Transcript: NPR's Interview With National Security Adviser John Bolton NPR's Steve Inskeep talks to national security adviser John Bolton about natural security threats posed by China and the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, scion of a Chinese telecommunications giant.
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Transcript: NPR's Interview With National Security Adviser John Bolton

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Transcript: NPR's Interview With National Security Adviser John Bolton

Transcript: NPR's Interview With National Security Adviser John Bolton

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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President Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, came to the phone yesterday. And we had a big question in mind - what is the U.S. goal in its confrontation with China? Bolton spoke with NPR after two dramatic events. One was President Trump's dinner with China's president. The U.S. agreed to a 90-day pause for talks to end an escalating trade war.

The other event came the same day - a Chinese tech executive was arrested. Canada detained Meng Wanzhou in response to a U.S. extradition request. She is the daughter of the founder of Huawei, a big maker of smartphones. That arrest was the start of our talk with John Bolton.

What is the message that is sent by the arrest of Meng Wanzhou?

JOHN BOLTON: Well, I'd rather not get into the specifics of law enforcement matters. But we've had enormous concern for years in this country about the practice of Chinese firms to use stolen American intellectual property, to engage in forced technology transfers. So not respecting this particular arrest, but Huawei's one company we've been concerned about. There are others as well. I think this is going to be a major subject of the negotiations that President Trump and President Xi Jinping agreed on in Buenos Aires.

INSKEEP: This had been understood to involve Huawei's dealings with Iran in some fashion. Are you saying that's not correct?

BOLTON: Well, I think the violations of the Iran sanctions are certainly of major concern to the Trump administration. It's one of his signature policies. And I think that applies on a global basis. But with respect to a number of Chinese companies, we saw what happened with ZTE some months ago, many other issues of concern like that.

And I think, as I say, as the negotiations proceed, I think we're going to see a lot about what Chinese companies have done to steal intellectual property, to hack into the computer systems not just of the U.S. government - although they've done that - but into private companies as well.

INSKEEP: Did the president know in advance that this arrest was coming?

BOLTON: You know, I don't know the answer to that. I knew in advance. But this is something that we get from the Justice Department. And these kinds of things happen with some frequency. We certainly don't inform the president on every one of them.

INSKEEP: OK. So you knew at that dinner then over the weekend with China's president that this arrest was taking place.

BOLTON: Well, you know, there are a lot of things that are pending at any given time. You don't know exactly what's going to happen in terms of a particular law enforcement action. That depends on a lot of other circumstances.

INSKEEP: OK. And just one other thing to be clear on this and understanding that you don't want to get into all the details, but Chinese outlets, including their People's Daily, have insisted the executive broke no U.S. or Canadian law and that this is a violation of human rights. Is it correct that she broke no U.S. law?

BOLTON: Well, I think that's part of what's in question here. And, you know, she was arrested by Canadian authorities. As we speak, there are detention proceedings underway, bail hearings as we would call them and a impending extradition request by the United States. So that's part of our due process of law enforcement, and we'll see what the result of it is.

INSKEEP: OK. Let me ask a bigger question now, Ambassador, because obviously you're thinking about the broad relationship between the United States and China, thinking about it long term, thinking about it in a big way. This is a rising country with an economy that continues growing. Does U.S. national security require that Chinese economic power be limited in some way over the long term?

BOLTON: I don't think national security requires that at all. What I think national security does require is that whatever economic growth China is blessed with, it gets by playing by the rules. And I think the inescapable conclusion is that China - ever since, for example, it joined the World Trade Organization, has not played by the rules. I think we've got a view that intellectual property is always at risk from Chinese theft and that these are the kinds of practices that are not acceptable.

Whether you're a free trader or not, you should not turn a blind eye when states, as a matter of national policy, are stealing intellectual property from their competitors. And obviously, a government that does that, whether they're stealing the design of the F-35 fighter plane to use for their own purposes - and the latest generation of Chinese fighters looks an awful lot like F-35s - whether they're stealing the intellectual property of entertainment companies, manufacturing companies, financial services companies, that's unfair competitive advantage.

And obviously, the stronger the Chinese economy is, the better its ability to translate that into military force. So it's the fact that they're not beating other countries in fair competition, they're stealing from them.

INSKEEP: Vice President Pence, in a speech about China some weeks ago, essentially said that the United States and the West more broadly made a bad bet. The bet was that if Western countries participated in capitalism with China, that its political system would open up, that democracy would follow. He said that bet hasn't worked out, which does seem plainly true. Do you assume that China will never open up?

BOLTON: No, I don't think we should assume that at all. In fact, I think a very important factor in answering that question is, do we accept that they will continue to pursue mercantilist trade policies in a free trade environment and use authoritarian practices in their government to maintain control?

But it's - I think the vice president was completely correct. I've heard going back years - just let the Chinese economy grow a little bit and you'll see democracy spread all through the country, that you can't have economic openness ultimately without having political openness. And on the basis of empirical reality, we know today that connection is far from certain.

INSKEEP: What's your new approach then? If you can't just wait for democracy to come, what do you do instead?

BOLTON: Well, I think what we're going to do, beginning in the next 90 days as President Trump and President Xi agreed, is see if we can address some of these structural issues in China's economy. I think that would have potentially profound impact on their political structure as well. That's not what we're aiming at. But if the theory is correct, we'll see what flows from it. The main thing is to protect American jobs and American companies from the unfair treatment that they've received at the hands of the Chinese government over a long period of time.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned the 90 days, Ambassador. Of course, we're a little under 90 days at this point. And we should remind people that what the U.S. has said is China needs to meet U.S. concerns within 90 days or President Trump may go ahead increasing tariffs further on Chinese goods up to 25 percent. In order to be prudent - because it's clear that the agreement has not come yet - in order to be prudent, should American businesses and consumers be prepared for the impacts of 25 percent tariffs in a few months?

BOLTON: Well, I don't want to make predictions on the outcome of the negotiations which really are just in their early stages of preparation.

INSKEEP: But to be prudent, should we be ready for that?

BOLTON: I think what prudent people should do is look at the way China functions and ask themselves whether trade and investment with an economy that takes advantage of its trading partners, that puts their intellectual property at risk, is something they want to engage in. That's the debate we're having.

INSKEEP: But when I look at how at how China operates, Ambassador, it seems like it's entirely possible that you won't reach a satisfactory agreement in 90 days. Shouldn't we be ready for that?

BOLTON: Well, you know, we're going to have to follow it as time goes on. I think the president has done something that no previous American president has been willing to do. He's called China on its behavior. And I think any prudent investor, any prudent corporate executive would take a look at that and say, we need to face the reality we've been unwilling to face for a long time.

You know, this is not just an American view. This is the view of the Japanese, it's a view of the Europeans that playing fair in the international system really requires some significant behavioral change on the part of China.

INSKEEP: One other thing I want to ask about, Ambassador, and it's an issue in which China is deeply implicated, and that is North Korea. You said the other day that you thought a second summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump was needed. And your reason was because North Korea did not keep commitments that it made in the first summit. If they're not keeping their commitments from the first summit, what makes it seem that a second summit would be productive?

BOLTON: Well, I think President Trump's trying to give the North Koreans a chance to live up to the commitments they made at the Singapore summit. He's held the door open for them. They need to walk through it. And this is one more chance for Kim Jong Un, who is the - really the only decision maker that matters in the North Korean system to deliver on what he said in Singapore. And that's possible, I think, sometime after the first of the year.

INSKEEP: But why would you reward him with another summit if the first summit didn't work out?

BOLTON: Well, I don't think the president views it as rewarding him. The issue is not simply what North Korea says. We've heard them say for decades that they're willing to give up their nuclear program. What we need to see is performance. And when we get performance, then we can look at removing the economic sanctions.

INSKEEP: And when you say one more chance, would that be a last chance then, the second summit?

BOLTON: Well, I'm not going to prejudge what the president may do. We don't have Kim Jong Un in the room yet, and we need to see that happen. We have had meetings scheduled. The - Secretary of State Pompeo had meetings scheduled right after our election to begin the preparations for the next summit. The North Koreans canceled.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Bolton, thanks for the time, really appreciate it.

BOLTON: Glad to be with you.

INSKEEP: John Bolton is the national security adviser for President Trump. NPR's Shanghai correspondent Rob Schmitz has been listening along with us. And, Rob, what struck you there?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, what struck me is that Ambassador Bolton knew about the arrest warrant for Meng Wanzhou in advance. But as he pointed, out he appeared to not know when Meng was going to be arrested. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday that Canadian police arrested Meng without any political considerations. And I'll add here that the legal evidence that the U.S. has against Meng must have been convincing enough for the Canadians to make an arrest as high profile as this one for eventual extradition to the U.S..

INSKEEP: I guess the points you're making are vital from the Chinese point of view because Chinese people ask, is this some kind of political arrest?

SCHMITZ: That's right. And I think that we've seen a Chinese response that's been confused and a little angry. You know, China's asked for her immediate release. And state media has likened Meng's arrest to a politically motivated kidnapping. I think it's going to be difficult for many here in China to not see this as a political move partly because China's government operates in a similar fashion. Chinese authorities routinely shake down companies or prevent business people from leaving China for purely political reasons.

Beijing sometimes has a hard time understanding and trusting countries with independent judiciaries that do not typically operate like they do. But the timing of Meng's arrest on the very day of the Trump-Xi meeting is not helping the optics for the U.S. here in China.

INSKEEP: In just a couple of seconds, are Chinese authorities preparing their people for the possibility these trade talks don't work?

SCHMITZ: Yes, I think they are. Xi Jinping has made many speeches lately about China's own self-reliance. And I think that that is probably a sign of things to come.

INSKEEP: Rob Schmitz, thanks for the analysis.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

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