Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 13, June 18-24


About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton By James Mann Knopf. 433 pp. $30

James Mann of the Los Angeles Times is today widely viewed as the leading China hand in the Washington press corps. Now he has tightened his hold on that reputation with About Face, a simultaneously absorbing and troubling account of U.S.-China relations since Henry Kissinger's and Richard Nixon's journeys to Beijing in the early 1970s. Mann's colorful and detailed narrative, studded with dozens of vivid anecdotes, reveals how ineptly both Republican and Democratic administrations, right up to the present, have managed our ties with the world's most populous nation.

Mann largely eschews judgment calls and lets the facts speak for themselves. His account shows how, time and again, Chinese officials have outmaneuvered and out-negotiated their U.S. counterparts, inducing the top officials of the world's most powerful nation to throw away most of their high cards in the early rounds of each game of diplomatic poker.

This was true of Kissinger and later of Zbigniew Brzezinski and Alexander Haig, among others. Chinese leaders preferred to deal with a single, high-level American official who could be courted, flattered and praised for his wisdom. Mann writes. Such an official would in turn often become a forceful advocate in Washington of policies that served China's interests.

Mann shows that China is still getting the upper hand. Even during the Cold War the United States gave more and got less than the conventional wisdom today holds it did. The U.S.-China rapprochement benefited both countries because it ultimately helped tilt the balance in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. But the Chinese were defter than the Americans at picking and choosing areas of cooperation. For instance, China refused to help the United States extricate itself from Vietnam, even though that was at the top of Nixon's wish list.

Beijing later allowed the Central Intelligence Agency to set up monitoring stations in western China, but this gave China not only access to information about the Soviets that it never had before but also a unique opportunity to learn U.S. intelligence collection techniques. China also supplied the CIA with everything from mules to rocket-launchers for delivery to the anti-Soviet Afghan rebels, but in return demanded top compensation, estimated at its peak to be $100 million a year.

Such arrangements amounted to trade-offs that could be justified during the dark days of the Cold War. But, introducing a sub-theme that runs throughout the book, Mann portrays Kissinger (and some of his successors) as almost eager to sell out Taiwan's interests to the Chinese in order to cement the new relationship with Beijing. He shows how Kissinger secretly gave Premier Zhou Enlai everything the Chinese wanted on Taiwan at their very first meeting in 1971 by declaring U.S. opposition to any form of Taiwanese independence even before being asked to do so. Mann catches Kissinger's later dissembling on the incident in his memoirs.

Not until last year did the Chinese finally inveigle Bill Clinton into becoming the first U.S. president to utter a variation of the same formula, now known as the three nos, in public. Despite the Kissinger precedent, Mann suggests that Clinton's move was even more deserving of criticism because Taiwan had in the meantime become a full-fledged democracy. In one of the many reversals in U.S.-China policy that gives this book its name, the 1992 presidential candidate who had trumpeted his commitment to promoting democracy in China ended up declaring his opposition to Taiwan's democratic determination of its own future.

The existence of an effectively independent Taiwan sitting offshore of a now strategically ambitious China has long been seen, by those in Washington whom Mann appropriately labels the pro-China faction, as a U.S. liability and never as a potential asset. Mann excels at portraying the trench warfare between this faction and what he calls the pan-Asian faction, those who are wary of China and prefer working more closely with democratic allies and friends like Japan and Taiwan.

The golden era in U.S.-China relations, Mann asserts, was 1983-88, when Reagan administration officials led by George Shultz and Paul Wolfowitz prevailed over the pro-China faction and re-balanced U.S. Asia policy in Japan's and Taiwan's favor. Once the Chinese leadership realized that the Reagan administration wouldn't budge in this regard, ties between Washington and Beijing were stable and productive for several years.

Mann is clearly sympathetic to the pan-Asianists of the Reagan era. But he reserves his strongest language for a condemnation of the obsessive secrecy with which the foreign policy elite, starting with Kissinger, has conducted diplomacy with China. Mann insightfully attacks an approach to China that has persisted from the Nixon to the Clinton administrations in which a small number of U.S. and Chinese officials tended to view one another as partners, and to view American public opinion as an obstacle or an adversary. But without public support, Mann points out, no U.S.-China policy can survive in the long term.

Beneath Mann's smooth-flowing narrative lies an enormous amount of research. He excels in drawing crucial facts from declassified records, obscure memoirs, and above all from his interviews with scores of key players in U.S.-China relations over more than a quarter-century. With its many vividly accurate portraits of both prominent officials as well as obscure but influential inside players in China policy, Mann's book will be avidly read inside the Beltway. But it will also fascinate C-Span watchers anywhere who are interested in a lively, realistic account of the messy business of making foreign policy. Most of all, however, it should be read by those in the next administration who will inherit what is left of the Clinton administration's unraveling China policy.

The assumptions that Mann shows have underpinned Clinton's China policy, and often that of his predecessors as well, are looking shakier than ever. Economic liberalization in China has not only halted, it has gone into reverse. China is increasing, not reducing, restrictions on U.S. companies and U.S. exports demolishing for the foreseeable future the Clinton strategy of integrating China's economy with the world. The United States must persistently adhere to a coherent China policy firmly rooted in U.S. national interests. Down that road lie some very difficult decisions.

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