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National Committee on U.S.-China Relations
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , Plaza Hotel, New York City, New York, Wednesday, September 08, 1999

Dr. [Henry] Kissinger, thank you very much, although I must confess that I am here to inflict cruel and unusual punishment on you since you find so much pain in accepting the rhetoric of this administration. [Laughter and applause.] I will try to be as brief and relatively painless as possible. I should point out also that Secretary Kissinger has another engagement this evening, but he has agreed to stay until the completion of my remarks. [Laughter.] This may be the first time that any Secretary of Defense has held any Secretary of State captive for an evening discussion of foreign policy. [Laughter and applause.]

But Henry, let me say thank you for all you have done over the years as a great public servant. Thank you for the great works you have written and thank you for the contribution you continue to make on behalf of this country in dealing with our relations with China.

I'm a little bit challenged here this evening as I look out into the audience. Somerset Maugham once offered some advice to people like me. He said, "During dinner, one should eat wisely but not too well. And then after dinner, one should speak well but not too wisely." [Laughter.] Regrettably, he did not offer any advice as to what a speaker should do who is destined to address an audience waiting eagerly to delve into the entree. [Laughter.] Nonetheless, I will be brief because Henry, for some reason, is able to maintain his intelligence apparatus. He has virtually stolen everything I was going to say to you this evening. [Laughter.]

But there is a Chinese proverb that I'm familiar and it says, "When drinking the water, don't forget to remember those who dug the well." Tonight, I would just like to say that after over two decades of drinking from the well dug by Henry Kissinger and others who are here this evening, we are paying tribute to those who have worked so hard for so long to build a deep and abiding and enduring relationship with China. And I wanted to be here [applause] I wanted to be here to participate briefly and offering just a couple of observations.

I agree completely with Dr. Kissinger when he says that the preservation of national interests can never rest upon personalities or personal friendships between national leaders. Leaders change, friendships can fade. But I must say that the importance of personal contact and friendships cannot be underestimated or marginalized in contributing to the understanding, if not indeed the enlightenment, about another nation.

I came to appreciate this personally in a trip to another country back in the mid '80s when I went to Moscow and I was arguing on behalf of a concept that I helped developed called the guaranteed nuclear build-down. I thought it was ingenious. The Russians were not impressed at the time, but during the course of a two-day meeting, I had occasion to meet with a Russian poet by the name of Yevtushenko. And at the end of a long afternoon, he said to me, "Bill, you and I must stay in contact with each other. Otherwise, we will forget each other's faces." It was a very poetic way of expressing to me that it's important that we continue to put faces on people that we should deal with and have to deal with. If we forget those faces, in time of crisis or confrontation, then it becomes that much easier to demonize the other side.

Those words are as true today as they were at the time when he first mentioned them to me. If we keep our contacts open and communications open such as the National Committee has done and the institutions that we're celebrating tonight, and if we build enduring bonds between people such as those in this room, then in times of challenge, such as those we've had in recent months, it becomes easier to overcome suspicion, recrimination and open hostility and it allows us to look beyond the moment or indeed, the emotion, to our greater long term common interest.

There's a great deal that we have to do to mend the relations between the United States and China. And I would suggest that the countless security, economic, cultural and academic ties between our people as well as the encouraging signs that we're seeing now with the Chinese government -- agreeing to resume talks regarding the World Trade Organization, this week's meeting in New Zealand between President Clinton and President Jiang -- all give us hope that we will have a durable, mature relationship.

And I mean by relationship also military to military relationship. We, until recent months -- and I think [former] Ambassador [James] Sasser, and Admiral [Joseph] Prueher [USN, Ret.] would attest -- were making great progress in our military to military relationship with China. That has been suspended somewhat. It needs to be re-energized. And I believe that the resumption of these military to military contacts will be beneficial to both of our nations. And that's something that Dr. Kissinger has said again this evening, that no single component of American foreign policy can be an end in itself. We are not engaged with China, as he said, because it's a favor to them, because it's a gift from us. It's because it's in our vital national security interests. And so, we cannot hope to deal with many of the problems that we see spreading across our television sets in the evening or Time magazine on Monday morning unless we constructively, clear-headedly engage China in a responsible fashion.

T. S. Eliot once wrote that, "Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and the act, lies the shadow." And I would suggest that this delicate and difficult moment in American-Chinese relations reveals a fundamental truth: that somewhere between an overly romantic, conciliatory approach and a narrowly defined confrontational approach lies the basis for a conceptually sound and politically grounded policy towards China; a pragmatic approach that will allow our two nations to constructively engage one another when our interests compete or conflict and cooperate with one another where our interests converge; a productive approach that will advance our mutual interests throughout Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world to the benefit of all nations.

That's really what has brought so many of you here tonight, what has brought so many of you here in this capacity over the decades, and that is the passion, I think, that you have pursued this particular cause. And I wanted to be here tonight to thank you for that, to say that we have no alternative but to engage China in a constructive, pragmatic fashion and that it is in our mutual national security interests.

Thank you very much. [Applause.]