Getting China Right from Carter to Obama


Less than two weeks into President Jimmy Carter’s administration, the top China and Asia staffer at the National Security Council staff, Michel “Mike” Oksenberg, wrote a memo expressing concern about the quality of the government’s China experts and requesting a review of the human aspect of U.S. intelligence capabilities on China. One of the leading China experts of his generation, Oksenberg also wanted more educational programs for analysts to maintain and expand their knowledge beyond the narrow concerns of their day-to-day duties. Oksenberg’s 1977 memo to his boss, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, may not have gone anywhere, but the issue of whether the U.S. government possesses adequate knowledge of China and expertise sufficient to assess Chinese actions continues to linger.

            Read the memo here.

Today’s concerns over the knowledge and competence of the U.S. government’s “China hands” come from a broad enough range of sources that they cannot be treated as simply politically motivated attacks. On the one side, those critical of U.S. policy toward China have complained about the competence and politicization of “panda huggers” who skewed analysis to fit an overly optimistic of U.S.-Chinese relations. On the other side, those who pride themselves on their professional, research-based perspective also have criticized the U.S. intelligence community for not paying sufficient attention to expertise and not addressing some key questions. One quiet commission investigating the state of U.S. intelligence analysis of China in the late 1990s reportedly concluded there was an institutional predisposition to misunderstanding Chinese developments.

The most serious criticism has come from senior military officers, whose dealings with concrete developments of the People’s Liberation Army have presented clear and regular tests of whether assessments and predictions have kept pace with Chinese military modernization. In 2009, then-Pacific Command (PACOM) commander Adm. Willard stated:

I would contend that in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year. They’ve grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities.

In 2014, then-director of intelligence on the Joint Staff Rear Adm. Paul Becker asked:

How many within the U.S. intel community truly understand China’s grand strategy, which they refer to as a “grand strategy for rejuvenation by 2050”? Our effective shaping of the future for the Asia/Pacific region depends on understanding just that.

Elsewhere, Becker expressed his concern that the intelligence community lacked the kind of towering analysts that he thought the U.S. government once possessed on China.

The goal of having 25 to 35 “top-flight Chinese intelligence analysts” at the peak of their careers in the 1990s almost certainly was not achieved, but it would be fair to say that more than a few worked for the U.S. government. In the 1990s, names like Richard Bush, Christopher Clarke, Robert Suettinger, Robert Sutter, Dennis Wilder, and a few others arguably qualified as being the kind of analysts that Oksenberg thought critical and necessary. Beyond the numbers, Oksenberg’s concern with mid-career training and knowledge-building seems to have gone unresolved, at least through the 2000s, according to a Clinton administration National Security Council staffer with an anonymous intelligence analyst coauthor, as well as a separate article by a retired senior China specialist.

In a larger sense, does expertise really matter? When a pair of articles appeared last year over an alleged dearth of U.S. expertise on China in policymaking circles, Council of Foreign Relations senior fellow Elizabeth C. Economy offered an important counterargument: Results matter more than expertise. She wrote,

New York City, where I live, has a deal culture in which the emphasis is on outcome not optics. So let’s consider the outcomes of this purported “B” team. Across the board, the “B” team has delivered an “A” performance on China policy … No one should be arguing with the list of achievements that this team is racking up, particularly in the face of a very tough new China under President Xi Jinping. From where I sit, there is no validity to the claim that the current set of officials tasked with directing U.S. policy toward China are any less talented or committed than their predecessors. And more to the point, they are delivering results that matter.

Expertise also is vulnerable from another direction, because knowledge and technical excellence is irrelevant if wrong policy is being implemented. In testimony opposing the U.S. granting permanent normal trade relations with China, human rights activist Wei Jingsheng provocatively argued that the United States misunderstood China. Wei’s criticism was not that Americans misunderstood China in any technical sense of facts, figures, or dynamics, but rather in a kind of moral vision:

The U.S. should recognize that after the fall of the Soviet Union, Communist China is democracy’s most formidable adversary. The remaining tyrannies in the world have no problems understanding that democracy is their enemy. Yet, the U.S. is unwilling to see tyranny clearly, and therefore fails in its leadership to build an effective coalition to contest democracy’s greatest enemy … If the United States will not fight the world’s largest tyranny politically, then inevitably, it will have to fight it economically, and eventually, militarily. Therefore, the only way to preserve peace and freedom begins by comprehending democracy’s greatest enemy, and countering it effectively.

Regardless whether one accepts Wei’s description of China — the counterpoints most frequently offered are that China has lifted 600 million people out of poverty and the ruling party is evolving toward a moral meritocracy — moral-strategic perceptiveness is required to develop a principled stand that understands China in its many facets and stands firm in that thinking. Political winds have buffeted the China-watching community from time to time ever since the McCarthy era and the “Who Lost China?” debates in the 1950s.

This gives us three forms of expertise to consider:

  1. Knowledge of China: This traditional notion of expertise captures understanding how the Chinese party-army-state functions, i.e. its people, political culture, institutions, and the way things work.
  2. Ability to make deals with Beijing: This might be called “operational expertise” in the sense of knowing how to negotiate or create leverage to get things done.
  3. Moral-strategic clarity: Values create interests, and interests guide action. One should be able to empathize with China’s values (and recognize the legitimacy that those values hold), but still be able to pass judgment on the implications that Beijing’s values have in the context of one’s own values and interests.

Judging from his memo, Oksenberg only considered the first and possibly the second, if only implictly. Even if the Carter administration (and subsequent presidents) did little to act on his concern, Oksenberg dedicated a substantial portion of his time and energy after serving in government to encouraging analysts inside and outside the U.S. government to produce sharper, better researched, and more insightful analyses. If the absence of insight is a central problem undermining U.S. policy toward China and its implementation as well as the potential for stable relations, the focused care and attention of one scholar to this vision was not and could not be enough. Moreover, the third kind of expertise, or perhaps more importantly wisdom, suggests the United States needs a clearer sense of what matters in this relationship and what is worth sacrificing or for what is worth sacrificing for the sake of U.S. interests.


Peter Mattis is a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Analyzing the Chinese Military (2015). He is currently completing two book manuscripts on Chinese intelligence operations.