The Magazine

With Friends Like These

How not to gain China’s respect.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By ROSS TERRILL
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The excellent obituaries for Alexander Haig showed his many facets—four-star general, crisis manager at the White House, national security deputy to Henry Kissinger, commander of NATO, charming though prickly secretary of state—but left out his revealing collision with Beijing’s “bite your friend” syndrome in 1981-82. This syndrome, which predated Haig, lives on to threaten President Obama.

With Friends Like These

Beijing often tries to instill in any “friend of China” a feeling of obligation to do even more for the People’s Republic. Show yourself susceptible to the Middle Kingdom, and smiles lead to demands. Call it bite-your-friend. Someone known to be wary of China, by contrast, does better, as Beijing must snap to reality for the encounter.

Serving as President Carter’s national security adviser in the late 1970s, Zbigniew Brzezinski tilted dramatically toward China to draw it into an anti-Soviet phalanx. Responding, the Chinese asked more and more of Carter—and mostly got it.

As President Reagan’s secretary of state, Haig in 1981 touted China’s global strategic importance and offered to suspend Washington’s prohibition on arms sales to the PRC. China quickly demanded Hawk missiles, Mark 48 anti-submarine torpedoes, and armored personnel carriers. Haig, excited about his Oriental initiative, hoped to swap arms to Beijing for China’s acceptance of Washington’s sale of the F-X fighter plane to Taiwan, to which Reagan was committed. Haig miscalculated.

China not only angrily objected to the F-X for Taiwan, but demanded of Haig a firm date for ending all arms sales to Taiwan. Haig faced two problems. Reagan decided his secretary of state had gone too far toward accommodating Beijing. And the Chinese, noting Haig’s gesture, pushed for the extra mile.

Haig persisted. When John Holdridge, assistant secretary for East Asia, told Haig it would be difficult to get the Pentagon to agree to sell missiles and armored personnel carriers to Beijing, Haig shouted at him: “Get it through your thick head. We’re going to sell arms to China in September [1981], so we can sell arms to Taiwan in January!” Haig soon resigned, largely over this mess—and China lost a friend.

In June 1982, Haig was replaced by George Shultz, who had a less expansive view of China’s capacity to balance Moscow than Haig (or Kissinger) and felt China needed the United States more than the United States needed China. Shultz spoke of China’s important “regional role” but reserved the term “strategic” for Washington’s relationship with Japan. 

It must have stunned Haig that Reagan and Shultz sharply improved relations with China. Wrote James Mann in his 1999 book About Face, “Surprisingly, between 1983 and 1988, the Reagan administration forged a closer, more extensive working relationship with China’s Communist regime than the two governments had before or have had since.”

Bite-your-friend can be found also in Beijing’s dealings with Australia, among other countries. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, fluent in Chinese and formerly an Australian diplomat resident in Beijing, was easy prey. When elected in 2007, Rudd enjoyed universal billing as a guaranteed wizard in handling China.

But, in fact, Australia’s relations with the PRC, though extensive, have been rocky under Rudd. In 2009, Beijing assailed Canberra for allowing Rebiya Kadeer, a Muslim leader of China’s Uighurs, into Australia, sabotaged the Melbourne Film Festival for showing a film about her, and tried to stop the National Press Club from having her speak. Photos of dead kangaroos appeared on the film festival’s website. Worse, China reacted angrily when the Beijing firm Chinalco was unable to buy a large chunk of the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. Soon four Rio employees, one an Australian citizen, found themselves in Chinese prisons.

China demanded that Australia “immediately correct its wrong-doings.” The Beijing mouthpiece China Daily said Australia, by giving Kadeer a visa, was “siding with a terrorist.” Actually, Rudd’s China policy has been balanced, but Beijing evidently expected better from a friend.

Rudd’s predecessor proved the syndrome by negative example. John Howard was wary of China when he became prime minister in 1996. His strong criticism of Chinese naval threats in the Taiwan Strait that year brought a chill between Canberra and Beijing. Soon, however, Howard and China began a decade of smooth cooperation, with excellent economic and cultural results, despite Howard’s closeness to Washington and his meeting with the Dalai Lama in 2007.

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