A Lifetime of Keeping an Eye on China

When Jonathan Pollack was an undergraduate at Rutgers University in New Jersey in the late half of 1960s, the Vietnam War was raging, and China had just been thrown into a chaotic “culture revolution” (1966-1976).

Then US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who fought during in WWII in the China-Burma-India theater, described the Vietnam War as really a fight against China.

As a political science major, young Pollack was curious to learn more.
“So that was the first time I got interested in China,” said Pollack, now a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings and the center’s former director.

Pollack took a class in Chinese history. He was ignorant about China because US high schools at the time only taught American and European history.

Clearly intrigued by what he had learned, Pollack chose to study the Chinese language immediately after he graduated from Rutgers, spending the summer of 1969 in language classes at Stanford University.

Eclectic interests

When Pollack started to pursue his PhD in political science and international relations at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1969, he focused on China, but also studied East Asia and other countries in the region.

“I have to look at China in a broader, strategic and theoretical perspective,” he said.

Allen Whiting, a top US specialist on China, was teaching at Michigan, with a particular interest in China’s foreign policy.

“I was mainly working with Allen Whiting at that time,” said Pollack, while taking two books by Whiting from the bookshelf in his Brookings office – Soviet Policies in China and China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War.

Pollack’s interest at the time was diverse and in his words “eclectic”, from history to economics.

After graduating from Michigan in 1975, he found a fellowship at a science and international affairs program at Harvard University, doing research there on China for three years.

In US schools at that time, most of the study was focused on the Soviet Union, Europe or NATO. But the center at Harvard has begun to pay attention to Asia. “But (it was) very underdeveloped,” Pollack recalled.

“The awareness of China was very minimal, and it (China study) didn’t have high-level academic standing.”

While many of his fellow graduate students ended up with a teaching job, Pollack found himself more interested in “real world questions” rather than abstract academic theories.

20 years at Rand

With his professors Whiting and Richard Solomon, another China scholar, both having worked at the Rand Corporation, Pollack said he was always curious about the private, non-profit think tank based in California.

So when he was offered a job at Rand, he immediately declined other options in academia. “Rand kind of intrigued me. It was kind of a unique place, so-called think tank, very interdisciplinary, very focused on policy questions,” Pollack said.

His arrival at Rand in 1978 was a time when China and the US tried to work out a breakthrough to establish diplomatic ties.

Solomon, Pollack’s professor in Michigan who later became the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was then the head of the political science department at Rand. He emphasized that China was a very new issue for the US government and encouraged researchers to delve into everything from China’s foreign policy and decision making to its military behavior and economic development.

“Government needed a lot of guidance and help on how do we understand China, how do we understand leadership, how do we understand their policy debate and the impact of their domestic politics on their foreign policy,” Pollack said.

“It was those kinds of questions, all the real world questions, that attracted me to Rand,” he said.

Pollack stayed for more than 20 years, first as a young researcher, and then moved onto to the management in the mid 1980s. In 1994, Pollack chose to return to full-time research.

Though less so now, Rand was at that time doing most of its research for the defense department. That, Pollack explains, did not mean Rand had no independence.

“Rand always believes it will arrive at its own conclusion in research without regard to who was the sponsor,” he said.

In Pollack’s view, while people at Rand were then aware that the work was primarily for the Pentagon, they tried to define the work in a way that was more to educate the people at the Pentagon rather than to please them.

At Rand, Pollack was also happy to maintain a certain relationship with the academic world, including writing book chapters for the John Fairbank Center at Harvard.

Government payroll

But after more than 20 years at Rand, Pollack started looking for alternatives. He moved to the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in 2000 when the school wanted to build a civilian department to focus on big international issues.

Pollack spent most time there on research while serving as professor of Asian and Pacific studies and also chairman of the strategic research department. It was also then that the China Maritime Study Institute was created in the school.

Pulling several booklets from the bookshelf, Pollack tried to show that not all the studies at the war college are military, such as one on commercial shipbuilding in China.

He dismissed it as a misperception that military officers are all eager to go to war. “When you talk about war, more often than not, it’s not the uniformed personnel who wants to get you into war, it’s civilians. I am quite serious about that,” he said.

Though on a government payroll at the war college, Pollack said he never felt that he was inhibited because “if I cannot do my own thinking and my own writing, there is no point my being there”, he said.

However, he admitted that that if the government or Pentagon was paying the salary, he did not want to say that wouldn’t affect how people there think.

Independent Brookings

So when he was approached by the Brookings Institution in 2010, Pollack was thrilled.

“It really represents a very different opportunity for me, in a sense I never worked in Washington before. But the great appeal of Brookings is its unambiguous independence,” Pollack said. “We try as much as we can to stand apart from the government.”

At Brookings, Pollack continues his focus on critical strategic questions, he is happier to be able to detach himself from a direct focus on very military specific issues.

“I always try to see intellectual puzzles,” said Pollack, saying that he has continued to spend time to study North Korea, a place he developed an interest in at Harvard and later at Rand.

“Because we still have to more or less study North Korea the way I used to study China 30 or more years ago,” he said.

Pollack’s 2011 book No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons, and International Security, in which he discusses the Korean Peninsula since 1945, the various scenarios and China’s role, has won rave reviews.

He has traveled a lot to Asia and in particular China to share his view on US-China relations and the Korean Peninsula.

Like most China watchers in the United States, Pollack is concerned about the current status of bilateral relations between the world’s two largest economies.

Xi-Obama talk

Despite the two way traffic flow of senior officials including the one made this week by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Pollack said the relationship remains troubled across a wide array of political, economic and security issues.

“The expectations for developing a ‘new model of major power relations’ expressed by both presidents at the Sunnylands summit in June 2013 and still regularly enunciated by Chinese officials are now far more cautionary,” he said.

While US President Barack Obama is expected to visit China on Nov 12 after attending a two-day APEC summit in Beijing, Pollack cautioned that is the time when Obama enters his final two years in office and the US presidential campaign will have begun in earnest.

Many China watchers are wary of the cyclic China bashing rhetoric among US politicians during campaign years.

Pollack believes the challenge for the discussions in Beijing must be to establish a sound and realistic policy agenda for the remainder of President Obama’s term.

“Though bilateral relations are not in a free fall, neither leader should take much satisfaction from the prevailing state of affairs,” he said.

“There are regular calls for enhanced cooperation, but what will be the content of such cooperation? What are the mutual obligations that the two presidents undertake to advance complementary goals? Equally important, can tangible progress in managing bilateral differences diminish the strategic suspicions regularly voiced by commentators and in the mass media of both countries?” Pollack asked.

Pollack believes the agenda for the discussions between Xi and Obama will need to encompass a wide array of issues, including hopes to reenergize the negotiations of a bilateral investment treaty on which the prospects for longer term economic integration will depend.

Other issues regarding global security include the tensions in the Middle East, Ukraine, the South and East China seas and North Korea.

“The opportunities for candid discussion between both leaders on such pressing issues do not often occur, and must be grasped,” said Pollack, now already a grandfather of six.

This piece was originally published by
China Daily