The following interview with Ambassador Charles Salmon was carried out in Honolulu on March 26, 2015 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on the rise of China, China-U.S. relations and the role of Burma/Myanmar. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and providing the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.
Rise of China and China-U.S. Relations
As you have followed the developments in the Asia-Pacific region for an extensive period of time during your career, how do you assess the rise of China?
I am not a sinologist but have by virtue of just being around observed the remarkable rise of China. I say remarkable because I remember that when I was asked in my Foreign Service Examination in 1964 what element of U.S. policy would you like to change, I answered we should recognize China. I got some pushback from the examiners but obviously it was an idea whose time had long since come. And so when we recognized China despite all of the UN people jumping around and criticizing the U.S., it was a good development. It certainly was very positive when President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger initiated the enormous transformation of the relationship. At first, the relationship was really in a way about the Soviet Union, which you as Europeans understand and which was a crucial issue. But after the demise of the Soviet Union the relationship took on a new character.
As I moved on and served in places like the Philippines or as country director for Thailand and Burma and worked in Laos, China became more and more important in the region. The U.S. understands that. We have a fairly good bipartisan policy towards China since President Nixon and Secretary Kissinger. I believe that my country has been very sincere from the outset. We wanted to see the rise of a China that could play a constructive role in the world. I think on balance we have seen that the Chinese play a progressive and more responsible role. They had to educate themselves to what being a world power requires in terms of cooperation, but generally we are on the right track with China.
As we have often said there is room in the region and room in the world for both countries. So I have always been a bit of a panda-hugger as opposed to a China basher and I am fairly optimistic about the long-term future of the relationship. I first visited China in 1981 when I was serving in New Zealand and didn’t go back until 1994, when I went there with Admiral Larson for the first high-level military visit after Tiananmen, and the transformation was absolutely remarkable. I have been back to China visiting in the early 2000s for speaking trips and so forth. Every time you go back you are overwhelmed with the transformation, which is basically very positive when you look at poverty figures among others. This is not to say that China does not have extraordinary problems and we have to see how they play out: pollution, the demographics with an ageing population, the arable land available for agriculture. On the political side you have probably seen David Shambaugh’s piece in the Wall Street Journal. It is by no means a sure thing that the current political apparatus is malleable or flexible enough to really manage this extraordinary population, which is increasingly more anxious for uninterrupted interaction with the rest of the world. But bottom line, I am quite positive about the long-term relationship, which is not to say that we don’t have immediate problems in places like the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
When looking at those areas of dispute in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, there seems to be a repetition of certain discussions and little progress in solving the issue. With your knowledge of this region, has this always been an issue or is the tension rising?
You identified a very good point. Many of our leaders have continued to say that it is important to take a long view on these issues. I can remember back in the early 90s when we talked about flashpoints in the relationship, sure enough up comes the South China Sea. I don’t remember the East China Sea being that much of a topic then, but the South China Sea dispute is something that has been with us and is going to stay with us a long time. As you are watching this issue closely you can see how much new land the Chinese are creating on some of the atolls. But my sense is that there has been a realization – though perhaps not in the whole Chinese decision-making operation – that on balance these sort of aggressive territorial claims have a 19th century quality and have not done them any good. It has clouded their message about wanting a peaceful rise.
ASEAN has now 600 million people and to be alienating places like Vietnam and the Philippines, which from an American viewpoint because of the treaty relationship is perhaps more sensitive than others, but also Indonesia with earlier claims is not really doing them any good. In terms of actual development, exploitation of aquatic resources or energy resources such as there may be, it requires cooperation. And that is the name of the game in this particular century. Cooperation is needed in the face of climate change and pandemics as we have seen with Ebola. So the idea that a country would ignore that because of old maps and antiquated ideas about sovereignty doesn’t compute to me. Hopefully our friends in China will see that as they go along.
How do you assess the U.S. pivot or rebalance to Asia playing into that? Does it strengthen the position of countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam in their territorial claims against China?
I have always been very wary of privileging one area of the world over the others despite what the facts and figures are. Soon after the rebalance was announced, Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech and highlighted that we are not going to abandon Europe. When privileging one area over the others, one creates an unnecessary distraction and risks upsetting some of your other traditional friends and allies in Europe for example, but also in places which will have an important role to play in the years to come, including Africa and South America. That is my basic comment on the rhetoric of the rebalance. I don’t think it was all that well advised.
Looking at where we go from here, the rebalance is supposed to be a multisectoral approach, it is not all about the military. It is about soft power and culture, it is about the economy with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and so forth. That is great as obviously Asia is important, but the rest of the world is important as well. In terms of the economic elements of the rebalance, it is important to also look at the Chinese proposal of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), where they are offering something we don’t have the resources for at this particular juncture. We have to move as all good diplomats say prudently and cautiously. In terms of the AIIB we have not handled it very adroitly.
If we had been a little more flexible about it, we would have done our cause a little better. It was however also very hard as we are not able to make the adjustments that everybody believes are necessary in the IMF and the World Bank to allow China to play the role it certainly should. I find it interesting that our European friends that are now allegedly jumping off the boat to join the AIIB have been the most resistant to any kinds of changes in the international financial institutions. The same goes for the entire structure of the UN, which is egregiously out of balance and out of date because of the persistence of two members of the EU to keep separate seats. This makes things a lot more difficult than they seem on the surface vice finish.
In Europe many argue that the U.S. is behaving as the institution that guards the laws it didn’t sign. This goes for example for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the U.S. signed but has not ratified. Yet the U.S. is often seen as enforcer of this law. How do you assess this?
In my country but also many other nations, as Ralph Waldo Emmerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and people expecting consistency don’t always get it because of obvious political factors that disallow it. When you look at the tremendous work done in the law of the sea, which is one of the most incredible examples of international cooperation, we have certainly abided by it despite the fact that we can’t get the law of the sea approved by our Congress along with a variety of other international agreements. We have these unfortunate domestic political problems that prevent us from practicing what we preach although in the case of the law of the sea we have always gone along with all of the principles. Somebody once observed etiquette expert Emily Post using her spoon to mash down her ice cream at desert. The person said “Mrs. Post, in your book you wrote that this is a no-no in terms of behavior and protocol”. And she, so the story goes, looked up and said “Do as I say, not as I do.” I think there is an awful lot of that in terms of state behavior, not only in my own, but in all states.
What is interesting when living in China, is that you start to understand that there is a general misunderstanding in the population that visits and statements by former officials or members of the opposition party all are in accordance with the government’s China policy.
Americans of both parties have over the years been rushing back and forth through China, some of them making a lot of money as door openers. Delegations pick a former official who is well known and accepted by the Chinese government to lead the group. There can be a lot of mixed messages because a lot of people who do those kinds of things advertise what they can do and really can’t do it. The other thing is that the Chinese are big on these old relationships and finding people who were a friend of China for 20 or 30 years and then go all out to be helpful to this person. Sometimes that is not very much in China’s interest.
But going back to the point of decision-making within the country and the domestic component in decisions, it is fairly clear in every country that domestic politics always trumps foreign affairs. That is certainly true in my country but also in China. The Chinese have a lot to worry about in terms of stability, in terms of nationalism, which they clearly exploited on occasions to rally the people or distract them and this can have very unfortunate consequences. What is good about our own China policy, and that is a bit of a mantra, but it has been supported by both parties certainly since the Nixon-Kissinger breakthrough. I hope that it will continue to be the case as it just makes no sense for countries that are so interdependent in terms of the big issues like climate control not to get along.
With your experience in Burma/Myanmar, how do you assess the changes the country is undergoing?
I have been very encouraged by the changes, which is not to say that there is not a lot more that needs to be done in terms of the current regime, especially the constitutional treatment of Aung San Suu Kyi because of the British subject children. In terms of geopolitics everybody was always worried about the Chinese taking over and calling the shots, but anybody who has worked in Burma and has some acquaintance with its history knows that there is a strong xenophobia among the Burmese population. There is also the tremendous problem of ethnic groups, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s father tried to manage with the Panglong Agreement. It has never worked. Despite these periodic ceasefires, truces, peace agreements, whatever you want to call them, they don’t stick. So now you have the problems along the Chinese border, which have led to the Chinese being very incensed. I give the Obama administration quite a bit of credit for starting out with this policy and persevering in it. It is a bit unfortunate now, as inevitably it was not going to go perfectly and people are now criticizing them for that. It is unfair, as if the relationship is a long-term relationship it needs to be tended. There is no need for unrealistic expectations of how fast you can have a military regime transform itself. Having said that, the progress I have seen is quite amazing. But the abuses are still continuing and obviously troubling, most particularly the treatment of the Rohingya minority. Additionally, religious nationalism is exemplified by what seems paradoxical, but these Buddhist religious zealots stirring up hatred that is so offensive and more importantly destructive of the individuals, families and Society.
Thank you very much for the interview.
 More about Ambassador Charles Salmon at: http://www.eastwestcenter.org/about-ewc/directory/charles.salmon-jr.
 A very detailed account about the opening up of China and the establishment of U.S.-China relations can be found in Henry Kissinger’s book On China.
 For some insights into what happened at Tiananmen in 1989, http://time.com/2822290/tiananmen-square-massacre-anniversary.
 Prof. Shambaugh’s essay “The Coming Chinese Crackup” was featured in the Wall Street Journal on March 5 and is available here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-coming-chinese-crack-up-1425659198.
 The Office of the United States Trade Representative gives a basic overview of what it envisages the TPP to be: https://ustr.gov/tpp.
 To catch up on the debate about the AIIB we recommend the following articles: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/0412c7f2-e711-11e4-9fa1-00144feab7de.html#axzz3Y3rCTs2B, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/americas-big-strategic-blunder-not-joining-chinas-aiib-12666 and http://thediplomat.com/2015/04/chinas-aiib-the-final-tally/.
 A clause in the Burmese constitution specifically targeted at Aung San Suu Kyi bans those with foreign spouse or children from running for president. Aung San Suu Kyi is therefore unable to run in the 2015 elections. More on this in: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/19/burma-rules-out-changing-constitution-aung-san-suu-kyi.
 The Panglong Agreement was reached in 1947 after a conference that brought together ethnic minority leaders and Aung San, who was the head of the Burmese government. The full text of the agreement is available here: http://peacemaker.un.org/sites/peacemaker.un.org/files/MM_470212_Panglong%20Agreement.pdf.
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