was doing. And finally he finds the Wuxing label and he puts it on the bottle, and I suddenly realized whatever beer that I ordered would be one of those same green bottles, but he would just find an appropriate label to satisfy the customer.
James Green: That's good customer service.
Dennis Wilder: Very good customer service. And I was highly impressed with his attention to detail, but I did realize that I probably was not going to see a lot of quality control in the products that I was served at that point in time.
James Green: So a lot of curiosity, interest in a place that was starting to open up. But was it clear in 1980, '81, '82 that economic reforms were going to succeed and the place is going to keep opening up?
Dennis Wilder: No, not at all. I remember, taking a trip at one point, for example, to the border of Hong Kong and Shenzhen.
James Green: At a time when Shenzhen was-
Dennis Wilder: Patty fields.
James Green: -dirt.
Dennis Wilder: Right. And I actually went out with the British military, so we helicoptered out from Teimar up to a border outpost overlooking Shenzhen, and with us were representatives of the consulate in Hong Kong. And I can remember one of them. I will not tell you his name because he's well known to all of us, saying at that moment, this will never work. This is impossible, that this dream that the Chinese have of creating a new technological center here just makes no sense.
I didn't know enough to decide one way or another at that point, but I can tell you that I always remembered that, that individual, you know, didn't have it right. And so there were a lot of questions about whether China could really make this transition whether a country that had been fundamentally the sick man of Asia. And remember this is at a time when Japan is going strong and China looked pretty pathetic by comparison.
James Green: I want it to move forward to a little bit later into 1980s, there's the democracy wall movement.
Dennis Wilder: Mm-hmm.
James Green: There is some liberalization, some backwards and forwards, some opening up and move to the Tiananmen crackdown and what you all were watching and what the policy maker and congressional interest was. Can you just set the table on how we got to students protesting in the street in 1989?
Dennis Wilder: Sure.
James Green: And then I want to get to some of the detail about what their level of interest was among policy makers.
Dennis Wilder: Absolutely. I was at that point in time a branch chief, which would be first line management basically, in charge of our military analysis. So it was my job during the period running up to the Tiananmen massacre to monitor the Chinese military to try and figure out what the Chinese military was doing. And I actually was made deputy chief of a task force dealing with this issue when it became clear that this was a difficult and possibly catastrophic situation. One of the interesting things about this period that you may not remember is that this was the beginning of CNN. This was the first time that Americans could follow a development in real time with people on the ground. And CNN had sent-
James Green: On one station, on one news station.
Dennis Wilder: -on one station. 24 hours a day. Before that you watch the evening news every night at 6:00 or 6:30 on CBS, NBC or ABC. That was your news fix.
James Green: Probably CBS if you were a red-blooded American.
Dennis Wilder: Right exactly, Walter Cronkite. But this was new and the reason that CNN was there had nothing to do with students. It all had to do with the fact that Deng Xiaoping had finally healed the wounds of the relationship with the Soviet Union. And so he had invited Gorbachev to visit and CNN and all the other major networks were out there to cover the Gorbachev visit. However Hu Yaobang, one of the former leaders of China had died and this sparked student protests because he was seen by the students as someone who was reformist and wanted greater democracy. And there was a bubbling up of feelings of need for greater political freedom even though Deng Xiaoping had given everybody much more economic freedom. And so the students began to protest in the square and these protests began to increase in size.
The Chinese tried to deal with the situation first by declaring martial law by sending very stern messages to the students. That failed. I remember the day that the 38th Group Army, which is based south of Beijing, was sent into the city after Li Peng had declared martial law.
What Beijing had not realized was the students and the 38th group army knew each other. Many of the people in 38th Group Army were Beijing-ren. They were from the city of Beijing and the students approached them and basically said, “Don't you understand what we're doing here?” Now at that point, the military had not been given any orders to use their weapons and consequently the trucks-
James Green: They'd just been given orders to move in but without using weapons.
Dennis Wilder: -move in and so consequently they just stopped when they reached a point where they could not get through this wall of humanity that was in front of them. At that point, Deng Xiaoping realizes that he has a very real crisis of the Communist Party. And what I began to see through our various intelligence gathering methods was that he was beginning to bring troops from the Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, Northwest. Every military region of China was being asked to vote with their feet and send troops to Beijing. Now during that period of time, there was huge interest in what was going on in Beijing on the part of both the White House and the Congress.
James Green: And do you think CNN, I don't want to say stoked that interest, but kept that interest alive?
Dennis Wilder: Absolutely. Yeah. And so I found myself in that period of time, frankly spending most of my time in a car going between my office and Capitol Hill and the White House briefing people on what we were seeing.
James Green: And most, sorry, most of the questions were on what's going to happen? What's the leadership thinking? Is there going to be a crackdown?
Dennis Wilder: Well, many of the correspondents in the square, we're declaring that this was like the fall of the Wall. Remember we had just had the Soviet Union crumble in many ways and that there was this change going on in the world. And the students put up a statue called the goddess of democracy, and there was this great, I would say, euphoria in many people's minds that China was changing, that China was gonna become just like us. Well, unfortunately my job was to burst that bubble, and two weeks before the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, I actually was up in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence telling them that this is going to end badly. And the reason I said that was I knew that a tank division stationed in the Tianjin area was moving up toward Beijing. And in my mind, you don't move tanks just to-
James Green: Just to get some exercise.
Dennis Wilder: -just to get some exercise or to look pretty.
James Green: I'm curious, how did they move tanks in those days on rail car or did they actually drive them on the road or flag the tracks?
Dennis Wilder: Uh, they put them on rail cars and then came to the outskirts of the city. And so we could see this buildup going on. Our defense attaches in Beijing, some of whom were very brave out there on their bicycles, were going around the fringes of the city taking down license plates and figuring out exactly which units had been moved. And by the end of it, there was just a tremendous amount of military power sitting around the city. And so we knew it was coming. We just didn't know when. Now the question was though, would the military fire on the students?
And the answer was, obviously, yes. They were told it was a counterrevolution. They were brought in at night, which I think was purposeful so that when they heard gun fire, they couldn't tell if it was the students or other units, and they presumed it was the students. And so there was a great deal of tragedy involved in that night of four June. I remember that I'd actually gone home that evening, was just about to get into bed when I was called right back to the office because it was unfolding. One of the interesting aspects of this and quite understandable, I do not wish to sound as if I am criticizing President Bush, but President Bush felt he had a relationship with Deng Xiaoping. And he felt that he understood Deng Xiaoping. And I was constantly getting the question from the White House, where is Deng Xiaoping, because Deng Xiaoping disappeared.
I think I'm right about eight days before Tiananmen, he simply wasn't on the scene. Bush wanted to give him the credit and benefit of the doubt and he said, “Maybe he's not in charge.” And we continued to tell the president, “Do not make that assumption. It is very typical of a Chinese leader during a period of crisis to absent themselves from the public view.” But-
James Green: Sorry. Why do you think that's the Chinese political way of handling crisis?
Dennis Wilder: Because when you don't know what you want to say, you don't want to get out there. When you're not sure that everybody is lined up with you, that there's danger in any kind of public pronouncements. And so he was trying to line up the military. He was trying to convince the generals of what they needed to do to protect the nation, from their point of view. And so he was meeting in secret with a great number of people at that point, convincing them that this had to be done.
James Green: So in Chinese political culture at that time going on CNN was not the way that you communicated with the decision makers?
Dennis Wilder: You didn't, you did not communicate. And there was no reason to communicate with the people because they weren't going to be making any decisions-
James Green: It's not a democracy, right.
Dennis Wilder: Right.
James Green: So the White House had this persistent question of-
Dennis Wilder: Persistent question.
James Green: where Deng Xiaoping was.
Dennis Wilder: And very unfortunately, after the initial crackdown, President Bush came out publicly and said, I believe that Deng Xiaoping is not well. And unfortunately for President Bush at that moment, Deng Xiaoping appeared in the Great Hall of the People to congratulate the troops on having saved the nation. Again I don't mean to cast aspersions. But I think what this showed was that there were huge hopes that China was changing rapidly. And I think Tiananmen did tell Americans that this place is different, that this government is different, and that we may not be dealing with a nation necessarily that's going to converge into a democratic state like ours.
James Green: I want to ask about lessons from Tiananmen for both sides, but on the Chinese side there was some changes to the PLA and increase in the People's Armed Police and kind of creating that sort of a system so that this wouldn't happen again and the PLA wouldn't have to be called again. There would be other lines of defense. And I'd love to hear you talk about that. But I also want to ask for when General Scowcroft went twice to Beijing, were you all asked with assessments or questions about what was happening so that he could prepare for those trips?
Dennis Wilder: Mm-hmm. Well, President Bush, again, 41, not 43, was under tremendous pressure to do something to show the Chinese our displeasure with obviously the tragedy that had happened. And so he did cut off all military sales to China. And we have to remember that because of our joint efforts against the Soviet Union, actually, we were selling the Chinese avionics for their fighter aircraft, torpedoes for their submarines, mortar locating radars. There was quite a list of things, we'd actually built quite a robust military to military relationship before Tiananmen. Well, this was obviously not sustainable in the aftermath.
And so he suspended all of that. But President Bush, felt in his heart of hearts, while this was a tragic experience, that the United States and China had so many interests in common and there was so much going on on the economic side and the relationship that he needed to find a way to reassure Deng Xiaoping, that we would not pull back completely from the relationship. And so he sent Brent Scowcroft on these two secret missions to China.
Now, one of the things, of course they were asking us was, great, so they've cracked down on this, how stable are they now? Is this a destabilized nation? And I don't recall that we really felt it was destabilized. There were people who were writing that this is the end of the Communist Party. I remember a very famous article that Rod MacFarquhar wrote in The New York Review of Books, I think it was, in that period of time. And some of the other scholars, I don't want to name names because I'll get it wrong, but some of the other scholars were equally saying this was the end of the Communist Party.
James Green: And as you said before, there was in this global breakdown in communist systems, this inevitable sense of history at the moment.
Dennis Wilder: Right, right. That the arc of history was against all communism. I think we at the agency, were a little more jaundiced about that. We had seen the PLA operate very well, and there were no credible reports of troops unwilling to do the bidding of Beijing. The only person I know of who actually stood against it was the 38th Group Army commander who went to jail because of it. And lived actually a long life afterwards and talked about the fact that he couldn't bring himself to attack the students.
James Green: He went to jail for insubordination or for not following orders?
Dennis Wilder: He did for refusing to follow orders. But he was a singular case. Most of the PLA felt they had done exactly what they should do. They were rewarded. They were given watches with, you know, commemoration of their action. And very quickly the Chinese people understood that this had been a bridge too far, and that if they settled back to doing their economic thing and left politics to the Chinese Communist Party, all would be well. So we, I think, in many ways by our assessments supported President Bush's inclination that we had to keep the relationship going, that we weren't going to see China breakdown like the Soviet Union had done. I remember another author at the time talking about fragmentation of China. That was one of the great things in the 1980s that China would fragment, warlords, and you'd have southern China be its own nation and other parts of China. Again, I think we saw a different picture from where we sat.
James Green: Moving ahead to the next kind of bilateral crisis, the Taiwan Strait crisis, '95, '96. Taiwan, President Lee Tung-hui was granted a visa. He went to Cornell, his alma mater, to give a speech. I think it's fair to say leadership in Beijing was not happy about where that ended up, and decided one way to demonstrate unhappiness with the U.S. decision and to indicate to compatriots in Taiwan that moving away from the mainland was not an option, was to fire a number of missiles in test areas off the Taiwan coast.
There was a task force set up for that crisis as well as I recall. Can you just talk about what prompted it, and then what you guys were asked to do in terms of providing assessments to the policymakers?
Dennis Wilder: When Lee Tung-hui was invited to Cornell, which was a shock to China because they thought they had an understanding with the Clinton administration on this subject. I actually was still in Hong Kong finishing out a three year assignment in the consulate general there. So I got back in the fall of 1995 to find myself as the new chief of China analysis for the agency and deep within a very large crisis between the United States and China. At that point, the Director of Central Intelligence, John Deutch, told me that I would be setting up an inter agency task force, and pulling in people from DIA, NSA, and INR and other of the intelligence community to set up a inter agency task force to monitor Chinese military activity. Because what we were seeing in the fall of 1995 was a buildup of military forces opposite Taiwan. There had already been a build up of missiles in the Taiwan Strait area because China had learned to build the short range ballistic missiles.
Notoriously we call them the M-9s, and they had been popping them out like sausages at Chinese factories and putting them into brigades opposite Taiwan. So there was a clear element of coercion and intimidation going on here. And the Chinese actually weren't too subtle about this. Military exercises on landing beaches right opposite Taiwan. Much more air activity in the Taiwan Strait. What they were trying to do, because there would be elections in the spring of '96 which would be the first time a president of Taiwan would be directly elected. And of course, they did not want to see, Lee Tung-hui elected into that job. So they were trying to intimidate the people of Taiwan.
The intimidation doesn't work and everybody's set for the elections to go forward. China doesn't feel we're getting the message. And their greatest concern wasn't the election itself. But that as soon as the election occurred because Lee Tung-hui was pro democracy that he would announce on inauguration day, that Taiwan was an independent nation. And so I believe there was a certain amount of desperation in Beijing. What do we do? How do we stop that from happening? And what they decided to do was do a missile demonstration, firings. And so in the spring before the elections, March 3rd, I think was the first of those firings. They fired missiles off of Kaohsiung port and Jilin port of Taiwan. This of course and insurance rates skyrocketing for shipping, and sent a shockwave. The next move was up to the Clinton administration. What would they do? Secretary Perry, an old artillery man himself the secretary of defense, was incensed.
And about that time, Liu Huaqiu, who was the equivalent of China's national security adviser came to Washington. And he famously said to him, “I know a bracketing fire when I see it. I'm an artillery man. You've taken a shot long and short, you're now calibrating for your next shot. We're not going to let that happen.”
At about that time, John Deutch called me into his office and said, “Dennis, the secretary of defense wants to know, can we safely put carriers near Taiwan?” And so I sat down with members of my staff. He said, “You have an hour.” I said-
James Green: Very generous.
Dennis Wilder: -I said “Why so much time?” We pulled together a quick piece of paper and we said in this piece of paper, one, do not operate in the Taiwan Strait. They have anti ship missiles that are very capable in that short range and American ships will be in danger. So operate to the east of Taiwan, not anywhere near the west of Taiwan. Number two, do not operate in conjunction with any Taiwan one forces. Do not look as if you are in any way getting involved directly in the Cross Strait conflict. And number three, if you follow these instructions, we're pretty confident that the Chinese will back off.
Well, within two hours of having drafted that, I looked up at the screens in the inter agency task force to see Secretary Perry announce the movement of an aircraft carrier battle group, the USS Independence, from Japan off of Taiwan.
That settled the Chinese down. Actually they fired a couple more missiles and then Clinton, President Clinton announced the deployment of the Nimitz carrier battle group. You see, the Chinese had thought that the Clinton administration was risk adverse. They had the experience of watching Americans in Somalia, and the Black Hawk Down experience. And they thought that President Clinton and his group would not fight for Taiwan. They miscalculated. As soon as the second carrier battle group was on the way, they realized that they needed to back this crisis down.
James Green: So just backing up a little, when they announced the closure areas, it wasn't clear how long it would last for or how many missiles they would fire?
Dennis Wilder: No, not at all. And of course, we didn't really know whether these missiles were armed.
James Green: Or accurate.
Dennis Wilder: Or accurate. They might've fallen onto Taiwan territory. So we were on pins and needles every time a missile was fired to see what was happening. And of course the White House. I remember distinctly having White House officials on one phone, and State Department officials on another phone, and the Congress calling on a third phone. Every time a missile was fired, you know, the quick question was where did it go? Where did it land? What happened?
So the Chinese got our attention and as you look at that crisis, several things I think were learned in that crisis on both sides. One is the American side got a very real lesson in just how central the question of Taiwan is to the Chinese leadership, and that independence is a nonstarter, and that China will go to war over independence. And of course, ever since then we have been very careful on the American side to make it clear to Beijing that we are not for a decision for independence at this point in time.
James Green: And careful on how we treat the Taiwan leader.
Dennis Wilder: And very careful. The thing the Chinese learned was they weren't powerful enough. That for the Chinese military, the lesson was we were embarrassed.
James Green: Why so?
Dennis Wilder: We tried something, we tried to intimidate and the Americans were able to back us down. That we really couldn't back up our threats and that the Americans were so confident with themselves that they-
James Green: The two battle carrier groups.
Dennis Wilder: Two battle carrier groups, and they didn't care about Chinese military power. And so from that period forward, you saw this very real increase in Chinese defense budgets and advanced weapons procurement from the Russians, and development of the Chinese defense industries. And so, you know, we took away lessons but they took away lessons as well.
James Green: On that I wonder if you could just say this is now 20 years ago?
Dennis Wilder: Mm-hmm, yeah.
James Green: Uh, did you ever think you would see how sophisticated the PLA weapon systems are today, say in 1995, '96?
Dennis Wilder: No, it was very hard at that time to imagine that China was going to get its act together. Remember that under Deng Xiaoping defense modernization was the fourth modernization. It took a long time for the Chinese to want to move in that direction because one of the lessons they had taken from the Soviet Union was that if you put your money into weapons and not into economics, you're not going to succeed. And so the defense industries had to wait. Then the PLA had to wait for all of these other things. And actually what you see in the way of defense capabilities now is based on an economic infrastructure built for the civilian sector that is now being used to advance the military sector as well.
James Green: Thanks for that very cogent analysis of that crisis on both sides. I want to move to your time at the NSC and before getting to the specifics of the job, just ask, having spent at that point 20 years as an Intel officer moving to be a policymaker, how was that mental shift for you?
Dennis Wilder: Well, the reason I got to the White House was yet another crisis and that was the downing of a U.S. surveillance aircraft off the coast of China by a Chinese hot-dog pilot who did a maneuver, which he had done on several occasions before that. But this time he did it badly and shaved off the nose and one of the propellers of the American plane, the American P3 aircraft landed on Hainan island and this was the first crisis of the Bush administration in April of 2001. Because the White House did not have much staff in place. I actually dual hatted a bit as both my intelligence hat and a bit of a policy adviser at that point. After the crisis was thankfully settled without any American bloodshed, although regrettably the Chinese pilot had died, they asked me to come to the White House. I was working for George Tenet at the time and he said that that wasn't what he needed me to do.
James Green: George Tenet was the Director of Central Intelligence.
Dennis Wilder: And I was working on building the Chinese analytic effort. But two or three years later, George Tenet, left the post of director and I realized it was my opportunity and I went back to Steve Hadley and asked if I could come to the White House. I had wanted to try my hand at being a policy maker. When you've spent that much time of your life as an intelligence officer, while the role of intelligence officer is tremendously important. And I don't regret an hour I spent as one, you think after a while that you might have some ideas of how to do the policy side of the job and if the opportunity is there, why not give it a go? It was very different. Suddenly I had to rapidly provide policy guidance to an American president, and an American president who if I may say in Bush 43, wanted answers and wanted answers quickly.
President Bush probably is not as reflective as president Obama, he is a doer. He has a chief executive officer personality. And so you had to think quickly on your feet and you had to have good answers and good at policy options.
Every presidential candidate gets a briefing by the intelligence community and as governor of Texas, after he was nominated by the convention, he was to get his briefing. And John McLaughlin, who was then deputy director of CIA, and so we flew down to Waco, Texas.
James Green: This would have be in the summer of 2000 is that right?
Dennis Wilder: In the summer of 2000, August of 2000 actually. And we got to the ranch, Condi Rice was there, Paul Wolfowitz was there, and Josh Bolton was there. Very small group. But here's the interesting thing. I walked in and on the wall in the ranch were two cultural revolution posters. And as the president was getting me a coke out of the refrigerator, and of course he was governor at that point, Governor Bush was getting me a coke. I said to him, "Governor, these posters aren't the public reputation of you as anti-China." And he said to me, "They don't understand me at all on China. I am absolutely fascinated by China. I spent time there when my father was head of the liaison mission to China, and I really have a feel for China."
When I heard that, I realized this was a man I could work for because the New York Times and other media had painted a picture of him that was totally unfair on the subject, didn't reflect his deep intellectual curiosity about China. And I knew he was going spend a lot of time on the China relationship. So one of the reasons that I was eager to get to the White House and work for this man was I could see that working for him on China would actually be very interesting.
James Green: Well, I hate to bring it up, but the visit I'm going ask you about is the visit in 2006 when Hu Jintao came. I wanted to ask first how you remembered the priorities, and kind of what you went through, what the U.S. was looking to get out of it? And then just ask about some of the questions of whether or not it was a state dinner or not the protocol issues. I guess I would just ask why is that important and why do the Chinese pay attention to it and why do we?
Dennis Wilder: Right. The 2006 visit by Hu Jintao may have been one of the roughest moments of my White House career. It started badly and it ended badly, and it never really got to a very good place to be perfectly honest with you. And one of the things I tell my students about this is, no matter how well you think you're doing the job, sometimes it's not good enough. So let me start by saying that the Chinese were eager to have Hu Jintao visit. The Chinese remember, always think of the United States as the number one relationship. We don't think of China as our number one relationship. And so there's an automatic disconnect between the importance the Chinese attached to a visit to Washington and the importance that a White House attaches to a Chinese visit.
Well, the president, because we were deep in the Iraq war, had made a decision and the decision was this: no foreign leader who did not send troops to fight alongside us in Iraq would get a full blown White House visit with full honors, with a full state dinner. The Chinese tried every which way before the Hu Jintao visit to get us to agree to a dinner, and I kept having to tell them this wasn't going to happen.
James Green: That is, there are many elements in a state visit and they wanted to try to get each of those elements of the state visit.
Dennis Wilder: They want every element, which includes a White House lawn ceremony, which includes staying at Blair House across the street from the White House. And it includes, usually, a full formal black tie dinner with entertainment in the East Room of the White House. What President Bush was prepared to offer was a lunch, a stay at Blair House, and the White House lawn ceremony.
James Green: Which is the 21 gun salute and the ceremony.
Dennis Wilder: 21 gun salute, trooping of the colors. The Chinese finally, reluctantly, agreed to this. The difficulty was that the Chinese had cracked down on a group, a spiritual group called the Falun Gong And the Falun Gong wanted to get better treatment for their people in China. Many were incarcerated. They had claims of torture. And so when the visit occurred, the Falun Gong were out in force. This led to the night that Hu Jintao spending at Blair House being very uncomfortable for him because he could hear the protestors outside. I got calls all night long.
James Green: And because of our first amendment rights, we don't restrict people from voicing their opinion.
Dennis Wilder: We do not restrict people, we don't have a means of doing that. He was in no physical danger. And so consequently that went on all night. But I understand that he didn't get a wink of sleep. Then we got to the ceremony the next day and, regrettably, unfortunately, one of the members of the Falun Gong had gotten temporary press credentials and was in the press stands. And when he began to speak, she began to shout, and she shouted for three or four minutes at him. One of my mistakes was, frankly, I had put all of the armed uniformed officers on the fences because we were worried about Falun Gong members trying to jump the fences. Well, among the things I learned that day is that the secret service will not move against an unarmed protester. So when she began to shout, the secret service stood their ground, it could be a diversion. And they are taught to make an initial decision, no weapons cited. Leave it to the uniformed officers.
Of course, the uniform officers, if you know where the White House fence is in relationship to where the ceremonies taken place is a long distance. And so I saw officer's loping across the lawn to get there. And then when they got there, the camera crews of CNN and others enjoying this moment of high drama actually blocked their way as they tried to get up there. So it took even longer.
When it was all over, we went into the Oval Office and President Bush said very graciously to Hu Jintao, "My mother taught me better than that." But my pain did not end there because as we went to lunch that day in the East Room, I could see President Bush, Condi Rice, and Steve Hadley having a small discussion. After their discussion, I saw Condi Rice motion me over and I went over to her and then she said, "Dennis, the White House press corps would like to be briefed on this, this afternoon as to exactly what has occurred here."
And my answer to her was, "I will go out and do this, but I need to be able to say, the president said he was sorry." She went back to the president. They huddled again. They came back. Later on David Sanger of the New York Times said he never felt so sorry for an American official in his whole life because I had to walk this careful ground between defending the rights of the Falun Gong as American citizens to protest, while also saying that this individual had abused the privileges of the press bleachers. And what she had done was inappropriate and disrespectful. So that was the Hu Jintao visit to the White House.
James Green: Could I just ask that's all the protocol, that certainly is what grabs the headlines and sort of what kept you up many nights, then and afterwards. But on the kind of substantive side, kind of balancing DPRK and Six-party talks, Taiwan and the currency, and all those sorts of things. What do you recall as being kind of the most salient issue, certainly for President Bush, the war in Iraq was kind of still key. Were there other things in a bilateral global sense that you recall being a focus of the visit? Because oftentimes the best bite we have at moving something forward with the Chinese government is using these high level visits because it really focuses the Chinese on them.
Dennis Wilder: Actually, it was a successful visit on two fronts. The first one was that we had become concerned that the Taliban and others were gaining access to Chinese weapons via the Iranians. And so one of the asks of the visit of Hu Jintao was to cease and desist, figure out what's going on and stop this because there were American casualties that were coming from weapons that we knew were Norinco made weapons.
James Green: Norinco, the Chinese state-owned arms manufacturer.
Dennis Wilder: Right, the conventional arms manufacturer.
James Green: And sorry, that was in which theaters? That was in Iraq or Afghanistan or both?
Dennis Wilder: That was in I think both actually, we were finding these weapons and that was a success of the visit. We didn't publicize it because that wasn't a subject that we needed to in any way talk publicly about. But the second issue was very interesting. When I walked into the Oval Office, the morning of Hu Jintao's visit to brief the president, give him the latest update on how the night had gone for the president of China.
James Green: After you'd had good eight hours of sleep I'm sure.
Dennis Wilder: After I had had no sleep that night. The president looked up at me and he said, "Dennis, I'm calling an audible." And my heart sank. I have to tell you, because when a president calls an audible on the morning of the visit that you have worked months designing with Chinese who aren't the most flexible about these things, they believe in protocol. They love protocol. They know protocol. He said, "I'm not going sit with Hu Jintao's wife. I'm going to sit with him at lunch today. So you need to move the tables around." And I said, "Mr. President, we have not told the Chinese this." And he said, "Well, you're going tell the Chinese now, aren't you?"
And he said to me, "You know, I really have got to discuss the North Korean situation with this man. And you and I both know that when they get in this oval office with our team on one side and their team on the other, we're not going to have a frank and freewheeling discussion. But if I can pull him aside at lunch, maybe we can have a serious discussion." So I made my frantic phone calls. The Chinese unhappy, but accepting; what could they do? This was the president of the United States' own decision.
James Green: And our house. Right?
Dennis Wilder: And our house right. The peoples house.
James Green: Yeah.
Dennis Wilder: So indeed, President Bush sat at lunch, and had a very serious heart to heart discussion with the Chinese leader about North Korea. And in fact, afterwards, he apologized, President Bush to Michelle Kwan, the skater who had been seated at the table as well because he totally ignored her during lunch. And he told her before lunch that, "I'm sorry, but I've just got to make this a working lunch."
What was interesting was that during that discussion, President Bush made it clear to Hu Jintao that he really wanted to move the negotiations forward, with the North Koreans. And in fact, Hu Jintao sent a senior advisor, the advisor didn't even go back to Beijing. The senior advisor went to Pyongyang to deliver president Bush's message.
To cut a long story short, this jump started the negotiating process. We did get the tower at Yongbyon taken down eventually by the end of the administration. But unfortunately at that point in time, the current leaders father had a stroke. We'll never know whether that affected the negotiations, but once he had the stroke, the negotiations really went off the rails. And you know, we're never really back until the new effort by the Trump administration.
James Green: I wanted to move to 2008, and the opening up of embassies in each other's capitals, and President Bush's decision early on to go to the Beijing Olympics. I think maybe the first time a sitting president went to an Olympics outside the United States. Could you talk a little bit about that decision, and what although it was a sporting event and President Bush said that he was going for the sporting event, there was also clearly some diplomatic importance to that, and about your visit to our now nice new embassy building.
Dennis Wilder: Yes. Well, obviously we knew that the Olympics were coming in August of 2008, and so during 2007 there are a lot of discussions at the White house, and very different views on whether or not the president should or should not go. And many of his domestic advisers said that we shouldn't go, that it would be giving the Chinese too much face. And there was a very real, I would say on the sort of right wing side of the Republican Party, a feeling that this was not appropriate.
James Green: This was for the way Christians were treated in China or human rights record or?
Dennis Wilder: Very much connected to human rights record of China. And certainly the evangelical right, quite upset about that issue. So I knew that this was all going on, but we were working our planning forward. Sandy Randt, of course, our ambassador in Beijing, very eager to see this occur. He was building the new embassy building in Beijing at that point, and was hoping for a dedication ceremony knowing that if he could manage it he would not only have one American president, but two American presidents there, 41 and 43 and Henry Kissinger. So he was looking forward to a rather grand event on his watch.
But we didn't really know where the president was until we went to the Sydney APEC summit, in the fall of 2007. And during the meeting there with Hu Jintao, the president said to Hu Jintao, "I have some news for you. I have some good news, and I have some news you may not find as good." And the president said, "The Congress has decided to give the Dalai Lama the congressional gold medal. This is a great honor. It is a big event, and as President of the United States, I must be there."
And Hu Jintao started to protest and the president said "Now, wait a minute, I told you, you were not going to like this news, but I have better news for you. I have decided I'm going to the Beijing Olympics, and I have decided this because of the American athletes, I want to support them, but also because of my respect for the Chinese people and my respect for you."
What was amazing is that Hu Jintao accepted that bargain. Basically. We did not get a lot of pressure from the Chinese side about the gold medal ceremony for the Dalai Lama, and the Bushes attended. It was a lovely event. When many of the president's domestic advisors heard what he had done in Sydney they were not happy, and they tried to talk him out of it. But one thing you have to remember about President Bush is when he made his mind up, it was very hard to change his mind, and he never wavered. From that point onward-
James Green: On going to Olympic Games?
Dennis Wilder: On going to the Olympic Games in Beijing. And so we began the planning. We put it all together. I will tell you one interesting story that actually predates this. When we decided to go to Beijing, and this would have been before Hu Jintao came to Washington, the president made a trip to Beijing.
Before that trip, Steve Hadley pulled me aside and said, "We've got too many men-in-suits events on the president's calendar for this visit. We want something that humanizes the President of the United States. What do you suggest?" So I went back to my office, put my head together with Paul Haenle, who was then my China guy, and we said, "Mountain biking." The president is a mountain biker. And we had Sandy Randt contact the Chinese.
Turned out that the mountain biking center for the Olympics hadn't been actually built yet at Laoshan, but the Chinese in their typical fashion took 10,000 workers out there, completed the course in record time. And when the president was in Beijing, he was able to ride on the mountain bike course with the Chinese Olympic team, which were a terrific group of young Chinese with dyed hair and they looked like any sort of typical extreme sport player in the world. So the president had a real feeling for the Olympics.
James Green: Yeah, I was going say, I've heard you talk a little bit about seeing the USA-China basketball game and-
Dennis Wilder: The Dream Team.
James Green: The Dream Team. And for those who might not remember, President Bush was a baseball franchise owner before he got into politics. So sports is something that he's been around, professional and amateur sports, for a long time.
Can you just talk a little bit about that? The basketball game, on the U.S. and China, and kind of what that was like for someone who spent, at that point, I'm trying to add up how many years, 30 something years, to kind of see that and the level of play of the Chinese team is quite good. A competitive game.
Dennis Wilder: Certainly flying to Beijing on Air Force One with the Bushes had to be one of the highlights of my career, and getting there and the enthusiasm, the excitement of the Olympics. And of course having both President Bush 41 and 43 there. Having Kissinger there. In fact, during the ceremony for the dedication of the embassy, I sat next to Kissinger. I thought, you know, there can be nothing quite as interesting and exciting as this. But the U.S. team and the Chinese team playing in that Olympic stadium was quite a night. First of all, I had watched basketball before, but I had never seen the kinds of players that we had on there that night.
James Green: So you're saying the Georgetown team, when you went here, wasn't quite as good as the Dream Team?
Dennis Wilder: Not quite as good as the Dream Team.
Lebron, Kobe was on that team. And you know, for those who've not seen those guys play, it is like ballet. They float through the air. There is something, unworldly about them. And what was, what was striking was everybody basically knew that the American team was going to win this game. But there was this feeling of camaraderie, and the Chinese were just as excited to see the American team out there play as the Chinese team. And it was just a terrific evening, a real high point of, the Chinese are just as crazy about basketball as Americans are, maybe crazier.
James Green: If not more so.
Dennis Wilder: Right and they loved these players, and they love the chance to watch them play. You know, it was just an incredible evening of sports and of course we were watching with our Chinese counterparts and feeling as if we had accomplished things.
James Green: I want end with talking about the global financial crisis.
Dennis Wilder: Oh, thank you very much (laughs).
James Green: Take that high point and bring it down to reality. I think if you kind of look back at the international system post World War II, the financial crisis, and the changes that we're still going through now about that, how that changed the global system. Could you just talk a little bit about treasury secretary, Hank Paulson, and the role of interacting with China and other countries as the global crisis unfolding. And there was a kind of international element to it and what role, you know, what you were doing during that period?
Dennis Wilder: Well for me, this was one of those lessons that I think sometimes is not well enough understood about personal diplomacy, and the value of personal diplomacy. Because long before the financial crisis hit, President Bush had brought Hank Paulson into the White House and into treasury specifically because he felt the U.S.-China economic relationship needed work. You'll remember the congress was putting a lot of pressure on the whole question of China's currency, and that it was a manipulated currency. And that it was undervalued, and that the White house should do something about it.
James Green: That it was helping Chinese exports and hurting U.S. manufacture.
Dennis Wilder: That's right and Chinese exports were growing at exponential rates. So the president, when he had the opportunity to pick a new secretary of the treasury, decided he would pick a China guy. And Hank Paulson had tremendous experience dealing with the Chinese. Well, when he came in, he decided to create with the support of Steve Hadley and the president and Condi Rice and others, what was called the 'Strategic Economic Dialogue', which would be a mechanism by which in a very concerted way, secretary Paulson working with the Chinese counterpart who happened to Wang Qishan would work on the problems.
James Green: Who Hank Paulson knew from his time at Goldman Sachs.
Dennis Wilder: Wu Yi was first, and then it was Wang Qishan and he had known them before. And it was highly successful in the sense that we did get the Chinese to revalue the currency actually. There was movement of the currency during that period of time, and he built this extraordinary relationship with Wang Qishan.
So when the financial crisis hit, one of the great concerns of Hank Paulson and the whole financial system really was that the Chinese could pull their money out of U.S. treasuries and they had significant holdings, and that they might decide that it was safer to get out of the American markets than to stay in the American markets in case they went under.
But the personal diplomacy that Paulson had done, meant that Paulson could pick up the phone and call Wang Qishan, and have very candid discussions and serious discussions with him. But the moment I remember most striking during that period was Hank Paulson asked President Bush to call the Chinese president to reassure. And I got a call from Steve Hadley on a Saturday morning saying, "Dennis arrange a phone call with the Chinese president."
And without hesitating, I said, "And you mean we're calling the Japanese and the South Koreans as well?" Because we never dealt with the Chinese, particularly because of the North Korean issue, without also talking to Japanese and South Korean counterparts.
James Green: Two years treaty allies.
Dennis Wilder: Two treaty allies in Northeast Asia. And Steve said to me, "No, Dennis, I've told you who we're going to contact. We're going to contact the Chinese and it's about the financial crisis." And at that moment it hit me that the world has suddenly shifted. That in this situation, China had become such an important factor and such an important player.
But in this particular case, that's who we needed to talk to. That we didn't need to talk to our treaty allies, so we had to talk to China. And it was that sea change moment when you suddenly realize that China had arrived as a global influencing power that could not be ignored in the middle of a crisis and in fact needed to be, if you will, courted and dealt with to some extent as an equal partner in keeping financial stability in the world.
That didn't mean we didn't talk to the Japanese or the South Koreans. Of course we did. But the financial crisis, definitely was a moment when you could feel the center of gravity had shifted, the economic center of gravity, and China was now emerging as a true world power. And of course since then, it's only become even a bigger part of the world economic equation.
James Green: Dennis, thanks so much for your time and thanks for your support for this project.
Dennis Wilder: Well, thank you for your great questions. You've stirred a lot of memories here and some nightmares (laughs).
James Green: I'm glad we could take a walk down memory lane together.
Dennis Wilder: Thank you very much James.
James Green: Dennis Wilder, speaking with me from Washington, DC. You’ve been listening to the U.S.-China Dialogue Podcast from Georgetown University. I’m your host, James Green.