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From fighting in the battlefields of Vietnam to managing U.S. relations with China at the White House two decades later, Robert Suettinger has had a unique window on China's rise -- from a peripheral regional actor to global superpower.
Much of that time Suettinger spent as an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Council, understanding and chronicling economic reforms, political infighting, and disruptive external military behavior. From Taiwan to Tiananmen, trade to nonproliferation, Suettinger explains what he saw and what the U.S. policy response was to a changing 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 Robert Suettinger. For Americans -- and for U.S. officials in particular -- many have struggle with how to understand China. The scale, the culture, the language, the economy, the society so different from our own. Bob Suettinger had to grapple with that challenge as a new CIA analyst in 1975, just as the two countries were coming out of a multi-decade deep freeze. Little information was available about China -- at the time in the final throes of the catastrophic Cultural Revolution.
From various positions in the U.S. Intelligence Community, Suettinger watched and analyzed it all for senior U.S. officials. Everything from Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in the 1970s to the bloody 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. Then, in 1994, Suettinger moved to the White House's National Security Council in charge of policy towards China. And now, as a policymaker, he had to deal with one of the most challenging issues between the U.S. and China since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949. That issue: Taiwan. In 1995 and 1996, as Taiwan started to democratize, tensions with mainland China grew. In March 1996 as Chinese missiles rained down in the Taiwan Strait, ABC News devoted an entire episode of its iconic Nightline news program to the unfolding crisis:
Announcer: March 21, 1996. With two U.S. Naval battle groups now in the South China Sea, the war of nerves intensifies. Beijing has re-militarized the Taiwan Strait, taking us back to the tensions of, let's say, 1958. China's military exercises serve notice to Taiwan that independence is not an option.
James Green: In his conversation with me, this Vietnam war veteran explains the origins of the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, the importance of analyzing leadership struggles to understand why policies shift in Beijing, and the challenges facing any serious analyst in successfully decoding Chinese politics.
James Green: Bob Suettinger, thanks so much for taking time. Really great to see you again.
Bob Suettinger: My pleasure, James.
James Green: I wanted to start with your, graduating from college and then joining the U.S. Army to go to Vietnam.
Could you just talk a little bit about that time and of your personal history and then how you ended up in Vietnam and kind of what you did?
Bob Suettinger: Sure. I went to Lawrence University in Wisconsin. I had there a Korean-American professor who was extraordinarily brilliant. And I took a course from him on Japanese politics and he encouraged me, to go further in Asian politics studies. But he said you have to, you have to learn an Asian language.
And, so he suggested, Chinese. And, eventually I got to, Princeton, and their cooperative undergraduate program in critical languages and spent my senior year at Princeton and two summers at Middlebury, and then I was, eligible for the draft and they didn't hesitate to call me up and say, "We want you!" And it- and I was among the last, years when the- when the draft number was not you know, active at that point, but would've- it- it was a low number, anyways.
So I went in the army in 1968. went through, basic training at, Fort Dix and advanced, individual training at, Fort Leonard Wood and became a combat engineer.
So it wasn't really voluntary, because they were drafting into the Marines, in Wisconsin, and I didn't think that was what I wanted to do. But I ended- en-ended up as a, mine sweep demolitions, and then finally operations expert in Vietnam, in Cu Chi 25th Division, and, I was there for not quite a year. I got a slight drop to go back to college, or to university at Columbia.
James Green: Fascinating. So that was '69 to '70.
Bob Suettinger: '69, '70, yep.
James Green: And so I guess I just wanted to ask, then, you spent most of your career on China. How do you think that time in Vietnam shaped your views about either communist systems or about, the way East Asian societies work, or any sort of, uh- were there any impressionable things that came out of that time in Vietnam?
Bob Suettinger: You know, in some ways, when you're- when you're in, a combat situation or even just operational situations in the, in the military, you kind of turn off a lot of the functions of your brain. So I wasn't thinking- a lot of intellectual thoughts at that point.
But I had written a paper, for this great American professor, which was about the determinants of the decision to bomb, North Vietnam in 1965. And so, it wasn't like I was unfamiliar with it. But I wasn't adding up the things that I had done before with what I was faced with there, because I was just- you know, I was a ground pounder and a part time tunnel rat.
So I mean, you don't spend a lot of time (laughs), you know, cogitating , thinking about communist systems?
Great thoughts. No, I mean, it was- I mean, compared to China, of course, it was a very rural, area that we were in. There was a great deal of ideological hostility and, you know, personal animus, that you could feel if you went around to the various areas, in South Vietnam. And it's an absolutely gorgeous country. It's a beautiful place. And when I was there, it was just filled with pockmarks of bomb holes, so it was not- it was not a pleasant experience.
James Green: And have you been back since?
Bob Suettinger: I haven't. I was supposed to go there a couple of times, and when I was, in the Clinton administration, and it just- different things caused those trips to be postponed, so I've never been back. Love to go.
James Green: So then, and you finished your studies and graduate work, and then you joined the agency in 1975.
Bob Suettinger: Correct.
James Green: Just when relations with China were thawing, Nixon went, came back. How did the Sino-Soviet split had happened a decade and a half earlier.
Bob Suettinger: Right.
James Green: How did those things, that is, the warming relations with China, and the relations between the Soviet Union and China separating, how did that affect when you joined the agency kind of how you saw China or what you were kind of trying to focus on?
Bob Suettinger: Well, that's a good question. '75, when I joined, was a period of, relative coolness, in the relationship. We weren't sure exactly why. And I've only discovered in recent research, I mean, we did sort of add things up, but I was very new to things then and (laughs)-
I had done a paper on the, Water Margin, which was a political campaign, during that period in which it was being used to attack Deng Xiaoping. And Deng was in a lot of trouble by 1975 and we didn't really realize how much it was. So when Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford went over, they had kind of a bad time. and Cyrus Vance had also had a bad time on his trip there.
So we- you know, we were trying to figure out what- you know, what is really going on here. And we didn't realize, of course, it was that Deng was basically on the rocks and they put him back in his cage, after the presidential visit.
So (laughs) it was a time of considerable uncertainty about where the relationship was going. And I was assigned to, political military kind of things and they were just beginning to rehabilitate a lot of the people that had been purged in the Cultural Revolution. So I was keeping track of that. And trying to figure out where the military was going, what was military four modernizations and and what was military reform all about and so forth.
So- and Mao, we knew, was in very bad health. So it was one of those periods when, there was no particular trend line. We were just sort of waiting for- to see what was going to happen domestically in China.
James Green: No trend line, both in terms of what was happening in China and where reform was going, but also in U.S.-China relations, kind of how [crosstalk]-
Bob Suettinger: We were on hold.
James Green: It was clear that there would be some building of relations, but that exact pace and scope was kind of uncertain?
Bob Suettinger: Well, and the Taiwan issue, of course, was the thing that they argued about, and virtually at every meeting. So it was still very much a part of the equation. And, uh- and there wasn't- there just was no progress. And, you know, only later did we understand that Deng had taken some heat, in, uh- in some of those negotiations over leaning a little bit too far forward.
James Green: Hmm, fascinating.
Bob Suettinger: So it was, it was an interesting time, but I wasn't at a point in my career at that stage when I was being consulted on large, strategic issues. I was just doing my military stuff.
James Green: On the strategic side, I wondered, you mentioned Mao and Mao's death. You were at the agency when that happened?
What can you say about that or what do you recall about that time, and in terms of kind of what we knew or what the interest level was? There was a lot going on in Washington anyway-
Bob Suettinger: Yeah.
James Green: But I'm just kind of curious.
Bob Suettinger: Well, yeah. There was a concern, about what the transition was going to look like, because the political situation in China at that point was, uh- was quite, misty, shall we say? The gang- I mean, the factional conflict was evident for all to see.
And there was no way to know, how it was going to play out. We sort of had a sense that that the military was gonna resolve this, and, one of my colleagues, you know, one of the senior analysts there, had written a paper on, essentially, how it was gonna go out. You know, what were the concentric rings of security that would be used if there were a coup situation. And he turned out to be right on the mark.
James Green: Wow. Just for the record, for the Gang of Four and what we were dealing with here with Mao, could you just kind of explain what the political system was in 1975, 1976 and then?
Bob Suettinger: Well, it was the end of the Cultural Revolution and there was a kind of a three different factions that we could identify. One of them was, the leftist faction under the Gang of Four, and Mao, of course, was part of that. It should've been the Gang of Five.
There was a group of conservative elders. Ye Jianying, Li Xiannian, Deng Xiaoping, of course, was, had been part of it, but had to sit down in early 1976, along with all the rest of the people who had helped him.
And then there was a group of people around, at that time, the general secretary. I'm sorry, the chairman of the party, Hua Guofeng, and he had a number of people who had been beneficiaries of the Cultural Revolution, so they weren't necessarily hard leftists like, uh- like Jiang Qing and Zhang Chunqiao. But they, uh- they had been, brought up by Mao and were presumed to be loyal to him.
So they were all kind of dancing around each other and trying to figure out who was gonna strike first and at whom. There was virtually no prospect that there wouldn't have been some sort of denouement.
James Green: After Mao passed away?
Bob Suettinger: After Mao passed away. I mean, it was, he had basically wrecked that system beyond repair. And and they're still paying the price for him, in my view, but at any rate, it was interesting to watch, although, you know, talk about through a glass darkly. It was, uh, we really didn't have particularly good understanding of how it was gonna go down.
And we were all looking at newspaper articles about, you know, the criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius and the Duke of Zhou. Now, the Duke of Zhou was already dead at that point, but, Song Jiang was, you know, an allegorical figure for Deng Xiaoping and we were reading all these editorials by the writing groups. What in the world is going on?
James Green: And was embassy at that time, it was liaison office.
Bob Suettinger: Right.
James Green: Was there any better view of what was happening from the liaison office or from Hong Kong?
Bob Suettinger: I don't think so.
Hong Kong, of course, had, you know, they were just beginning to develop the, we had some pretty good China watchers in Hong Kong. And they were beginning to develop some useful, media people that were providing insights and so forth. And FBIS was, of course, the main source of our information on everything.
So it was, um not a time of great knowledge about China, at least in terms of my particular neck of the woods.
James Green: And so then Mao died and then, you were mentioning your colleague had written a paper about what was likely to follow.
Bob Suettinger: Yeah.
James Green: And then, in 1978 happened was it clear from where you were sitting that Deng Xiaoping and the reforms were often running, or was it still kind of uncertain?
Bob Suettinger: It was still a little bit uncertain by 1978. By late 1978, and, of course, when the normalization discussions were going full force, Deng- Deng was very much back, in a leadership position and he was the person that Ambassador Woodcock, met with most often.
And at the same time, what's interesting is at the same time as those, discussions were ongoing, there was a party leadership meeting that was going on, the prelude to the third plenum of the 11th central committee, which was, really quite remarkable in terms of the changes that were being, considered and were approved at the third plenum.
So there was a considerable degree of, uh- it wasn't uncertainty so much as it was just an increasing pace of change that, you know, we had sort of foreseen, but weren't sure where it was going to go. And Deng really did a great leap forward in both in terms of China's foreign policy, at that point, and the domestic policy. I don't think he even understood, what the changes, that they were, discussing were actually gonna bring.
James Green: And what was the internal pushback, for those in the system who were not in favor of some sort of closer relationship with the United States?
Bob Suettinger: It was, I think, the United States was an issue, but it was a less significant issue. I mean, we, of course, tend to think that everything is considered in terms of the relationship with the United States, but that wasn't so then. It isn't now, actually. But, it was more of a factional kind of alignment. We again, we didn't have good information. I mean, it wasn't like Ji Dengkui come out and gave a speech about how we should stay away from the Americans.
But it was considered that, of course the leftists having been pretty much set aside, by that point, the other faction then, the people who had benefited from the Cultural Revolution, were much weakened. And it was just a question of trying to get some of the people who were coming back into the system, who were being rehabilitated from Cultural Revolution disgrace. Getting them, figured into, the situation so that we could understand, you know, what they were juggling with.
Deng was not at the top of the heap at that point. He was definitely one of the top three people, but he was still, scrambling for space and still a long way to go before he actually became the primus inter pares.
James Green: And that discussion was about the direction of the country after Mao's death as the role of the state and society and the Party, those sorts of kind of large questions?
Bob Suettinger: Yes. There were sorts of, there were those sorts of things. Economic reform, as we understand it, hadn't really begun to percolate much. I mean, they sort of all, even Hua Guofeng agreed, that we have to move away from class struggle as the key link, to having economic, empowerment, betterment, for the society, as being the main goal of the Party's, efforts.
And so that was approved and it proved to be a very major kind of thing, and the Four Modernizations, of course, of agriculture, industry, national defense and science and technology, were back up and in vogue. So that part of it, at least, was a little bit more certain. But in terms of the political shakeup, we weren't sure where that was gonna go.
James Green: On the political side, in the 1980s, there was the Democracy Wall movement and there was seemed to be kind of some liberalization that happened. And then I'm gonna ask you about Tiananmen and kind of the aftermath.
Bob Suettinger: Okay.
James Green: But kind of leading up to it, it's kind of hard to remember now in China that there were actually intellectuals who were saying things that they wanted to say and it was I don't wanna say an era of completely letting 100 flowers bloom, but there were different ideas that were kind of floating around Beijing, in the '80s.
How would you describe or how did you guys have a window onto what was happening at that time leading up to Tiananmen? And we can talk about Tiananmen later.
Bob Suettinger: Well, I mean, it's an interesting question. We weren't sure of who the major, all the players were. But one of the things that was an unexpected, adjunct to the improvement of China's relations with the West, the you know, the opening, the reform and opening was beginning at that point.
And one of the adjuncts to that was that some of the people who had been prominent before the Cultural Revolution then got purged and were now coming back, didn't like it. And were very concerned about maintaining fidelity to Mao Zedong thought. You know, there's all these- I mean, they began a fairly intense, discussion of spiritual pollution.
James Green: Hmm mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bob Suettinger: And it got to be, it got way down in the society and sort of dredged up a lot of the old xenophobia that was part and partial of Mao Zedong thinking. And so it kind of, everybody sort of drew back and said, well, maybe this, you know, opening to the West is not the best of things to do right now. Let's sort of stand back a little bit.
And then Hu-Zhao and, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, and Deng Xiaoping sort of formed a little triumvirate at this point and they were, and they, you know, were working together. Zhao Ziyang was, more interested in economic reform. Hu Yaobang was trying to get the Party back into some sort of ideological good health. And of course Deng was trying to keep all the pieces, together and move in the direction that he wanted to go with respect to economic reform.
So it was not smooth. But Deng's- it was Deng's supporters, amongst the old guard that were the biggest trouble makers, as far as, the U.S.-China relationship was concerned. So we were trying to figure, you know, he needs to get those guys under control. I mean, it's- (laughs)-
James Green: And it was this broader issue that China struggled with since the modern era of how much should be foreign and how much should be Chinese?
Bob Suettinger: Exactly.
James Green: And how do they preserve their kind of-
Bob Suettinger: The subtext to that was also how does the Party maintain control, of this, because there was, as you say, a lot of intellectual ferment. Hu Yaobang presided over a meeting in early 1979 that never got much publicity, but it was a wide, open meeting. It really was. And, you know, we still don't have the information about it. But there was a lot of talk about de-Maoization at that point.
And that got everybody kind of up and concerned, because, you know, that was the figure that dominated their system for 50 years, or however many it was at that point, and they couldn't even conceive of dumping him. So that was in, it was in play.
James Green: And some of the crisis, right, in the Sino-Soviet split was the de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union, in which the-
Bob Suettinger: Oh yes. Exactly.
James Green: Chinese Communists felt like that they had, that was not done well, from the Russians, hadn't done that well, so they were very cautious.
Bob Suettinger: Yeah, not for, Big Brother was not behaving himself.
James Green: Right (laughs)
Bob Suettinger: So the relationship, you know, that relationship was not in good condition at that point either, but they were trying to figure out how to improve it, because they had gotten over the Russian focus, by the late 1970s, I think, in terms of the U.S.-China relationship.
And they were looking for ways to sort of construct a relationship that was a little healthier, a little bit more economically focused, and a little bit, less triangular in shape, I think.
James Green: So, right, sort of in the middle of 1989, of the year 1989, you went down to work at INR. And then to work on the NIC, on the National Intelligence Counsel. So State Department Bureau of Intelligence Research and then the National Intelligence Council.
In the run up to what happened in Tiananmen, how did you see things or what is your recollection of kind of what was happening on the ground in Beijing and in other cities throughout China?
Bob Suettinger: It was, I mean, it was preceded, in some ways, economic reform produced, and economic reform in the ebbs and flows of the Chinese economy -- produced a lot of dissatisfaction. And more and more of it was being made public. There was a feeling that, um- that progress was being made, that China was moving in by and large the correct direction- correct direction, from a Western standpoint.
James Green: A beneficial direction.
Bob Suettinger: A beneficial direction that the relationship could continue to improve. That liberalization, even though it was a bad word in China, was still the direction that we perceived things moving in. And not without, not without reason. There were a lot of people in China who were of the same view.
The demonstrations and the student dissatisfaction, which was widespread, was an unknown factor. I mean, we had good reporting on it in the sense that it was public, that the newspapers were covering it. Embassy officers were covering it. And we had a fair amount of information.
But how long it was gonna last, whether it was gonna be tolerated. It was clear that, again, this xenophobic aspect, this conservative element that was still strong within the leadership, was grumbling. And, so there were differences within the regime.
Deng was trying to get people to pay attention and get it under control. And so we knew there was trouble out there, but we didn't know how it would manifest itself. We had no way to know, really, that the level of dissatisfaction had grown so high that they could bring 200,000, 300,000 people into Tiananmen Square on any given day and on some cases probably closer to a million.
I mean, it was just, we were just, astonished. So, and then trouble, because it, you know, I mean, in where I was working at that point, we didn't have a lot of serious disagreements that things were gonna go bad, because, you know, there were too many things that we could see that the media couldn't see that suggested that preparations were being made for a crackdown.
And I don't think any of us had a good sense of the timing of that, but by the time it was impending, we knew it. So, it was just sort of how bad is it gonna be. I mean, I had, at that point, I was Carl Ford, who was the National Intelligence officer, had already gone over to the Pentagon at that point.
So I was kind of acting NIO and, you know, writing these one pages sort of sitreps, and I said, "As long as there's a million people in the square, it's unlikely the PLA is gonna attack them. But once the numbers get down, you know, anything can happen."
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bob Suettinger: So and we had, all kinds of resources, dedicated, both at the State Department, where I had been, and then at the NIC, at the agency, they had a lot. They had task forces in both places. So there was a lot of attention being paid to the details.
James Green: Before getting to the crackdown itself. How do you think what was happening in the Soviet Union affected Deng Xiaoping and the other Chinese leaders in their view on how to handle the demonstrators?
Bob Suettinger: Good question. I don't think that I, at least, was looking at it in a comparative perspective. I mean, there was, I think, a fairly good analytical consensus within the intelligence community that the approach the Chinese had taken was different from glasnost and perestroika.
That the Chinese were doing economic reform first, and political reform more slowly. And we could, of course, by 1987, Hu Yaobang had been taken down. And Zhao Ziyang was back up at the top, but it was beginning to be clearer and clearer that he was being hamstrung.
James Green: Can you just mention for 1987, Hu Yaobang being taken down, what the significance was in that?
Bob Suettinger: Well, Hu Yaobang was considered to be sort of more open minded, a little. He wasn't pro-Western by any sense of the imagination. He was, he in fact wasn't really fond of the West. But he was focused on fixing the things that they had broken in the Cultural Revolution. And reforming the Party structure so that it was more democratic, a little bit more, open to variant ideas, willing to listen rather than just tell people to shut up.
And he and Zhao had established a good working relationship. Not altogether smooth. Not that any ever are in that system. But it was, it seemed to be working.
But he was clearly under fire. And by 1987, what we didn't know then was that Deng had turned on him. And that wasn't clear until, you know, later information, and that was the end of him. I mean, it wasn't that he was ostensibly blamed for not cracking down on the student demonstrations that were taking place in several cities in Beijing, late 1986.
But, he had actually brought that under control. He had offended Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun, and Li Xiannian. And so they just decided, okay, he's got plenty of enemies. Let's just take him down.
And they thought that Zhao would be more controllable. In some ways he was. But the political dynamics, at that point, had just gotten to a point where these issues wouldn't go away. You know, the '86 demonstrations were a prelude to 1989 and although they weren't anywhere near on that scale, they scared him.
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Bob Suettinger: Scared him badly. And so they weren't, you know, with that as the prelude, they weren't prepared to allow, those kinds of things to happen again.
James Green: So then June third, June fourth, a number of, by then, a number of protestors had left and there were, some left in the square and the PLA came into the square and went into other parts of Beijing.
And, what do you think the lessons were that the Chinese leadership took away from that experience? Not necessarily, you know, June fifth, but kind of that year and then subsequent years. What's the consensus, do you think, that the leadership formed about the crackdown and how to deal with that part of Chinese society or kind of inter-party rivalry?
Bob Suettinger: Well, I think they concluded, first and foremost, that they can't allow this sort of thing to happen again. That security, and political security is, a primary consideration.
And they learned that not only from their own experience, but I think from Gorbachev, and his fate as well, because, of course, the Soviet Union was in a bit of a disarray at that point. Eastern Europe was kind of, you know, going into odd directions, and I think there was a deep sense of paranoia, and they weren't prepared to allow what happened in Eastern Europe to happen in China.
And when it began to happen, they, I mean, the reason that they didn't move earlier was because they couldn't agree. And the reason that things moved this quickly, in favor of the students, in favor of getting large crowds out on the street, was because they saw the political disarray at the top. They saw that Zhao Ziyang and Li Peng were on different, in different places on how to respond to this.
James Green: They couldn't agree if they should clear the square or if they should negotiate?
Bob Suettinger: Correct.
James Green: What package of incentives or what really the students would want?
Bob Suettinger: Well, I think there was disagreement about whether they should even talk to them. And some of the student, leaders were, um (laughs) somewhat less than respectful to their elders.
So the personal dimension of that also became, I mean, I'm not gotta talk to that guy, or that woman.
And, so but the splits in the leadership were deeper, and involved some fairly fundamental perspectives on the same issues that they'd been wrestling with before. Westernization, the degree of foreign interference, and of course there were many in, several in the leadership who blamed it all on the West, which they eventually did as a group.
But I think some of them really believed that it was too many foreign reporters that were there for Gorbachev, and they were stirring up trouble inciting students and the demonstrations were taking place, you know, before the world and in front of the cameras, and it just made everything worse. So it was a kind of, it was a collection of all of the worst things that they could imagine happening.
James Green: That was the kind of Chinese assessment of what they need to do and not repeat. What do you think the U.S. assessment was for how we handled our kind of bilateral relations? Diplomatic relations had been in place for 10 years by that point. General Scowcroft took his two trips to Beijing.
How do you think the U.S. side, or what were the things that you were being asked to kind of consider as U.S. policy makers were saying, "What could we do right?" Or "What could we, what did we get wrong in our interaction in that instance?"
Bob Suettinger: Well, you know, I stayed on as, on the National Intelligence Council until 1994. And, a lot of the things that we were doing, were focused on other areas of Asia. So I would, you know, we were doing Korea and we were doing Southeast Asia and so forth, and there was a lot more attention being focused on that.
And the proliferation issues, of course, were also beginning to be a major, impediment to any kind of, significant improvement in U.S.-China relations. It was beginning to be a problem.
And, of course, Tiananmen exacerbated all of the above because it created a climate of hostility in United States that took quite a while to go away. I mean, it was politically controversial, the Bush administration was trying to keep things on an even keel. I mean, they reacted a little bit slowly initially. But eventually they did some things that mattered and that gave some economic pain and a lot of political embarrassment, to the Chinese regime.
And Deng, of course, was kind of scrambling to keep his balance at that point. China's internal political situation was very much uncertain. So, there was a lot of, kind of milling around really that, there wasof course a presidential election, that wascoming up that needed to be addressed. The Democratic Party and the Clinton administration, in particular, and the Congress was adamant about punishing China in some way or another.
And so that was in play. The Scowcroft trip were secret, but didn't remain so for very long. And became, part of the yelling and screaming. And so it was, when I finally started in 1994, things had not really been resolved. There was still a yearly argument about whether to provide most favored nation trade status to the People's Republic of China, and it had to be argued at great length.
And so, you know, and nobody was happy with China policy at that point. President didn't like it. Warren Christopher didn't like it. And Tony Lake didn't like it. So, you know, we were trying to figure out what do we do now?
James Green: So moving on to your time at the NSC, before getting to the details of the policy, could you just talk about the mental shift that happens from being an analyst and National Intelligence Officer. From kind of describing what's happening in another country, trying to analyze it so that policy makers can make an informed decision, to being a little bit on the other side, which is, you know, thanks for that information, here's what we should do. We should send the Secretary of State or not send the Secretary of State or work with Congress on this legislation or not work with Congress.
How was that kind of mental adjustment after, at that point you'd been 20 years, almost in the agency from a producer of intelligence reports and assessment to a consumer. How did that mental shift happen?
Bob Suettinger: Well, I had the good fortune to have spent almost five years in the National Intelligence Council, which entailed regular interactions with policy makers, both, as you know, we often went as participants in various policy consideration meetings, including those in the Situation Room.
So you kind of got a sense for what, and part of every preparation that we did for the DCI, at that point was to say, all right, which bureaucracies are coming in from which direction and who has which policy perspectives in mind and who's going to give you trouble, in terms of your presentation of just the facts?
So I was familiar with the with the environment, although I hadn't been in, you know, except as a visitor, in the executive office building.
But, it was a change of perspective that was still fairly sharp. I mean, in the early phases, I was still kind of the person that they wanted to provide information background on stuff, rather than policy advice. You know. There was still then, and probably still now, a certain level of distrust of people with an intelligence background.
And even though, you know, as a rule, we kind of scrupulously tried to avoid policy perspectives, you can't always do that. And question and answer, particularly with the Congress, they always wanted to know what you really thought they should do. So I had a bit of an introduction by being on the National Intelligence Council to that kind of perspective. But it was still much more intense than I expected. And the political inputs to the policy process were not a shock, but they did require a period of adjustment when you have to deal with things the president read in the press, of people the president talked to on the phone that you didn't even know about, of people coming in to visit him and coming in to visit you.
And bringing their own perspectives or they're lobbyists or whatever and informed visitors and so forth. You had to juggle a lot more balls in order to kind of get a sense of, you know, what does the president need to know? And that's really where I thought my benefit, would come from, was that I could kind of bring to bear a lot of information from a lot of different perspectives.
As far as, recommendations, I was the sort of the China director and I worked for a person who had the Asia portfolio and Stanley Roth, and he was superb. He'd worked on the Hill for a long time and knew, you know, all of the issues extremely well.
So between the two of us, and there were only two of us at that point, we had a pretty good handle on both the data and how to deal, and how to utilize it. And both of us had pretty good relations with Tony Lake and Sandy Berger who at the top of the NSC food chain.
And so, it wasn't by any means smooth, but we came to an understanding. We didn't always prevail and again-
James Green: You mean the regional view of how to deal with the issue might be different from what the National Security Advisor or deputy National Security Advisor had for political reasons or global entrants?
Bob Suettinger: Absolutely. Or what the Defense Department would be interested in or what the, you know, the State Department was gonna come in on that particular day.
James Green: Yeah.
Bob Suettinger: To say nothing of the U.S. trade representative's office and so, I mean, the bureaucratic complexity, and Commerce, I mean, you'd have these meetings at the top most levels, and, they wouldn't be shouting matches, because they mostly, very polite, especially when Warren Christopher was just out, you know, ultimate gentleman was there and they were not, ruckus or argumentative, necessarily.
But the disagreements within the bureaucracy were clear. So you had to deal with that, as well. And then the president took a kind of standoffish view on China early on in his administration. He had backed off on the MFN issue, but he hadn't warmed up to Jiang Zemin and he hadn't taken that relationship into his pocket to, you know, to nurture it.
James Green: You had mentioned one of the things that you went on to to work on was non-proliferation-
Bob Suettinger: Right.
James Green: As a serious challenge that China was posing for security for what about the Middle East and East Asia.
Bob Suettinger: Right.
James Green: Could you just talk a little bit about what the problem was, what China's thinking was, and then how you tried to start addressing some of those challenges?
Bob Suettinger: Well, the problems were that the Chinese had a certain capability with respect to, nuclear weapons development.Also missile parts and production, also other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.
And their economic development program did not specifically proscribe, sending those things to other interested parties. And they were-
James Green: Outside of China?
Bob Suettinger: Outside of China. In the Middle East, Iran and Iraq. Of course they had helped to fund both sides in the Iran-Iraq was.
And so there was a market for their stuff. And we didn't really want that market to be developed, because their weapons of mass destruction were not unimpressive. So we were trying to work with them to sign up to various international accords, and to reach bilateral agreements on what's the right way to deal with this, how should we. should we hit you with something that will make you squirm?
And then of course there was a Congressional, element to this, as well. There was I think it was called the Helms Amendment, which said if you have any evidence of them breaking their commitments on these sorts of things, we're going to go after them, you know, with economic sanctions and all kinds of other punishments.
So it was a very, delicate, I think is the term that is often used for that, part of the relationship. And so we were trying to figure out what's the context in which, we can discuss this issue with the relevant authorities in the People's Republic? How can we bring it to their attention in ways that won't cause them to, you know, huff and puff and go away from the table?
So that was, I think, part of the reason that the National Security Council began, in 1995 and 1996 to take more an active perspective given the whole array of China related issues. And there were a bunch of them at that point and it was not just that but there was their human rights things, there were prisoners that were being taken and there was, you know, there was the Taiwan issue.
James Green: Yeah I wanted to ask you about the Taiwan Strait Crisis (laughs)
Bob Suettinger: So but nonproliferation was a serious issue because it was a serious issue in the U.S. government. We, you know, I mean, you talked to Bob Einhorn and he was the Merlin of our efforts.
James Green: And I know you guys had Gary Samore at the State.
Bob Suettinger: Gary Samore was on the NSC and Dan Poneman. And so we had a pretty, formidable group of people. And they were determined that they were gonna make progress on this issue.
James Green: On the Taiwan front, Lee Teng-hui was granted a visa to go to his alma mater, the at that time the president of Taiwan. And he gave a speech in Cornell. The PRC was not particularly happy about that.
What was your interaction, both internally within the U.S. government, but then also with, I presume, the Chinese ambassador and Chinese officials in Washington during that kind of tense time, '95, '96, '97?
Bob Suettinger: Well, it was intense on all fronts. there was, considerable disagreement on whether or not that invitation should be granted.
And at that point there was a lot of Congressional pressure. I mean, there was there was one nonbinding resolution that was passed by the House, you know, with only one vote (laughs)- disagreeing that he should be given, a visa and he should be allowed to visit.
We had, in 1994, we had done review of our Taiwan policy. because it had begun to kind of cramp interactions with Taiwan, which were growing at that point. And there was, of course, always, a Congressional group that wanted better relations across the board and allow, more visits and more contacts and so forth.
James Green: Between the U.S. and Taiwan officials?
Bob Suettinger: Between U.S. and Taiwan.
James Green: Okay.
Bob Suettinger: Regardless of PRC pressure. And the PRC was at that point, I think, very unhappy about the way things were moving, so they were prepared to sort of, overreact, in consideration of this.
And then our own policy process, it didn't work the way that everybody wanted it to, because the president was listening more to Congressional voices, and his own lawyerly instincts were that, I mean, look, here's a guy who was American educated, he wants to come back to his alma mater, and you're going say, "The PRC doesn't like it so we shouldn't let him"? Come on! That doesn't make sense. And he never thought that that was a sensible approach.
James Green: And also a political leader in some ways, Clinton was a political leader and Lee Tung-hui is also a political leader.
Bob Suettinger: Exactly.
James Green: So you have that kind of-
Bob Suettinger: Exactly. And I think he would've loved to meet with him.
James Green: Yeah.
Bob Suettinger: But there was just no way in terms of the other problems that we were having in the relationship and they were getting worse. There was no way that he was gonna put all of that on the line just so Le Teng-hui could go to Cornell.
But- but he didn't like that decision. And he finally, you know, we did a decision paper, which I wrote up in the book that said, "Give us a little time to calm down the PRC, which is jumping up and down and really not considering this issue in any sort of careful way."
And the ambassador was very spun up. Ambassador Li Daoyu, at that time, was, and all his people were kind of constantly pounding on our doors and saying, "You can't do this. You can't do this. You know, Christopher promised that you wouldn't, he wouldn't do it."
And so we were trying to deal with that, as well. And it finally did come down to a presidential decision, which he agreed,he would give us a little time to, you know, to help smooth everybody and get all the processes lined up and advance and try to at least damped down what we knew was gonna be an overreaction.
And I wrote an annex to the paper, after you know, became clear that they weren't gonna go along with the NSC's recommendations, which, you know, was, put this off, wait til there's more Congressional pressure, before you finally give in.
And you know, Tony Lake said, "No, that's not gonna happen."
And Christopher agreed. And Sandy Berger was just left out in the cold. So said, "Go back and rewrite the paper". And I said, "All right, I'll rewrite it if you put this annex in that will tell the president here's those things."
James Green: Things the PRC might do.
Bob Suettinger: Here what the PRC's gonna do. And we got that pretty right. You know, the IC was very helpful on that score.
So, and what we didn't count on was the president was gonna meet with Chuck Robb that evening and, you know, just have a session in the Oval. And and Chuck Robb went out of that meeting and told the press. Taiwan press, in particular. So it blew up, you know, the very next day. And then we, then it never recovered.
James Green: So on the PRC reaction, they announced some kind of closure areas where they're going to fire some missiles and the U.S. decided to move some naval assets.
Could you talk a little bit about the internal discussion of after the visit, after Le Tung-hui came here and spoke to his alma mater, and the Chinese put in place what they saw, so they needed to do to signal their unhappiness with both the United States and Taiwan, what was that internal conversation like?
Bob Suettinger: Well, it was, you know, one, how bad is this? And are we talking serious, prospects for hostilities? Or are we just talking about taking our time and working it through and saying nice things and trying to continue the dialogue, and particularly important was the dialogue on nonproliferation. Human rights was was not a dialogue that most people considered, very fruitful. I mean, it was necessary and we worked at it, but it wasn't fruitful.
There was a presidential meeting, at the UN, in it was 1995. So people kind of thought, well, maybe we can get through this? And different departments had different perspectives on that. I wasn't convinced that it was just gonna go away and other people thought it seemed, it's getting better. You know, they're not swearing at us quite as often as they used to.
And as I observed in my book, that the summit meeting between President Clinton, President, Jiang in the UN in 1995 went pretty well. But then, you know, we weren't fully aware of the amount of turmoil, within the PRC government that was being generated by arguments, about how they should be doing this.
And that probably is what led it to go a little bit further south, to take a little bit more provocative, a perspective in the 1996 tests and exercises.
So, there were just a lot of things that were going badly, at that point. I mean, they had, Harry Wu was arrested and, the first lady was going to Beijing for the women's conference and there was donorgate was beginning to happen and it was just, you know, it was just so many things were going on and the internal decisions were much more carefully considered, I think, than people realized.
There was an extensive discussion of alternative scenarios that involved, the Defense Department and the National Security Council. And the intelligence community to a certain degree. Not that much. You know, so there were lots of talks going on.
James Green: About what the options would be for responding?
Bob Suettinger: About what are the escalatory problems that we might be facing an if they did actually, if one of those missiles either went astray or was deliberately into Taiwan, what would be, you know, the ladder of escalation that we would deal with to try to avoid, you know, getting into a really serious kinda conflict and that was a pretty serious discussion that was very sobering for the president.
He really thought this could go really badly if we don't handle it right. So there was a fairly solid consensus that we were aware of what the risks were and how it was gonna play out.
And at the end, the decision was made at the Pentagon in a meeting that involved the State Department and the intelligence community and the NSC. And Bill Perry was the Secretary of Defense at that point, kind of surprised everybody by sort of upping the ante a little bit by saying we're gonna send, you know, two carrier battle groups there and one of them's gonna go into the Taiwan Strait. And that, I had sort of, prepared Sandy Berger and Tony Lake for that possibility coming up, and they were able to talk people down from that.
But it was, you know, it was, I think, a carefully considered decision, there was nothing hasty about it, and they parked the second carrier battle group off the east coast of China rather than some place more threatening and the Chinese National People's Congress was going on at that point. And so there was all kinds of flack in the air by, you know, people saying, oh, there's gonna be a sea of fire and all the rest of that.
So it was tense, but it wasn't overwhelmingly so. It wasn't one of those things where, you know, if we don't do this right, we're gonna go to war. It was, we weren't frightened or exceptionally nervous. We just thought this is gonna be, you know, a little bit of a white knuckle trip, but we'll get through it.
James Green: And what do you think the Chinese side took away from those two years, '95 to '97, in what happened with Lee Teng-hui coming here, their missiles exercises and our response?
Bob Suettinger: Well, obviously I don't know what the considerations were, but it was clear almost immediately after the exercises on the off shore island that went pretty badly, just mostly because of the weather. And Qian Qichen, I think, did a very quick turn around.
James Green: Foreign minister at that time?
Bob Suettinger: Yeah, he was the foreign minister. And it was, I think there were a number of people that said, you know, letting the military have free reign on policy decisions inside China wasn't necessarily a great idea. So we began to, and, you know, not long afterwards, others began to have discussions at a lower level with the Chinese on crisis management.
I think that got reiterated, of course, in 2001 when we had the EP-3 incident. But they began to, you know, to sort of, think that the kind of military reaction that was not dictated after a serious consideration of all of our alternatives is not necessarily the best policy for us. Didn't turn out well.
So there was thought about, you know, what can we do both in terms of the bilateral relationship with the United States and internally inside the People's Republic of China to improve our decision making process? I don't think they were impressed with the way that we did it on our side (laughs)- but at least it, you know, it ended up all right.
James Green: Let them be reflective about what they should be doing in future crises.
Bob Suettinger: Yeah.
James Green: Interesting. You've had a career of looking at China, we've gone through some of it here today. I guess I would kind of ask a very basic question on, you know, can the United States trust the Chinese communist system and party in a way that we can kind of work with them, or is it such a system that is so different from our own or so focused on other objectives that essentially you kind of can't reach understanding with them because of that kind of political chasm?
Bob Suettinger: Well, I think you have to work with them. There's no option on that. China has always been really too, we ignored them for a long time, it didn't work out all that well.
Can we trust them? No. That system, and the more I've been working on my current project, the more reason I have to be very skeptical about whether that regime can be trusted.
Their power considerations, their internal management of all issues, the politicization of everything. And the degree to which the maintenance of control and, you know, authoritarian is not quite strong enough to talk about what's going on there.
It's moving right now in what I consider to be an unhealthy direction, both for their internal stability and for relations with the rest of the world. Yes, they've got all kinds of efforts to Belt and Road Initiative and, you know, AD, what is that development bank that they're. ADDB or whatever.
These things are moving them outward. But politically they're moving inward. And it's hard to see how that's gonna be sustained over time and I don't think that we should be as trusting of them as we have been in the past.
James Green: Hmm. Can you talk a little bit about you'd mentioned a little bit about Xi Jinping's leadership style versus, say, Jiang Zemin? I mean, you dealt a lot with kind of Jiang Zemin's China.
Bob Suettinger: Yeah.
James Green: And now we have a little bit of a different China. How do you see those two leadership styles or what lessons should we learn for dealing with China today?
Bob Suettinger: Well, I mean, you're dealing with, I mean, people always describe the black box of domestic politics in China, and I've, you know, tried to find a way in to see what's going on in there, and (laughs) I've never felt I was wondrously successful.
But I think it's important to keep trying. Because I think, anybody that would look at the United States, for example, and say, "Well, do you think Donald Trump has made a difference in American foreign policy?" D'uh.
That's, of course he has. And why would you think that the PRC, which is run by a communist party, would continue to think along the same lines under a new leader who has much different interests, much different support base than his predecessors?
Why would you not think that his presence at the top of that leadership is important? You've gotta know what these guys are thinking, doing, I think Jiang Zemin had a basically positive viewpoint on the opening to the West. He saw it as good for China, he saw it as good for his reputation. He was very proud of the fact that he could speak a few words of English, including, you know, the Gettysburg Address, which I think I heard twice.
But but Xi Jinping, if you read his early speeches, boy he is anti-Western. Very strongly so. And again, reflecting a different dimension on that same old problem. You know, does China want to be part of the international community, or does it want to just take a piece of it and try to keep the rest of it out?
I think Xi Jinping is in a different place on that, and I think he has been, working both the politics internally in China, and the policies, in a way that is worrisome in terms of the U.S.-China relationship.
Bob Suettinger: So I'm not an optimist.
James Green: Bob Suettinger. So great to see you. Thank you for all of your, many years of work for the U.S. government and afterwards in sharing your insights on how to read what is a challenging country and one that we'll have to keep paying attention to going forward. Really appreciate it.
Bob Suettinger: Thank you James.
James Green: Robert Suettinger - 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.