Interview: Journalist, Author Bill Gertz on Getting Policy Toward China Right

By Simone Gao, NTD
August 30, 2018 Updated: August 31, 2018

Bill Gertz is one of the leading journalists on national security issues. He is the author of seven books, including “The China Threat.” He recently sat down with NTD, a part of the Epoch Media Group, for an interview.

NTD: President Richard Nixon’s opening of U.S. relations with China has been considered an act of strategic brilliance. However, according to Michael Pillsbury’s new book “The Hundred-Year Marathon,” there was a misunderstanding of the nature of this relationship from the very beginning. Has America been wrong about China from the beginning?

Bill Gertz: Yes. I think that the strategic opening to China under the Nixon administration appeared to be what I would call a strategic gambit. In other words, this was the China card against the Soviet Union, and it had its place at the time. It was considered a great foreign policy success.

Nixon had been a very strong anti-communist and took criticism from his conservative supporters for opening up to China. The problem with that policy was that, once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was never a reevaluation of the China policy. And that was kind of on autopilot, and that’s where I think that American policy went off the rails. They basically made a huge strategic mistake by thinking that by engaging—unfettered engagement with a nuclear-armed communist superpower, dictatorship—that this was somehow going to lead to a real strategic partnership. They didn’t fundamentally understand the nature of the communist system in China.

U.S. President Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai (R) in February 1972 in Beijing during his official visit in China. (AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai in February 1972 in Beijing, during his official visit in China. (AFP/Getty Images)

NTD: Why did this happen?

Mr. Gertz: It was viewed at the time as this great effort to bring down the Soviet Union. It is questionable whether it did or not. I think it was instrumental in fomenting divisions between the Soviet Union and China, which was in the United States’ interest. I think it was valuable at the time.

But once the Soviet Union collapsed, they didn’t reevaluate it, and they should have. I think it was more hubris on the part of people like Henry Kissinger to keep the policy and somehow try to build a real partnership with China without really fundamentally understanding the nature of the Chinese communist system.

NTD: In our relations with China, a profit-driven business sector has dominated public policy. Has this led our approach to China to go astray?

Mr. Gertz: I’ve been sounding the alarm on what I call the “China threat” for many years, going back to the 1980s and with my 2000 book, “The China Threat.” I’ve argued since the beginning that the fundamental approach to China has been mistaken. And that approach has been partly that, if the United States trades with China, this trade and business interaction will have a moderating influence and ultimately result in the evolution of China from a communist state to a democratic state.

That assumption has been the underpinnings of American policy for more than 30 years, going back to the ‘80s. And it’s proven to be fundamentally false. We have not seen a moderating of China. We haven’t seen an evolution towards a democratic system. In fact, we’ve seen just the opposite. This is the—what they often say about second marriages—triumph of hope over experience.

You can’t build a national-security policy based on hope. That’s what they did in hoping that trading with China would bring about a more peaceful, a more democratic, more open China.

Chinese head of state Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the Great Hall of the People on March 17, 2015, in Beijing, China. Since helping bring about the opening of China to the United States in 1972, Kissinger has been one of the leading advocates for engaging China. (Feng Li – Pool/Getty Images)

NTD: I wonder if the fault is all on wishful thinking. What about the greed of big American corporations? Cisco, Microsoft, they all made big money in China.

Mr. Gertz: Nobody’s ever looked at their books to see how much money they’ve made in China. Every business is heavily restricted in China. The Chinese require massive transfers of American technology. They put incredible restrictions on U.S. companies over there.

Again, from the business community standpoint, it was based on the hope that somehow they could gain access to this emerging market of 1.4 billion people in China. And the hope was, “Let’s try to get them into the business sphere and hope that this idea of American capitalism will catch on.” Well, it hasn’t caught on. … We’ve seen a retrenchment towards a much more ideological and much more hardline communist position.

NTD: When a profit-driven business sector is driving public policy, do we run the risk of neglecting or even compromising the long-term interests and values of the country?

Mr. Gertz: Yes, very much so. First of all, many American technology companies are beginning to understand that doing business with China is a high-risk enterprise. And what is the risk? The risk is that China will steal their most important proprietary secrets, their industrial and economic secrets. And that’s really becoming a little bit more clear to a lot of companies that have done business in China.

I talked to businessmen who have spent many years in China, and, for example, China has passed laws requiring companies to provide the source code for their proprietary software and their networks, which would compromise their most valuable secrets. Now, they haven’t enforced that law, but it is on the books, and they could enforce it. Again, the hope of the business community is that by trading and doing business in China, this will have a moderating influence, and so far, it hasn’t worked, even for the business community.

Under the Trump administration, we’re seeing a major pushback against that. They’ve been very aggressive in pushing back. And part of the reason for that is that many business leaders have approached the U.S. government saying, look, we’re being stolen blind by China. We need to do something to protect our technology because it is really the engine for America’s industry and economy right now.

NTD: What do you think of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that Trump signed into law recently?

A Taiwan destroyer launches a surface-to-air missile during exercises meant to simulate an attack by the People’s Republic of China, near the east coast of Taiwan on Sept. 26, 2013. The Trump administration has recently taken steps to strengthen cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan militaries. (SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)

Mr. Gertz: I think it’s a very important step forward in codifying the new approach to China by the Trump administration, which was outlined in, first, the White House National Security Strategy. I think that was in December of 2017, then followed by the new National Defense Strategy, which came out in January of this year. And those two, for the first time in decades, identified China as a strategic competitor, which is a diplomatic way of saying that it’s no longer accepted that China is going to become a pro-freedom, a pro-capitalist nation.

And so I think that the NDAA for the first time has kind of codified that new strategy in a number of areas.

We see that this has really called for strengthening U.S. relations with Taiwan, which I think is a real important strategic move by the Trump administration. Taiwan is really a democratic dagger pointed at the heart of China.

By tilting American policy toward Taiwan, the NDAA calls for the U.S. to do military exercises with Taiwan, and this is only common sense. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. military is somewhat obligated to defend Taiwan from a mainland attack, and yet, successive Republican and Democratic administrations have placed really bad restrictions on U.S. military interaction with Taiwan. Things have improved in recent years, but I see this new NDAA as really spurring closer cooperation.

NTD: Are we seeing a major overhaul of China policies under Trump?

Mr. Gertz: Yes, very much so. And like I said, the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy have been a tectonic shift in policy. It’s going to take, I would say, a number of years—probably two or three—before that top-down policy really has an impact on the various government agencies, whether it’s the Commerce Department or the Pentagon or the Justice Department. But we’re already seeing major shifts.

One example is in the area of counterintelligence. For years, the FBI has done very little to target Chinese intelligence activities. That’s changing. Under the Trump administration, there is a recognition that China is posing an intelligence threat. They are using their intelligence services to influence operations and most importantly for technology theft and industrial espionage.

At the Pentagon, we are seeing closer ties with Taiwan and we are also seeing greater efforts to counter Chinese cyberattacks, which have been massive—stealing government secrets as well as open information from the private sector.
NTD: What makes Trump different from previous presidents in dealing with China?

Mr. Gertz: It’s very interesting. I’ve studied the current president’s policies and noticed that as far back as 2012, Trump [in his book] … talked about breaking with the U.S. business community on China. Specifically, [he urged that we] really focus on—no longer ignore—China’s human-rights abuses and, of course, from a business perspective, on China’s unfair trade practices. That has really been, I think, for the president, the prime impetus for his new policy.

He hasn’t really focused on the security aspects of the China threat. He has mostly focused on China’s unfair trade practices, and I think he has made important strides in really refocusing America policies into doing what Trump said he was going to do, setting America-first policies that are designed to put U.S. interests first and especially China’s and other nations’ second.

Chinese head of state Xi Jinping (R) waves to the press as he walks with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Mar-a-Lago estate in West Palm Beach, Florida, April 7, 2017. (JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

NTD: Do you think Trump is on the right track?

Mr. Gertz: President Trump is making very good progress in reorienting U.S. policy toward China. It is creating many problems. We are seeing interesting reactions from China.

One is that we see China moving closer to Russia. We are seeing the emergence of a new Russia–China axis. One of the reasons China seeks closer links with Russia is because the perception in Beijing is that the Trump administration is once again trying to contain China. That isn’t really the president’s directive. President Trump has often spoken about how close is his friendship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But when it comes to his actions, they speak much louder than his kind words about the Chinese leader.

NTD: Do the Chinese understand the true source of America’s strength? Without that understanding, is China able to become a long-lasting superpower?

Mr. Gertz: Well, first off, I think that from the Beijing perspective, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was a wake-up call. The Chinese leadership understood that they had to make changes in the system; otherwise, they were destined, like the Soviet Union, to collapse under a communist system.

They had already begun the reform and opening-up process in the ‘80s before that, but I think that that was a course designed to make communism great again. From my perspective, that’s kind of what they were after. So they modified the communist economic system, but they haven’t modified the communist ideological system: strong central control over everything, internal security, repression. These are the key features of the communist system that they are unable to give up.

Their fear is that if they loosen that and move towards a more democratic state, that they will end up like the Soviet Union.

But on the economic side, the watchword was, “It’s great to be rich, let’s all get rich.” But as it turned out, with rampant corruption as it exists in China today, that there are great disparities in wealth. You have coastal cities and elites benefiting from the system, while the rest of the country is languishing in poverty and squalor. This is an internal contradiction that China hasn’t been able to deal with.

And they’re also dealing with a lack of values in that system, in that they’ve moved away in many public forms from endorsing hard-line communism. But they also recognize that there’s no internal values system.

I think the Chinese leadership understands this. They’ve studied one-party dictatorships or one-party political systems in Singapore, somewhat in Japan, looking for that values system that can hold what they have together, and they haven’t found it. So, I see great contradictions within the current Chinese systems between what you have as a hard-line, ideological communist system on the one hand, and a quasi-capitalist, semi-socialist economic system on the other hand.

NTD: It won’t work. In the long run, it won’t create a long-lasting superpower.

Mr. Gertz: The thinking is, at least in the West among some of the China hands, this development of a so-called middle class in China will have an impact on pressuring Chinese leadership. That, too, hasn’t panned out. What you have instead is more or less a division within the Chinese system between the government and party elites and military who run things and the rest of the country. It is a formula for real instability. I think it is incumbent on the West to try to pressure China into looking at a more democratic, open system.

I was recently in Beijing with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and I really felt it was an information desert. Here we are in 2018 in the height of the Information Age and you couldn’t access Google, you couldn’t access Facebook, you couldn’t access Twitter. You could get some foreign newspapers in the foreign hotels.

I really felt this was a real vulnerability for the Chinese communist leadership. They don’t understand that their people are going to want free access to information around the world. And so there are all kinds of ways now that people in China are trying to break through the great firewall to use VPNs [virtual private networks] to use other means, to get to the outside world in terms of the Information Age.

NTD: Do Americans fully understand the true strength of America? Tocqueville stresses the role of religion in America.

Mr. Gertz: I think the election of Donald Trump in 2016, based on the notion of making America great again, was really a reflection that during the Obama administration, the country had pushed toward a radical, socialist, anti-U.S. ideal. The American people really voted for Trump more as a defensive measure against Hillary Clinton.
That showed me that America still believes in our fundamental values and fundament

al principles, about which certainly right now, we are going through a period of intense political debate. I think overall that we are on the right track, and America is and can be a great force for good in the world.

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