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Los Angeles Times Interview

Joseph Prueher

A Military Man Reemerges in the China Minefield

May 14, 2000|Henry Chu | Henry Chu is Beijing bureau chief for The Times

BEIJING — Just seven months after retiring from a distinguished 35-year naval career, former Adm. Joseph W. Prueher sailed into one of the most delicate relationships in U.S. diplomacy today: ties with the People's Republic of China.

As President Bill Clinton's handpicked ambassador, Prueher took up the difficult post in December that others had turned down. Sino-U.S. ties had swung wildly within half a year, from the May 1999 low of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the high of a Sino-U.S. agreement in November on Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization.

Prueher's new job is a logical extension of his interest in Asia. From 1996 until his retirement in February last year, he served as commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. One of his first acts was to dispatch U.S. aircraft carriers into waters off Taiwan to protect the island from missiles being lobbed from mainland China, which considers Taiwan part of its rightful territory.

After that crisis, Prueher worked to develop contacts with leaders of the People's Liberation Army. He made several trips to Beijing, becoming one of the more widely recognized U.S. officials in Chinese-government circles.

This month, Sino-U.S. ties enter a sensitive period, with the anniversary of the NATO bombing, the inauguration Saturday of Chen Shui-bian as Taiwan's new president and the showdown in Congress over establishing permanent normal trade relations with China to pave the way for its accession to the WTO.

A native Tennessean with a light Southern drawl and a ramrod military bearing, Prueher was interviewed in the U.S. ambassador's office in the Chinese capital.

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Question: It has been a year since the Chinese Embassy was hit by NATO bombs in Belgrade. Does the incident still affect your dealings with the Chinese government?

Answer: Yes. The tendency of most people, certainly in our country, is to say, "Let's put it behind us." I have a different slant on events like this, that you don't ever really put them behind you. It becomes a part of the relationship. . . . We can't forget what they did to our facilities here [in rioting after the bombing], and they can't forget that we bombed their embassy. It's a big deal; to put it behind us is to trivialize it. It's part of the level of mistrust that they have for us, and their reaction [is] part of the mistrust that we have for them. We have to face it, we have to talk about it, we have to air it and we can move forward.

Q: How would you characterize Sino-U.S. relations right now?

A: I'm very optimistic . . . but not confident. I think that's probably a healthy way to be. The need for us to have a workable relationship is very important. That we have good relations with China doesn't transcend all our other national interests, and it certainly doesn't transcend theirs, either. . . . Our common interests are trade, the security of the region, de-tuning the strains on the Korean peninsula, the strength of Southeast Asia, the Asian economy. We also have global interests: the environment . . . [and] nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. . . . In order to [manage] these things in a workable way, it does not mean that the U.S. and China need to completely embrace each other, but we do need to appreciate each other's culture, each other's civilization.

Q: There's going to be a change of U.S. administration in January. Do you feel that the U.S. can have an effective China policy in the interim, and can you, as ambassador, be effective in both U.S. and Chinese eyes?

A: One of the reasons President Clinton and the administration asked me to do this is that I don't have strong political affiliations party-wise; I've been apolitical in the military for 35 years. If I had a very strong affiliation with the Clinton administration, other than a professional one in that he's my boss, probably I would have had more difficulty in getting confirmed. . . . I'm hoping that [U.S.] interests [in China] bridge the change of administration, and I look forward to working with the new administration . . . until it can get its own person in this job. I also hope the role of the ambassador will help smooth out the perturbations that might otherwise occur [in Sino-U.S. relations] during the election period and keep a steady pace forward--not too fast, but a steady pace forward--during this period.

Q: How often have you traveled to Washington, and do you plan to go back to speak to policymakers?

A: My predecessor, Jim Sasser, advised me . . . to spend a lot of time back there. About 50% of my work is in trying to stay in good communication with the people at home, the voters as well as the people in Congress. . . . That's a very important aspect of the job, trying to articulate the best I can . . . to our Congress and to educational groups and to people who are interested in Asia--but even more important, people who aren't interested in Asia--what's going on here in China.

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