Chris Patten Interview (1999): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Ideas, Political Leadership, and the Lessons of Hong Kong: Conversation with Christopher Patten, the last Governor-General of Hong Kong: 4/8/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 5 of 6

The West and China

What have learned about dealing with the Chinese, and what does your experience tell us about how we should deal with them in the future?

What is tells me is that they are not different from everybody else. If you treat them as though they are, you tend to get a worse deal than if you behave with them as firmly, as courteously, and as realistically as you would with anybody else. There has been a very good book written by James Mann, a very distinguished foreign policy columnist in the United States, on the dealings of the U.S. administration with China from Nixon to Clinton.* One of the points he makes is that the most successful period dealing with China is when George Schultz and Paul Wolfowitz were running the policy in the State Department. They both had a very clear notion that China actually needed the United States more than the United States needed China. They didn't want to contain China, but they thought that a relationship with China should be based on open negotiation, should have clear and openly expressed goals, that it shouldn't be a question of back scratching, that it certainly shouldn't be a question of sort of redefining everything in China's interest. And that we shouldn't assume that a good relationship -- it 's very important insight of Schultz's -- was something which the Chinese could offer or withdraw. A good relationship between two countries is a product of their bilateral negotiations and they way they accommodate their interests to one another. It is not something that one party offers or withdraws.

I think both Schultz and Wolfowitz recognize that since the West has first been dealing with China, there has been a tendency of some people to always lean over backwards to accommodate the Chinese position. What happens in those circumstances is, first of all, you get bad outcomes, less satisfactory outcomes, and secondly, the next time you deal with the Chinese, they are even more difficult than they were before. The interesting paradox, or perhaps its not a paradox, is that the firm, clear, consistent approach that Schultz and Wolfowitz demonstrated not only got better deals for the United States, but got a better, healthier relationship with China.

I think to some extent, the Chinese must be pretty mystified by a policy which U-turns from moral outrage to flaccid engagement within a matter of almost nanoseconds. I think they must be rather confused when they hear themselves described as a strategic partner in Asia -- not half as surprised as the Japanese and the Indians, let it be said -- I think they must be surprised when they hear themselves described as an "island of stability." I mean, not even the New China news agency thinks that China is an island of stability. So my main argument, and it's my main heresy as far as some people are concerned, is that the Chinese aren't different, and that if you try to treat them differently, they will probably behave worse than they would otherwise.

Next page: Lessons Learned

© Copyright 1999, Regents of the University of California


Mann, James: About Face : A History of America's Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton (Knopf, 1999)
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