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From reporting on Tibetan issues in Sichuan to becoming a close East Asia adviser to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Susan Thornton has had to grapple with and formulate policies towards—and with—China ranging from human rights to the exchange rate, from cyber security to North Korea.
As deputy assistant secretary of state, then as acting assistant secretary, she was central to implementing China policy across three U.S. administrations. In addition to unraveling the mystery of what, exactly, is a diplomatic demarche, Thornton discusses using presidential summits to advance U.S. interests with China—and talks about that famed south Florida chocolate cake served to Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2017.
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 to Susan Thornton.
Thornton was the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs until she retired in July 2018 after nearly three decades in the diplomatic service. She guided policy towards China and East Asia at a tumultuous time in U.S. foreign policy under the first year and a half of the Trump Administration, with increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a more assertive China in the South China Sea, and new trade friction with friends and allies alike.
In our discussion, Thornton talks about balancing these different U.S. foreign policy objectives in the region and with China. Here's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking at the United Nations Security Council in April 2017, high-lighting the real dangers of North Korea's provocative weapons tests:
Rex Tillerson (audio): With each successive detonation and missile test, North Korea pushes Northeast Asia and the world closer to instability and broader conflict. The threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on Seoul, or Tokyo, is real. And it is likely only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the U.S. mainland. Indeed, the D.P.R.K. has repeatedly claimed it plans to conduct such a strike. Given that rhetoric, the United States cannot idly stand by. Nor can other members of this council who are within striking distance of North Korean missiles.
Those, in some ways, are the traditional foreign policy challenges facing any senior official. But in addition, the Trump Administration called longstanding alliances and relationships into question, did not have many sub-cabinet officials in place, and had a chaotic decision-making style. Three days after the Administration came into office in January 2017, the United States withdrew from the 12-nation Transpacific Partnership, quickly insisted on renegotiating a trade agreement with South Korea and pushed allies for greater burden sharing on defense spending.
Susan Thornton talks with us about being in the middle of it all -- addressing Chinese cyber hacking, setting up the summit between the U.S. and Chinese presidents in Florida, and she shares how career officials handle political transitions. At the end of our conversation, she is philosophical about personal attacks against her at the end of her time in government.
Susan Thornton: We were the first ones I think to get a consulate opened in Chengdu, and then after that the Chinese government decided that it wanted to promote Chongqing, Chengdu's kind of rival sister city there in the southwest as a destination for more government and commerce and business made it a major sort of the fourth major national city, and so sent a lot of the other consulates to open down in Chongqing. So, we were a bit lonely for diplomatic colleagues for a while. But we covered Yunnan Province which is all along the border with Laos, and Myanmar.
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan Thornton: and then, we did not cover down to the southeast where the border with Vietnam is but we covered Tibet, Guizhou province and, Sichuan of course, and I think that's about it.
James Green: And when you went to Tibet that first time right after dropping your bags and family off, you'd been in post-Soviet states, you'd been in big cities all around the world. What struck you about going to Tibet in 2001?
Susan Thornton: I think...well there are a couple of things about covering that portfolio. Of course, in the '90s, the U.S.-China relationship was very focused on human rights issues. I think we forget that now because the sort of sea change in the kind of issues that we've been focusing on, has sort of been forgotten. But-
James Green: Just to interject there-
Susan Thornton: Sure.
James Green: ... I was, re-listening to the preparation for Bill Clinton, President Bill Clinton's trip to China in 1998. And Secretary Albright was giving a briefing at the National Press Club as the preview for the trip, and all of the questions from the press were on human rights and most of her remarks were on human rights. So, just to back up what you're saying, at that time in the, '90s, there was an incredible focus on that aspect of the U.S.-China relationship.
Susan Thornton: Yeah. And it's no accident I think when we...it's really important when you're thinking about the U.S.-China relationship to put yourself back in the context. So, after Henry Kissinger of course went to China in the early '70s and after we re-cemented our relationship and reopened diplomatic relations in '79, the relationship was really focused on this kind of very practical strategic cooperation countering Soviet aggression.
And no one really questioned the wisdom of that because we had such a clear and overriding priority in that joint endeavor. But then after of course the Tiananmen Square incident, massacre, happened in '89, and the collapse of the Soviet Union sort of knocked all of the rationale and footing out from under the relationship.
And I think we weren't really focused on it. We struggled to come up with how to put this back on solid footing. George H. W. Bush sending Brent Scowcroft in a couple of times to try to put things back on track, keep some kind of foundation or footing for the relationship. But it was not easy I think for us to, get over the Tiananmen massacre and to move on to other important practical constructive issues that we eventually ended up, I think, doing in the late 2000s.
But so when I arrived in Tibet, to bring it back to that, we were still operating in the shadow of that kind of, very much human rights being at the center of the relationship. And the Tibetan community was very influential in the corridors of Washington and the Congress and elsewhere. And, it was a powerful voice. And so-
James Green: And then you were the Tibet officer-
Susan Thornton: Yeah. I was a-
James Green: ... for all types of purposes at the consulate who was supposed to-
Susan Thornton: I was a political economic officer but that was, one of my beats. It was not just the Tibetan community and the Tibet Autonomous Republic, TAR but Tibetan communities elsewhere in, in the region. Yunnan and Sichuan had big, big communities as well. Qinghai as well. So, it was important to try to understand what was going on because most of what we were hearing about Tibet was coming from the exile community and not from actually inside the country.
So that was, a very important thing that I felt I could do is sort of report on what's actually happening on the ground, what people inside are actually saying and what their concerns are and, and what their, what progress, if any, they're making and what they think that the United States should be doing about it. So-
James Green: and before we kind of move on, just to be clear, the exile community is the Tibetans who are not in Tibet proper.
Susan Thornton: Right.
James Green: They're in India, from the other side of the border-
Susan Thornton: Various other places. Yeah. Most in India.
James Green: ... and then here in the United States.
Susan Thornton: Right.
James Green: And so, very, as you say, influential in setting policy and reporting on what's happening.
Susan Thornton: Right.
James Green: Let's move to your time back here in Washington as the deputy of the China Desk which is I think when I first met you.
Susan Thornton: Hm. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Green: Could you just describe what the job is of the deputy director of the China Desk? And then I want to ask you about some of the policy considerations.
Susan Thornton: Well, the State Department is basically run by the directors of the offices, in various bureaus. And my director when I arrived at the desk was John Norris, a veteran foreign service officer who'd been working on China since the 1980s. And my job as the deputy was to make sure that the office was running effectively to coordinate across different agencies on our policies, and to try to make sure that the State Department's China policy operation was basically firing on all cylinders and, and doing what it was supposed to do to serve the secretary in the inner agency.
At the time I was there, John Norris and I used to joke that the China Desk was the same size in 2007 than it was in 1987 when he had first been there. We didn't have any more staff than we had had. And so, one of the things that we were working on was continuing to fill in and structure the office to fit with the more modern U.S.-China relationship.
James Green: And while our footprint in China had exploded during that time.
Susan Thornton: Right.
James Green: So, the number of officers who were actually serving in Beijing or Chengdu or Shanghai had grown a lot, and one of the main jobs for the deputy director is to work on that personnel assignment and those ... that assignment work had really-
Susan Thornton: Right.
James Green: ... increased a lot, and as you said, the number of people actually working on the China Desk, yet didn't increase since I was there, a couple of years before then.
Susan Thornton: Yeah.
James Green: It was, it was pretty, pretty small. So-
Susan Thornton: It's also interesting on the issue of sort of the context of U.S.-China relations under George W. Bush. I came back at the end of his, admin- I was there across the two administration transitions. We had really been focused on counter-terrorism for most of his tenure and so the U.S.-China relationship was very often viewed through that lens and, became a kind of a lower priority in comparison obviously.
And, then we have the great financial crisis of 2008-2009 that coincided with the transition from George W. Bush to President Obama. and that also kind of consumed all of our energy in focus and priority. And so, when people talk about, and I know, there'd been many people that have tried to sort of bring us back to Asia starting even with Condoleezza Rice and then moving through the Obama administration with the so-called Pivot and then the re-balance.
James Green: Or re-balance. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan Thornton: And now we have the Indo-Pacific strategy. And I think what you see through all of that is this realization on the part of the people who work on foreign policy that were really not focusing in the way we should on this very important region. And it's a great frustration, I'm sure, to many Asianists, and I think a lot of other people don't really appreciate it.
James Green: Different people have written about, do you work on Asia from the kind of outside in or the inside out. That is do you build a coalition of littoral states, of countries like Japan, Korea, and try to focus U.S. energies there or do you work on that kind of central mainland of working with China is at the main focus? During your time at the main State, how did you see that kind of balance play out again?
You were not serving on the Japan Desk but that obviously colored some of your interpretation. How do you see that balance of what's the best way to get U.S. engaged in the Asia in a way that, benefits the region and the United States?
Susan Thornton: Well, you have absolutely got to do both. Working with China is extremely frustrating, time-consuming, and needs to be done. It needs to have resources devoted to it. It's not going to go on autopilot for sure. But the way to work on that relationship other than in it and on it, is to work with other countries in the region to have kind of common approaches and to have priority setting and to have, be able to be pushing in the same direction with regards to overall policy toward the region. But within that, of course, China is very salient and so you end up kind of having a coherent approach. I think that's the best way to do it.
I must say that a lot of Asia policy that I've seen over the years, maybe because of our lack of focus on Asia, seems to be driven by insecurities on the part of others in the region. And I think, that is actually been helpful to some extent because it's forced us to focus on Asia to the extent we have. But it is not, the best way to go about formulating a coherent strategy and then executing it.
I think the countries in the region are always worried about the depth of our engagement, the staying power of our engagement. And if we could do something to reassure them on that front, then maybe we could move on to a more kind of intentional and coherent approach all across the board.
James Green: One of the things you do as a deputy director of the China desk or as director of China desk is to kind of balance the different policy interests and goals for the current administration and for the United States in a broader sense. How did you see, I'm just gonna kind of tick off some of the different issues, and how did you kind of balance those sorts of things? Certainly DPRK, Iran, those kind of non-proliferation and security issues always forefront here at Main State. South China Sea. You had mentioned human rights. I just wonder from your time on the desk and then there was the kind of market access, trade-related issues and then for the Obama administration environment became, kind of, quite high up.
Susan Thornton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Green: From what you recall at that time, how did you balance those different sort of incoming missives of "Oh, this is important, oh, no, this is really important. That's important." Because if everything's important, then kind of nothing is important.
Susan Thornton: No. We have that problem definitely in the, in the U.S. government, and, and this reactive thing that you mentioned sort of reacting to the latest news story, it sort of exacerbates that problem. But, leadership is incredibly important. George W. Bush, exercised pretty commanding leadership over the U.S.-China relationship after he got sort of into his job for after a period of time.
I think, the secretaries of state and national security advisers through the George W. Bush period and on through the Obama period, had a lens on and a focus on the U.S.-China relationship and had an overarching idea of where they wanted it to go and, and how things were gonna be fit in and balanced there.
And so, we took a lot of our guidance and signaling from them. I think one of the things that's always difficult is to ... and certainly since, the basically the last two administrations, the Bush administration, the Obama administration, and now the Trump administration balancing the security, national security objectives, and political objectives against the economic objectives.
And because the Chinese economy became so intertwined with ours, and Hank Paulson was very instrumental in the Bush II administration and overseeing that U.S.-China relationship and, all the issues that at that time, if you remember the salient issue in the relationship, in the U.S.-China relationship was the exchange rate. And so, people forget that and people say we have not made any progress at all on the U.S.-China relationship.
Well, we worked on that issue as a priority for a number of years, and now it's, I mean not everyone thinks it's solved but we made a lot of ... I think it would be hard for anybody to say we didn't make progress on that issue.
James Green: If anything though, right, the central ... Chinese Central Bank keeps-
Susan Thornton: Right.
James Green: ... their side of the Renminbi up instead of down. Yeah.
Susan Thornton: Up. Right, right. So, I think personalities are important. What's going on in the world is important. It has been very hard for us to focus on the U.S.-China relationship. As a U.S.-China relationship, it seems to get pulled off into different issues. You mentioned North Korea, Iran, climate change. It kind of becomes a vehicle for whatever the priority of the day is. And, it's been a useful vehicle in many of those priorities frankly. On North Korea, we've cooperated, not completely to our satisfaction but certainly to a significant extent with China and working on the North Korea problem.
So far, it hasn't evolved to a conflict, so maybe we can count that as a success. We're working toward making it something even more positive than that. We'll see if that works out. I'm hopeful but, certainly I think even the current administration sees China as indispensable to that effort. Iran was another thing we worked on as a major priority for a long period of time, got, you know quite a bit of Chinese cooperation on issue. It's not easy, but they finally in the end did agree to contribute a material substantive sort of investment in that effort.
Climate change, the story there is well known. There is sort of a 180 degree turn from being at odds at each others throats to being, cooperating on getting the Paris agreement. So, I think to say that we haven't gotten any positive responses out of our cooperation from China, it's just ignoring the context and the priorities that we had at the time and how we worked and what we did.
But I do think that there is ... It's possible because of the way we work that the Chinese have had their national goals front and central all the time, and they've been working inexorably on them and they've been undeterred despite their cooperation with the international community on other various topics.
And so, our frustration now comes from, their having sort of focused on that and succeeded in that, and us not having maybe paid as much attention to what was going on in that aspect or in that sphere as we should have.
James Green: Yeah. There's always this asymmetry in the U.S. as a global power and we have global interests.
Susan Thornton: Exactly.
James Green: And China is essentially a regional power with some global interest and they can just concentrate much more at home and much less on things that they're, they're not interested.
I just wanted to have, before moving on to, your, your next position, have you talked just for a moment about what it's like to be on the listening end of a démarche from the Chinese embassy here. For those people that haven't experienced it, could you just explain when the Chinese government is unhappy about something, how did they let the United States government know that and what's your role at the State Department for receiving that information and responding?
Susan Thornton: Okay. So here, I have to tell a great anecdote, about démarches because I think this is something very mysterious that most, Americans, most listeners, probably don't really understand. So, before I explain about the démarches, I was at the National War College for a year and we did a simulation out of the Air War College in Alabama. And I was the secretary of state playing that role, and a couple of my defense colleagues, very talented, wonderful guys, were playing the national security adviser and the defense secretary.
And there were some, I forget what the scenario was, but some conflict broke out somewhere, and the guy that was playing the secretary of defense, this very tough tank commander, after a year at the National War College, this was at the end we were doing this role play, he was in a meeting with us, with me in this national security adviser and the national security adviser says, "Well, what do you think we should do? You know, do we have any military options?" And the secretary of defense looks at him and says, "No. We have to demarche the shit out of them." (laughs).
James Green: (laughs).
Susan Thornton: So, it was just interesting that by the time we've gone through a lot of different military, adventures in the Middle East and elsewhere. This is where (laughs) they, they've come to is that we've got to get back to, demarching the shit out of people. But demarche doesn't really work that way, James.
James Green: How does it work?
Susan Thornton: Basically it's a very kind of stayed, kind of polite conversation. We get instructions from our home government to go in and, tell the Chinese what our position is on X issue or to express our unhappiness about something that they've done. And they get the same kinds of instructions from their government and they're ordered to come in and deliver their message to us.
Now, as diplomats, we've all worked in each other's countries. We understand how local systems and politics work, so we know that the person that's delivering the message is the same person that we're gonna have coffee with tomorrow and talk through practical issues around whatever we've got going on.
James Green: A presidential visit or a secretary of state visit.
Susan Thornton: Exactly, exactly.
James Green: Or something that you're gonna represent the U.S. position on that you're unhappy with for the other.
Susan Thornton: Right. Some, some negotiation or something. So, when that person comes in and delivers their points, my first inclination is to listen very hard because I know this is coming from an official process in their government so that you could certainly glean information about what they're thinking and about what their different pushing and pulling inside their government is reflected in those comments.
But in the case of China, their positions tend to be longstanding and very familiar to us. And so most of the time when they came in and delivered points in this formal way, it was not anything that was very surprising or very different and we would have been expecting it.
James Green: Or sometimes you would have gotten the message from our embassy in Beijing the day before seeing exactly what those same points were.
Susan Thornton: Yeah. And I have to say here, it's important to make this point I think that the Chinese process is very disciplined, and very complete.
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan Thornton: It may not always be very flexible and very nimble and agile, but it's very disciplined. And so they are very good at delivering their messages across multiple levels in multiple locations. They kind of blanket the air waves with their message and there's no mistaking what the official position is on X issue.
James Green: I wanted to move to, a little bit later when I think in 2015. Were you deputy assistant secretary at that time?
Susan Thornton: Yes.
James Green: So, you were deputy assistant secretary for China, Hong Kong, Mongolia.
Susan Thornton: Right. Taiwan.
James Green: And Taiwan.
Susan Thornton: Yeah.
James Green: And I wanna say, were you the second woman to hold that job after Susan Shirk or am I missing someone else?
Susan Thornton: Yeah. I think that's right.
James Green: So a first career person to have the job.
Susan Thornton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Green: Second woman to have it. And cyber intrusions and dealing with cyber attacks ended up getting a lot of press attention and a lot of concern in the policy community.
Susan Thornton: Absolutely.
James Green: And, in preparation for Xi Jinping's visit here to Washington, the U.S. let it be known, through I believe it was the Washington Post, that for this to be a success this issue of cyber hacking would have to be addressed. From what you recall during that time, could you just kind of walk through what the thinking was on the U.S. side and then kind of how the Chinese responded and kind of what worked and what didn't?
Susan Thornton: Yeah. Absolutely. So I came back here right from Central Asia and became the DAS. That was in actually the summer of 2014, and I remember walking into my new office, and my predecessor Kin Moy was there on the phone actually with the Justice Department in the process of working out the details of the rollout of the indictment of the five PLA hackers that was announced later that day I think. And so this was something that was kind of new actually in the sort of U.S.-China range of issues that we had been prioritizing and discussing with them.
Of course, we'd always been, complaining but it was done mainly through either the intelligence channels or the law enforcement channels and, we also had fairly decent-
James Green: Or the trade channels as IP theft.
Susan Thornton: Right. As IP theft. But we also had a lot of good operation with China on things like cyber crime, trying to crack down on child pornography on the web, selling fake products on the web, that kind of thing. So, this was kinda part and parcel and we were all learning about the way the internet was good and bad. But then, this series of hacks that started I think in the, in the early, basically in the Obama administration, became much more prominently reported on, became much, much bigger, more significant.
And if you remember in 2015, that's when all of the news about the OPM, the office of personnel management hack came out, and I think that was really a game changer. There had been a number of attacks on big data bases with a lot of U.S. personnel information. Anthem I think had happened right around that same time. But the OPM hack really started a kind of frenzy in Washington.
James Green: And it's good to remember that a lot of ... Until that time, as you said, a lot of companies didn't wanna disclose that their systems have been hacked because they thought there would be legal liabilities, something would happen to their stock price. And so this was something at the commercial level. Companies didn't wanna acknowledge and so it was not kind of out in the open-
Susan Thornton: Yeah.
James Green: ... the way it is kind of today.
Susan Thornton: Absolutely. And OPM also didn't acknowledge it when it first happened. So, you know that was part of the whole backstory in how this got to be so prominent in people's minds, I think. And so, at the State Department I remember having daily meetings about the OPM hack. What should we disclose to all the employees? What remedies should be taken? What were the possible damages? And, repairing computer systems that was gonna cost a big chunk of our IT budget to make fixes for this kind of thing.
So when people think of this sort of tensions with China, I mean there's a lot of other factors that go into it and a lot of people were all of a sudden aware of the Chinese hacking that maybe hadn't been before which was another angle to the whole crescendo of events. But, yeah, Xi Jinping was scheduled to come to the United States for his first state visit and, hosted by President Obama. It was a very big deal. These kinds of visits are a very big deal in the Chinese, system and-
James Green: Why?
Susan Thornton: Well, it's their paramount leader. The U.S. relationship is the most important relationship for the Chinese. Obviously. It's essential that the Chinese leader have a good visit to Washington. It's very important for their sort of domestic media, sort of to show that Xi Jinping came to Washington was respected, was well treated, and had a successful visit. And the Chinese bureaucracy is nothing if not geared towards making sure that nothing goes wrong for these visits. And I think, our system similarly tries to do that but we have different incentives, and maybe not as dire consequences for things going wrong as in the Chinese system.
So, we let it be known as you said that, to have a successful visit this issue of cyber would have to be addressed in a very serious way. We would have to some kind of an outcome that showed that we were making progress. And up to that point, the Chinese had just not been interested at all in having a serious conversation about it.
And so I think, that is a pattern that we see in dealing with China. We have concerns. They probably see that we have a long list of concerns, and they don't know which one we're actually most focused on until we make a show of it. And then when we do, they generally do try to pay attention because like I said, they want, the relationship is important, and they want to have a productive and constructive interaction generally.
James Green: How did the Chinese, offer to address some of our concerns on cyber hacking?
Susan Thornton: Now, the main, bone of contention we had with the Chinese was that they were doing this hacking. It was state-sponsored clearly, and that they were then having the state-sponsored actors were turning over this treasure trove of information that they either stole or exfiltrated or whatever they did to commercial entities to try to sort of build up their competitiveness against U.S. rivals and using our own information in that.
And that was something that, although some other countries in the world and been known to do similar things. It was, basically, could not be tolerated in an environment where you want to have an open market-based, competitive, global economic system, and obviously it's just any way illegal and immoral. And so I think that was the main thing that we were going after was you can't ... You know, we understand there are intelligence agencies that are going to do what they're going to do and try to get information about each other.
And we understand that there are criminal hackers out there that are going to try to steal people's money, but you can't have the state using its tools to hack companies and then turn that over to essentially the criminals or the companies that are gonna be competing. So that was what we were going after. And I think, it's a very difficult thing to try to negotiate.
The Chinese said immediately that they do not do that and that they do not condone that, and that they are happy to sign an agreement to that effect. But of course, the details of signing that agreement are very tricky. And there's all kinds of things that, definitional and other problems with it, that are still plaguing us to this day frankly. But we did manage to get an agreement and we did see a diminution in hacking from China after the agreement.
James Green: Anything else from Xi Jinping's visit that you recollect as being particularly noteworthy or anything that you've found of interest as someone who's spent a fair amount of time working in China?
Susan Thornton: Well, the one thing I would say, and this is more general than tied to that specific visit, but since I did a lot of these leadership visits, that we found was very useful. Because the Chinese system values so much the symbolic accomplishment of these visits, and because it's so important for it to go well, it gives us quite a bit of leverage. And the visits are themselves very important because communication at the top level of leadership for China and the United States is, is crucial, I think in, in that our relations are so complex and it requires in both bureaucracies clear leadership from the very top to set the right tone and make it a constructive relationship.
But, I think, we had a habit when I was working on this in the Obama administration and in the George W. Bush administration of using these visits to try to get a series of outcomes in different priority areas. And, people now say, "Oh, we didn't ever get very much or we didn't, get the right things and we weren't focused on some technology that's only emerged in the last two years." But, at the time for the things we were working on, I think that we were able to get quite a bit of mileage out of those visits, and contrary to the popular narrative now, it's not that the Chinese in every case didn't follow through on the things that they promised.
I mean we had a very rigorous system of following up on those and holding their feet to the fire and making sure they did. The one area I will say that I think was constantly a disappointment was the economic and trade negotiations in the run-up to these visits. And it was difficult to make headway because we were constantly responding to various U.S. interests groups coming up with their latest and greatest problem that they were encountering in China, and there was no real strategic focus on what we should be prioritizing and what we should be demanding and asking for.
I will say at the same time that we were working on trade and commercial issues. We were also negotiating this bilateral investment treaty text with the Chinese. And in that negotiation, according to the people who were involved in it and, and to some of the discussions I was privy to, we were making quite a lot of headway. But all of that work was not ever consummated and we never got anything from it because we never finished or converted it in any way during one of these visits into meaningful kind of commitments from the Chinese. So, that was unfortunate.
James Green: Switching on that, Xi Jinping came for the Nuclear Security Summit here, and it's Washington, and he was supposed to bring with him an updated negative list as part of the bilateral investment treaty negotiations. And the negotiators got here and the whole team got here and essentially the Chinese said, "The dog ate our homework. That is, gee, we couldn't kind of bring consensus on our side to give you an updated negative list."
And at least, in the meetings that I was in with on the trade sides and senior folks, the question was "Well, what happened?" Like, "You said in your system you needed to have a presidential visit to force decisions among the inter-agency. We waited some time for you to pull this together and show up with Xi Jinping." And they just said, "Yeah. There just wasn't enough consensus to, to move forward."
So, I think that you're right to point out the ability of a presidential visit to bring Chinese policies more in line with what the U.S. would like or to kind of harmonize global issues in a way that benefits the United States. That said, it's not a panacea. It doesn't solve all problems-
Susan Thornton: Absolutely.
James Green: You can’t address everything with all those.
Speaking of presidents, I wanted to switch to, you had mentioned the president's transitions, and that you were at the State Department for two of them. I guess I was in policy planning for the Bush to Obama time.
Susan Thornton: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Right.
James Green: Could you just talk for people who wanna know what happens and what doesn't happen in the presidential transition? What's it like at the State Department? What's the physical setup and what's the role of the kind of career staff in bringing in the new team to explain what the U.S. policy has been and then give policy options for them moving forward.
Susan Thornton: Yeah. I mean I think it's probably safe to say that it's different in every case. And efforts have been made to try to standardize and make it more regular. I think the George W. Bush team made a big effort in that department, and I think actually the Clinton administration before them did some work on that as well. But what I saw happen twice and what is supposed to happen is that a transition team comes in to the State Department appointed by the administration's transition team.
James Green: That is the president selects political appointees...
Susan Thornton: Usually from the campaign or having some connection with the campaign but who also have had some foreign policy background and experience. And sometimes if the campaign is really well-organized, they already who some of the incoming officials are that they're gonna want to appoint, so they name those people. That did not happen in the last, transition, but I've seen that happen in a number of others and it seems to be a fairly standard way of doing it.
They occupy rooms and offices on the first floor of the State Department. They ask, they send up requests for information. We prepare briefing books on all the issues that we think they need to know about, and it's kind of an information exchange certainly from the period between the election and the inauguration. You know, we're sort of informing what are all the issues, what has been done on them, what's the history. And we don't get a lot of feedback generally on what the new approach, if anything, is going to be.
But I think that makes sense because you can't have more than one president at a time and, in the case of George W. Bush, well, in that case, we were dealing with the financial crisis so that was pretty exceptional. But, in general, there's pride of place given to the outgoing administration's continuation of their policies, but, of course, all the foreign counterparts know that that person is a lame duck and so they're waiting kind of to see and they're not making a lot of commitments.
So it's a kind of a tricky time to be a diplomat. You're trying to finish up whatever things that you've been, had ongoing that are projects with foreign countries or in various areas. But it's hard sometimes to get the foreign counterparts to step up and give you the due attention.
James Green: I guess that I want to move your time as assistant secretary. So, Danny Russel who was the career assistant secretary retired or was moving towards retirement.
Susan Thornton: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Green: You were tapped as the deputy assistant secretary to be the acting assistant secretary for covering all of East Asia. So how was it to go from kind of China to the whole region.
Susan Thornton: Mm.
James Green: There's a lot more countries, allies-
Susan Thornton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Green: ... very different relationships that you have. How did you find that kind of broadening the experience but also an inbox that's just gonna be a lot deeper.
Susan Thornton: Yeah. I mean, it was, it was great actually. I loved it. (laughs). yeah, I worked my entire career on, I would say countries where the governments and the United States have not always had a completely smooth relationship. And so, to go from those kinds of challenges and also dealing with countries that have a lot of times very stilted forms of and very formal sort of communication mechanisms with partner governments, to go to Australia and just, be able to talk like in, completely family conversation, it's a different feeling. It's a different level of honesty, and it's in a lot of ways, it's just a lot more productive. There are so many things that you can just move right through and don't, not spend time on because there are so many shared spaces that we have. And so, that was, great.
Working on Japan was wonderful. I really felt that having sort of seen Japan always being in EAP, I mean it's one of the sort of major relationships. It defines a lot of what we do. Our usually assistant secretary and principal deputy are from the Japan kind of background, and so I've learned a lot from those people over the years and come to really appreciate Japan and, and talk to them a lot.
But, really being able to go and sort of have detailed deep conversations with them about the region. And, and I was really, found them to be very strategic, very practical and realistic. And really enjoyed working on the whole Indo-Pacific strategy with them, which I still to this day think is the right policy for the U.S. government to have in the region and, to try to-
James Green: Explain that. What makes you say that?
Susan Thornton: Well, I think that the Asia is the most important region for the future of us and the rest of the world. And we're gonna need to work with the other countries in the region to have a sort of a bigger say in how it develops. I don't think this bilateral approach is bearing the kind of fruit that we wanna see it bear.
And so working with all of the potential partners in the region, including China but, to focus on this kind of free and open values-based and rules-based system is what we need to be doing, and to be more creative and flexible about the partner arrangements, about how we coordinate, and to build up the regional architecture so that it can do a lot this stuff automatically for us, which it's not doing, which is why we're devolving into alternate groupings which frankly I'm not sure we have the sort of attention span and resources to have a proliferation of different architectures in East Asia. And I don't think it's gonna serve the region well.
James Green: And by architectures you're meaning different groups of countries that work on different issues. Depending on what the issue is, those different groups kind of come together.
Susan Thornton: Right. I'm for informal groupings. I'm for mini laterals and ... But I'm not for more formal architecture. I think we need to focus on the East Asia Summit and, the ASEAN Center architecture and bringing in the Indian Ocean countries into that architecture and, focus very singularly on making that architecture work and building it up and strengthening it. I think we're getting kind of a little bit too diffused in our focus on that. And it's not having salutary effects on the architecture that exists.
James Green: One of the things that the incoming administration focused on was North Korea. And you were the acting assistant secretary during that time when it was particularly intense. Focused on North Korea's behavior. Could you talk a little bit about your role and how ... what you did as the kind of senior adviser?
I would say the new administration didn't have a lot of career people or political appointees in place and you were one of a few people who was turned to kind of regularly on, security issues on East Asia because of the North Korea problem. Could you just kind of talk a little bit about how you saw it?
Susan Thornton: Yeah. I actually think North Korea is one of the most fascinating foreign policy stories in this administration or in any administration. Frankly, I started working on North Korea in 1997 when I was on the Korea desk and we worked on the agreed framework. Then I worked on the six-party talks when I was in the embassy in Beijing, in the mid-2000s, then under Obama of course, we worked a little bit on North Korea but mostly we tried to contain it and, keep it-
James Green: Strategic patience.
Susan Thornton: Yeah. Keep it from going in the worse direction. But I think people forget that at the beginning of the Trump administration in the National Security Council, Mike Flynn and K.T. McFarland were told because North Korea was the most urgent national security threat, to start a process and come up with a strategy.
And they did that in a very orderly way using people who were in positions, that had been working on this issue and had a very good process that they went through, came up with a strategy. This was the first and last time I saw that happen in this administration on issues I worked on.
But this one was, was done in a way that would be familiar to people having worked in government on foreign policy issues. And, I think they came up with this global maximum pressure strategy. They put together a coalition and started executing against it. Soon after, both of them are gone but the document remained and the strategy remained and people ... There was a consensus around that document, and so people continued to implement it.
And there were a lot of other things going on in the administration at that time but because it had been done in that way, it was on auto-pilot basically, and people, you know at the State Department, I mean Rex Tillerson, mounted a very effective campaign to get diplomatic partners around the world to contribute to that effort, et cetera. I mean the rest of it is well-known, but I think seeing that there was a lot more space to go into and get other countries to do more to pressure North Korea was really, was really key to where we are today.
Our team did incredible work on traveling around the world to Africa and other places, convening fora to make countries see that it was in their interest to join with us in this, et cetera. And then, of course, we were helped by Kim Jong-un who kept firing off rockets and making audacious threats. So, it all did kind of come together. And now, there's an opportunity to turn it around. So we'll see. I'm ... Like I said, I'm hopeful.
James Green: Well, one of the ... That was one of the topics at, the two presidents' meeting in Mar-a-Lago in Florida was North Korea and certainly for the new Trump administration, this is probably their top kind of foreign policy priority and maybe top priority with China, along with market access and trade imbalances. You were in Florida for that summit. Could you just talk a little bit about the preparation for it, how it went, how the chocolate cake was.
Susan Thornton: (laughs). The chocolate cake was unbelievable. But yeah, no. It is hard to remember back to that period in the administration but the preparation and all of the focus for the meeting was on two issues basically. The North Korea issue and the trade issues. Trade deficit really.
James Green: Was it in April? Is that right?
Susan Thornton: April. Yeah. Yeah.
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Of 20-
Susan Thornton: 17.
James Green: 17.
Susan Thornton: Yeah. So, the two presidents had a lot of one-of-one time at Mar-a-Lago. It wasn't planned that way initially, but because the Trump family was there and Xi Jinping had his spouse with him, it was in this kind of more relaxed venue at Mar-a-Lago. And so things led to things and they started off with a kind of a tea with the families and then they just kind of never broke and kept going on conversations.
And we know that a lot of the conversation between the two presidents' one-on-one was about North Korea. Because, it was April 2017. I mean the president probably knew something about North Korea but he hadn't gotten a lot of ... I mean he was, it was a few months into the administration. So there was a lot going on.
And, so basically, they, he used this meeting I think as a way of, sounding out, a sounding board for the kinds of things he thought about North Korea and what he wanted to do, et cetera. And he used the meeting with Xi Jinping to do a lot of that. Now, we can probably predict and assume what the Chinese side of the story would have been, and talking through all of the various efforts that's been made over the years that they were playing up their involvement in those, et cetera.
But in talking about what the Chinese interest is, what the picture in Northeast Asia looks like, I mean probably a lot of the conversa- Not all of it maybe would have been what, we would have supplied as talking points for the president but certainly an educational conversation for him. And then of course, let's not forget I mean apropos of our comment that it's very hard for the U.S. to maintain focus on Asia. In the middle of dinner, there was this shooting of the missiles into the Syrian, sort of, weapons depot, which kind of took some of the focus of the event off U.S.-China relations and put it back on what was happening in the Middle East.
The trade discussion at that meeting was the next day after a lot of these one-on-one conversations had taken place. And then some of these conversations continued the next day. But the trade meeting was a much larger meeting and was not as lengthy and had the function I would say of airing grievances, but not really getting to any kind of how are we going to make progress on this.
So, I mean that was the end of the first meeting, and they've had several meetings since where, the evolution of the North Korea issue is I think very important for thinking about where we are with China now.
James Green: Stepping back, how would you say Mar-a-Lago compares with say when Xi Jinping came here in 2015 or ... I mean can you talk a little bit about the informal nature of having something at a resorts and what the benefits are of that of not or how does it compare to our other kind of visits?
Susan Thornton: Well, that's an interesting question. I mean for a U.S. leader to offer an informal kind of summit is usually a very attractive show of respect, very much, an honor. But in the Chinese system it doesn't always come off that same way. And Chinese leaders in the Chinese system at least ... Maybe not Chinese leaders because I remember Deng Xiaoping's visit to the ranch and he loved it. But the system wants to organize an official state visit with all of the pomp and circumstance and respect being shown to the paramount leader.
So, it's hard to get that agreement to have the informal summit. But once you get there, I think, it does promote a kind of more personal connection between the two top leaders which is important. And so my guess is Chinese leaders do recognize that even though their system wants them to do something else. I think that's really important because as I said earlier, I mean the tone and the amount of constructive activity you're gonna get out of your system below you is gonna be determined by how you set that tone and, what kind of instructions you project about how you want this relationship to be run.
And so having the two leaders be seen to be personally engaged is almost as important as that they are engaged. I think, I remember-
James Green: Do you think it helps, sorry, to get past the talking points a little bit? I think on the U.S. side it does. Or do you think, but do you think on the Chinese side they double down on their talking points because they're in a non-comfortable ranch setting or in a less than formalized White House meeting room.
Susan Thornton: Well, one thing that I think that people don't appreciate is how high level the conversation is at the leaders' level. I mean, even if the leaders are very educated and steeped in the detailed nuances of particular policy issues, when they meet and talk, it's very strategic kinds of conversations. You know, how do we see the Middle East developing over the next 50 years? You know, what are we gonna do about the millennium development goals and what's happening with Africa? Climate change, how are we going to get countries on board to take serious steps?
It's a very kind of high level conversation generally, and there may be things in particular that they have to discuss but those are not the main feature of the conversation.
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan Thornton: And so having that kind of strategic understanding, I know that, most U.S. leaders have wanted to have that conversation with the Chinese leaders. And so, that's the kind of conversation that the Chinese leaders are prepared for and, I've not seen Chinese leaders speak in great detail on some of their policy issues. And I think that sometimes is frustrating to our side.
But, I think these informal discussion conversations, you can usually somehow project a little bit what your core concerns are and I think that's important for both sides to know.
James Green: When you were tapped to be the acting assistant secretary. I've known a lot of deputies and secretaries who've worked in EAP covering China. I would say you were just incredibly effective at both DAS but also as the acting assistant secretary. And not a lot of people frankly can make that move from dealing with one country, okay, Mongolia, Taiwan, Hong Kong. (laughs).
Susan Thornton: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
James Green: Dealing with largely one country to a region that's quite complex, and, can be prickly. I think Japanese diplomats are amazing. They can also be-
Susan Thornton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Green: ... not, not always easy to get along with as any country can be. We have our issues even with our allies of Koreans and, and, Singaporeans. And all, all the different EAP countries-
Susan Thornton: Right.
James Green: ... all have their kind of quirks, and so it's not a kind of easy step to go from dealing with kind of one major country to a bunch of different allies. So I think you, you really did this unusual job to be able to step in and do that. You presided over a time in which we were doing a fair amount with East Asia. There was also a fair amount of political rancor kind of here in Washington.
And I just wanted to ask at a personal level, you were kind of singled out in not a particularly positive way by some in the White House for obstructing the administration's goals or being seen as obstructing the administration's goals and ... How did you deal with that level of personal attack? And, and what I'm talking about is, Steve Bannon in particular according to news reports seem to be excited that you would not be given the job of EAP assistant secretary on a permanent basis? How did you deal with that on a personal level of being kind of so named?
Susan Thornton: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
James Green: As a career person, we're kind of not used to that unless you're the spokesman, and then yes, your name is kind of out there. But how did that, how do you think about those sorts of things as a career person?
Susan Thornton: Well, as a career person, I am intensely not political. So, you know when you're working in Washington, and I spent 18 out of my 28 years in the field, so, I don't consider myself that much of a Washington insider but I do know enough about Washington to know that you basically need to be ready to be thrown under the bus at any moment. And I think that's just a very healthy attitude to have. You better have your plan B and your plan C. And it's not, personal.
I have a different mission set in my own view. My mission set is to fulfill U.S. interests in foreign policy, to make sure that U.S. influence in the world is preserved, and to make sure that we're able to continue to work with allies and partners on the challenges that we'll face this administration, the next administration, and one after that. And so, I don't necessarily take it personally.
Steve Bannon, he had a very different role. He's responsible presumably for getting President Trump re-elected. And, he was crafting a strategy presumably that he thought was going to be successful in that, and using whatever tools he could use, and wasn't thinking that much about, in my view, U.S. influence for the millennium. (laughs).
James Green: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Susan Thornton: So, we kind of had very different, goals and purposes and, he has a lot more tools at his disposal working out of the White House and with the presidency and media, et cetera.
And so, if that's the way they chose to play it then, I have to be ready to be thrown under the bus.
James Green: Thank you. I just wanted to end, you, you've dealt with the Chinese on a lot of different spheres, to kind of ask kind of what works and what doesn't in a broad sense. Sometimes we're very public with what we say about China. Sometimes kind of private communications seem to be favored. Sometimes the Chinese government seems to want to work within the international systems. Sometimes it seems like they wanna work outside of it or set up other institutions.
Could you just think kind of about or distill your, 28 years of foreign service time for one minute of piffy closing? Or can you kind of think about what gets the Chinese bureaucracy to move in a way that is advantageous to the U.S. position, and presumably, we also we feel for the kind of global system in a way that's kind of helpful.
Susan Thornton: Actually that, getting the Chinese to see themselves as being responsible for the evolution of the international system, for the evolution of prosperity and peace and stability in their region and around the world is gonna be the key. They're very fixated on themselves, and this is an era of selfish countries. But I do not believe that globalization is going to be reversed. I think globalization is, not only not stoppable but it's also the most sort of beneficial kind of future orientation for the continued prosperity of the planet.
And so, I think we need to think about that. We're not really set up in our current international system to make that work smoothly and well. We have to figure out I think, there's been a lot of good writing on this. Richard Hass has this concept of sovereign responsibility, and I think that's very interesting. And I think still Robert Zoellick's, responsible stakeholder idea was the kind of thing that we need to think harder about how to operationalize that. And getting the Chinese involved in an effort to do that, I think is crucial. We're probably already too late, but we should be starting that in spades now.
And I think they'd be actually receptive to it because they don't want to be seen as a pariah. They don't wanna be seen as irresponsible. And I think the Chinese people at the end of the day would not want to have their government be seen as a pariah or irresponsible, and they'll have to be responsive to that at some point. But you got to set up the path and the structures and the international, kind of, common purpose and values and pressure to do that.
James Green: Susan Thornton, it's so great to see you. Thanks so much for taking time.
Susan Thornton: You're welcome. Great to be here. Thank you.
James Green: Susan Thornton - 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.