Getting an intelligence read on China during the pandemic

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My guest spent 30 years in the federal government, including the CIA’s national intelligence officer for East Asia. An expert on China, he recently retired and joined the Center for the National Interest, a think tank devoted to, in its words, a voice for strategic realism in U.S. Foreign Policy. Dr. Paul Heer joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin to discuss.

Interview transcript:


Tom Temin: Dr. Heer, good to have you on.

Dr. Paul Heer: It’s good to be here. Thank you, Tom.

Tom Temin: And I guess China is looming very large in the national consciousness at the moment. And I can actually remember when President Nixon went to China, and how astounded we all were at the images of him with Mao Zedong and using chopsticks and landing there and so forth. And so much history has happened. From your point of view as an expert from the CIA standpoint, intelligence standpoint, how should we be thinking about China now given the coronavirus in the military ravelry and everything else going on?

Dr. Paul Heer: Well, actually, I think in addition to my time at the intelligence community, I am actually trained as a diplomatic historian. So I think my first answer to your question is we should be thinking about China in historical terms. Since Nixon’s opening, what, 50 years ago now, we’ve been on a strategic engagement process that’s led to, you know, a relatively constructive relationship. But unfortunately, I think what we see now is because of different historical trends and developments over the last decade, were kind of in a downtrend there, in fact, an accelerated downward spiral just over the last several years. And I think that’s a function of both China’s historical trajectory and our relative historical trajectory. I think there’s just a lot of attention to growing and I think that, frankly, the COVID-19 crisis is only accelerating the problematic elements of that process.

Tom Temin: It seems like the federal government almost has to have several approaches to China at the same time. I mean, in some ways, it’s a military rival and trying to push us out of the South China Sea. At the same time, there’s great scientific cooperation that can happen. And yet at the same time, there are scientists that are being paid off secretly by China. And so it’s not really one thing China, and maybe that’s what we’re having difficulty with?

Dr. Paul Heer: Oh, well, that’s certainly part of it. I mean, it’s a huge complex relationship with different components. And I think one of the things that is really in demand now is kind of a coordinated effort across all those different sectors. You know, China certainly is a growing military and strategic challenge to us has been for decades now a growing economic interdependence. There are certainly shared transnational issues that we need to cooperate with the Chinese on. But there’s a lot of kind of historical baggage and strategic mistrust between the two sides. It makes it hard for, frankly, coordination of bilateral policy within each government and between the two capitals.

Tom Temin: And how do you think China views the United States because we have these really wide political swings from administration to administration, and in this case, even some wide swings within the span of a given administration, whereas you know, you look back Xi Jinping, in many ways. It’s just like Mao only with savile row suits.

Dr. Paul Heer: I think the Chinese view us, view the United States as kind of simultaneously a strategic rival. And as a relationship, which is vitally important to China’s economic development and its international credibility. I mean, because of some of the historical baggage I think the Chinese and it may kind of be the logical backdrop of the relationship, the Chinese appear to believe that we are trying to contain them the way that we contained the Soviet Union. But they also had tried to make an effort to overcome that because as I said, the interdependence between the two sides. So I think one of the catchphrases in the Chinese for the last several decades is that this is a relationship that is going to impose struggle upon the Chinese but they can’t afford to let it break into a rift because it needs to move forward. So it’s a balancing act for them. And I think frankly, it’s a balancing act for us in exchange.

Tom Temin: And we should note that the Center for the National Interest was originally started under the auspices of Richard Nixon then was part of his library. Now it’s independent, but the whole point there, strategic realism. I mean, in many ways, I think one of Nixon’s original objectives was to bring China not only closer to us, but simultaneously away from Russia. And that seems to have shifted again too hasn’t it?

Dr. Paul Heer: Oh, very much so partly because that common enemy isn’t there anymore. You know, I think one of the things that was central to Nixon’s thinking at the time, which is still relevant today, and I think, actually to the center’s interest, I mean, one I think sub element of strategic realism is a desire not to let ideological prejudices or baggages get in the way of a pragmatic and realistic relationship. And I think that was one of the things clearly that Nixon was trying to do back in the early 70s. And that’s frankly, been a recurring theme in the US-China relationship ever since we’ve had ideological and political and diplomatic differences. I mean, you know, our developmental and governance systems are radically different and really in international competition right now. And in fact, I want to come back to that because I think that’s one of the central problems we’re facing now. But I think both sides recognize there is a need for cooperation. And I think that’s one of the core elements of realism that you have to find a way to work with each other, in spite of some of the ideological under constraints and challenges that hampered the relationship.

Tom Temin: And I guess maybe we could probably do as governmental entities in the United States do a better job at sorting out what it is we might be able to convince the Chinese of and what we may not. The two examples that come to mind are theft of intellectual property is something perhaps we can control in them if that’s the right word, versus how big a Navy they ought to be building?

Dr. Paul Heer: Yeah, well, those are certainly two subsets of the competition between the two sides. And as I mentioned a second ago, I think what we’re really facing is a comprehensive strategic competition between the United States and China. I think, frankly, the likes of which we have before because the Chinese bring a lot more to the table internationally than the Soviet Union was ever able to muster because of the differences in their economic strength. But the two elements, you’ve mentioned intellectual property theft. I think that’s a core element of the kind of strategic economic competition between the two sides the systemic competition, which I frankly think is a greater challenge for us from China than the traditional security, military competition. I mean, the latter is certainly there. And the Chinese are building military capacity at an accelerated rate had been for the last couple of decades, both for the purpose of asserting themselves as a military power in terms of international stature, but obviously, from their perspective to defend their interests. But I think the more fundamental, and the more novel nature, the Chinese challenges on the economic and science and technology realm, and that’s where the IPR issue comes in and the cyber issue in some of these others,

Tom Temin: Because it seems like the only tools we have are not that we can convince them that respect for intellectual property and theft of others is not something they should be doing. All we really have is cybersecurity tools and law enforcement to stop it. But it doesn’t really go the next step to convince them that maybe there’s a better way to use intellectual property of the two nations.

Dr. Paul Heer: Yeah, I mean, we’ve had some halting success, and the Chinese understand the issues. And there is kind of a balance sheet in the relationship. Sometimes we’ve used other elements of bilateral cooperation as leverage in terms of trying to promote better Chinese behavior in the cyber and IPR realms. But I think it just becomes more problematic because the Chinese have a growing level of leverage in the relationship really, that’s one thing that we haven’t seen before. I think they’re trying to do you know, that does matter to the Chinese how they’re perceived internationally, in terms of their reputation, but frankly, they can be very well mercenary might be too strong of a word, but they see what they’re doing in the cyber realm and in the IPO realm is legitimate elements of their pursuit of their interests and their levels of national power. I think it’s taken away longer time to socialize them into international standards and international law. I mean, they’re certainly behind in our perception, their compliance with the rules. But again, to answer your question, I think it’s part of the challenges is trying to influence their behavior in these sectors through a cost benefit analysis. And using the leverage, we have one thing, they want another element to the relationship,

Tom Temin: In your experience, how well do the elements of the federal government coordinate? I mean, you come from the CIA standpoint, which is close to the military, but not exactly that. And then there’s the State Department, how well do they all play from the same music sheet? In your experience?

Dr. Paul Heer: Well, I think it ebbs and flows, obviously, because, you know, it’s a multi faceted bureaucracy and a multifaceted relationship that different elements are engaged in. I mean, I’ve retired from government a few years ago now. And coordination has traditionally been pretty well, I, you know, in my experience, I mean, I work primarily in the foreign policy realm, obviously. So I was involved very much Providing intelligence support to the National Security Council in the State Department in the Pentagon, you know, the key players in foreign policy issues. But I think when you broaden the scope, the National Security Council, traditionally, its role has been to coordinate all of these elements of the relationship. You have people that are engaged in the economic side and the legal side and the SMT side, the human rights issues. I think it’s gotten more difficult to coordinate across the government in terms of the elements of the relationship with China, just for the diversity of it.

Tom Temin: All right. And let me ask you this. How do you think that the relationship and the functionality of that relationship will change once and hopefully it will pass the coronavirus issue is behind us?

Dr. Paul Heer: Well, that’s hard to say. I think it’s really too early to tell what impact this is going to have on the relationship. I think there’s two countervailing trends right now. And I think the prevailing one, unfortunately, frankly, is quite negative. I mean, the trajectory of the relationship over the last couple of years even before COVID-19 inserted itself into the equation was increasingly problematic because of the trade war because of increasingly assertive Chinese behavior that’s been perceived as expansionist or aggressive. And I think that tendency has been reinforced, by the way the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved. Clearly, the Chinese mishandled elements of the early part of the process in ways which exacerbated the problem elsewhere. And I think the problems that we perceived and the way the Chinese have dealt with it, frankly, both internally and externally have reinforced suspicions and resentment, and really hostile attitudes toward the Chinese. The other trend, frankly, though, or the other opportunity, I think, is that if there was ever a time where us China cooperation was imperative, this is it, because I think it’s just incredibly important that the two sides come together to investigate, you know, the origins of the virus and more importantly, how we can best mitigate and defeat it. I mean, there’s Chinese medical expertise so that can be brought into international collaboration, just physical containment efforts. So I think really, that we’re going to go one way or the other. I mean, I think either the COVID crisis is going to continue to exacerbate tensions in the relationship and accelerate, really an increasing hostility, which it’s almost on the verge of becoming, or both sides are going to recognize that this is the moment where we need to focus on the cooperative access sort of relationship and move forward there. I’m hopeful that the latter happens because I think it provides an exit ramp to the trend that we’ve been on and the relationship for the last couple of years. But so far, the end of indicators are very problematic.

Tom Temin: And if you would just briefly tell us what you will be doing at the Center for the national interest as their main Asia expert sounds like?

Dr. Paul Heer: Well, I won’t be their exclusive main Asia expert. There’s other folks there and we hope to bring on some more, but I’m really excited about this opportunity to contribute my experience and my expertise on China and frankly, broader East Asian issue. You know, along the strategic realist analytical direction, but I’ll be doing some regular writing but also be actively participating in an expansion of events that the center directed at bringing larger people into a larger group of folks into analytical exchanges and such talking about the future of China, the US China relationship and how that plays out both within the East Asia region and globally, both events and written products and other media appearances as well. You’ve had a pretty interesting career. Yes, I have actually, it’s been quite exciting as an Iowa boy 40 years ago, I never could have anticipated it. But I spent about 30 years at the CIA, many stage analysts as you mentioned, the end of that career culminated in my eight years as the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia, which actually was originally a CIA position, but it’s now part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where it was centrally involved in interagency analysis across the intelligence community, on China and other East Asian issues. Since retirement. I spent some time at Center for International Studies at MIT, and as an adjunct professor at George Washington University, but I’ve remained engaged as a consultant back to elements of the government. And now I’m really looking forward to melding that all together in the, in my capacity as a fellow with the Center for the national interest to continue contributing to that discussion.

Tom Temin: Dr. Paul Heer is a former CIA National Intelligence Officer for East Asia. And now he’s distinguished fellow at the Center for the National Interest. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dr. Paul Heer: Oh, thank you very much, Tom. It’s been a pleasure.