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Chas Freeman '64 writes about China

Chas Freeman's recent book, Interesting Times: China, America, and the Shifting Balance of Prestige, was reviewed in The China Quarterly, the professional journal of sinologists. Here is the review, written by Ezra Vogel, the dean of China studies in the United States and the author, most recently, of the definitive biography of Deng Xiaoping.

The China Quarterly

September, 2013

Chas Freeman, a career American diplomat, argues that "Diplomacy is not just about preventing problems or deterring others from creating them" but "about redefining the world and regional orders, about creating opportunities to advance the national interest, and about crafting strategic architecture that embraces the capacity needed to pursue them." In this collection of his speeches, he traces US–China relations since 1972, when he served as Nixon's Chinese interpreter and a drafter of the Shanghai Communiqué, and analyses the forces that will shape our future relations.

No one has a broader background for analysing Sino-American relations in a global context. Freeman has been an avid reader of global history since he studied history at Yale. He served as head of the State Department's China desk and as deputy chief of mission in America's Beijing embassy. He studied at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, served as a diplomat in India and Thailand, and was once deputy assistant secretary for the State Department for African Affairs. He was ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Middle East Policy Council. His detailed knowledge of international legal issues stems from his J.D. at Harvard Law School. The son of a naval officer, he honed his knowledge of military strategy as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. He observed business interests as a board member in several international corporations, including China's National Offshore Oil Corporation. In addition to his interpreter-level command of Mandarin, he has working knowledge in Spanish, Arabic, French, Italian, and Portuguese and was once fluent in Thai, Tamil, German, and Taiwanese. He did not attend as many high-level meetings with Chinese leaders as Kissinger, but he has a deeper knowledge of China than Kissinger from his conversations in Chinese with working-level Chinese officials and from his research as he prepared background papers for high-level negotiations. Exuding confidence in expressing controversial opinions without mincing words, he presents broad trends with a pungent freshness.

Freeman believes that true patriotism comes from seeking policies that reflect long-term national interests. He has little patience with well-meaning idealists who confuse their values with our national interests or with politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, and business people who trumpet their short-term interests. "Members of Congress … are too busy seeking favors or passing condemnatory resolutions on behalf of special interests and single-issue activists to think about how their actions could affect the broader national interest in a cooperative relationship with China." Our military-industrial complex has a vested interest in demonizing China while talking up Taiwan's defense needs" and suffers from an "enemy deprivation syndrome, the queasy feeling they get when their enemy goes away and they have to find a new one to justify defense acquisition programs." As for the US intelligence community which in late 1979 vastly underestimated the changes beginning in China, he says, its "consequential successes are greatly outnumbered by its consequential failures."

Freeman is not naïve about China. "An autocracy that feels free to ignore the rule of law at home is unlikely to defer to international law and procedure abroad. It stands for no credible values, neither trusts nor is trusted by those it rules, suffers from a high level of corruption, and has no clear vision for self-improvement. Without political reform, China will remain vulnerable to unrest if the economy falters." Chinese officials, he says, reiterate that they will not engage in military expansion abroad just as American leaders did in the 19th century when America was weak, but China may behave differently, as America did, when it is stronger. "It is impossible to imagine that, with the largest economy in the world, China will continue to defer to American leadership as it has (during) … its emergence from poverty and powerlessness. The world cannot afford the emergence of another self-indulgent, credit-card-financed consumer society along the lines we have built here." While China's economy will surpass that of the US sooner than was anticipated, he asserts that China's success is not assured: there are shaky parts of its economy and the global economy, there may be difficulties in getting energy supplies, and there have been failures on the path to democracy.

Yet Freeman believes deeply that it is in US interest to find ways to cooperate with China as we adjust to our relative loss of power and prestige. He quotes Edmund Burke: "The heart of diplomacy is to grant graciously what you no longer have the power to withhold." Among US objectives should be that Americans benefit rather than suffer from China's emergence, that China follow good practice of global governance, and that territorial disputes be resolved by peaceful means. One wishes that Freeman had expanded his suggestions for the presidential-level articulation of objectives in dealing with China that he advocates. Being a collection of speeches, the volume contains some repetition, and some comments have been overtaken by events. But as an analysis of US–China relations since Nixon's first visit and of issues that must be addressed in future China policy, perhaps no other volume contains more penetrating insights.