Newt in the China Shop
Jude Wanniski
July 12, 1995


In all the years I've admired Newt Gingrich for his drive, his intelligence, his leadership qualities, I've never quite been able to imagine him in the Oval Office. His talent lies in legislative leadership, which is why he is exactly the right man for the job he has. He is great at rallying his troops against the opposition. On the other hand, his weekend remarks about China and Taiwan demonstrated how unsuited he is for the American presidency, at least at this stage of his political development. The nation is at peace and the world is at peace except for family feuds here and there in one hemisphere or the other. The United States is the only superpower, the world champ at defeating Evil Empires of the right or the left. That kind of power carries with it immense responsibility, the family equivalent of parental responsibility in handling the children. Now comes Newt on Face the Nation, his ego ballooned to new highs on his book tour, injecting himself into the gathering diplomatic crisis with Beijing, now surrounding China's arrest of Harry Wu, a U.S. citizen, on espionage charges. The Speaker announced grandly that we should recognize Taiwan as an independent nation-state. He also said, to my horror, that it should be our objective to "undermine" China's communist government a comment he quickly retracted when he realized he is now a head of government, not a sassy backbencher.

Now we are probably not going to start the Third World War in a clash over Taiwan, but these things can happen. It may even be that Gingrich did the world a favor by escalating the rhetoric to the outrageous. Diplomatic channels and fax machines in Washington were clogged Monday morning with queries from around the world to find out what's going on. It has forced the Republican leaders to take at least a few minutes away from their presidential maneuvering and book parties to find out themselves what's going on. What they are discovering is what we warned about in our May 24 missive, "China, Friend or Foe." It is not China that is responsible for the steady unraveling of the relationship, but the leadership vacuum in Washington. With an inattentive President in the White House, a weak Secretary of State who is practically doing nothing more than minding the store, and a Republican Congress turned completely inward, the old Cold Warriors are in control.

These are the watchdogs in our country who are trained to growl at anything that moves. The chief growler is William Safire of The New York Times, who provides cover for all those who have vested interests in managing China or containing China. There are genuine humanitarian impulses represented here, of course. But there is also the military-industrial complex, which sees in an emerging China a potential threat to U.S. national security. In our May 24 letter, we quoted Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye Jr., who worried about the talk of a containment policy in GOP circles: 4Tf you treat China as an enemy, China will become an enemy. It will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you have a policy of containment toward China now, you've written off the chance [that China won't become an enemy]." From Beijing's point of view, these last several months have been like Chinese water torture from our Cold Warriors, a steady drip, drip, drip of statements and articles by minor officials, academics and journalists about the China threat. When both houses of Congress voted almost unanimous support for the visit by Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui to address the graduating class at Cornell, his alma mater, Beijing took this as an ominous gesture threatening our "one-China policy." Even President Clinton's normalization of relations with Vietnam has been sold to Congress as a strategic move to contain China. In this morning's news account in The New York Times, R.W. Apple Jr. writes that American diplomats "see friendship with Vietnam as an important asset for the United States as it seeks to counter Chinese influence in Asia." In an editorial this morning, The Wall Street Journal growls: "We don't doubt that China's emergence and the uncertainty about its imperial and destabilizing instincts demanded a degree of reality in the decision to recognize Vietnam." Drip, drip, drip. Should we be surprised that when the Chinese nabbed Harry Wu at the border, instead of treating him as if he were an eccentric and shipping him back to the U.S., they decided to make use of him as a bargaining chip?

What does all this mean? On the Charlie Rose Show Monday night, James R. Lilley, who was ambassador to Beijing in the Bush years, offered the simple explanation that China has no one at a significant level to talk to in Washington. In the years following President Nixon's opening to China in 1969-70, there was always Nixon and Henry Kissinger. In the Carter years, there was Zbigniew Brzezinski. In the Reagan-Bush years, there was George Bush, who had been ambassador to Beijing. In the Clinton years, the Chinese had only the ambassador, Stapleton Roy, a career diplomat who has now been moved to Indonesia after Beijing decided he wasn't worth talking to. To replace him, Clinton has picked former Sen. Jim Sasser of Tennessee, a third-rate politico who lost his Senate seat last November. Beijing, which has recalled its own ambassador over these issues, has refused to accept Sasser, who in any case would be of little help. Beijing's posture is firm: Reaffirm the one-China policy and apologize for recent indignities and it will hand back Harry Wu. Lilley's sound advice is to put aside the high-flown rhetoric, sit down in a quiet place with the Chinese, and negotiate.

Realistically, there is no alternative to a one-China policy, in which the world stands back and watches Beijing and Taipei work things out in their long-standing family feud. Lilley warned against taking the Taiwan issue too seriously last March, at a Washington conference on China:/There's a great deal of gong-banging, stage-acting and posturing: Both sides trying to use the Americans against the other side a very old game. Please don't get sucked in. The Chinese and Taiwanese are working very, very closely to straighten things out when they really put their mind to it. But it's much more fun for each one to use the Americans to bash the other side. So be careful here." Careful, Newt Gingrich is not. From what we can tell, even the Taiwan government was horrified at Newt's weekend remarks, playing the bull in the China shop. In the first instance, at least, his blusterings have set back the calendar of re-unification, by reviving in Taiwan the old arguments that fantasize about independence. Our sources in Manila also advise that the Philippine government had broken encouraging round with Beijing over the disputed Spratley Islands, but this also was thrown into confusion with the China slide in Washington. We practically force China to not make diplomatic concessions, for fear of appearing to allow us to treat them the way we have gotten used to treating Tokyo.

Sadly, our entire professional political class is marching toward catastrophic blunders. Leaders of both political parties are suddenly ranting and raving about the need to stand up to the Communists in Beijing when all we can find in Beijing are fanatical capitalists. The Beltway leadership vacuum in foreign affairs is breathtaking, almost frightening. There is scarcely any thought given to the consequences of an adversarial relationship with Beijing. Commercial losses to U.S. competitors in Europe and Japan are the smallest losses. The financial costs to our taxpayers in building up for a confrontation with Beijing over Taiwan would be staggering. Before we get much further along on this track, there had better be a pause for review. But who will take the lead?