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Transcript: Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster on "Face the Nation," June 18, 2023

Lt. General H.R. McMaster | Full Interview
Lt. General H.R. McMaster | Full Interview 11:54

The following is a transcript of an interview with former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a CBS News contributor, that aired on "Face the Nation" on June 18, 2023.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The White House has said that there have been an alarming number of increasingly aggressive actions by the People's Liberation Army, that's China's military, in recent months; that there was video of a near miss in the South China Sea in the air, and then one at sea, in the Taiwan Strait recently as well. How unusual are these kind of incidents?

MCMASTER: Well, they're not unprecedented, but it's unusual in terms of the quick succession of multiple incidents. I think China's sending a message, 'hey, we're in charge now. You're finished' to the west and to the United States. And, and I think it's indicative of what they hope to achieve, Margaret, which is to create kind of an exclusionary area of primacy across the Indo-Pacific region. They've laid claim to the ocean in the South China Sea, for example. So I think this really calls for us to have a strong response, I  think, you know, with,with Secretary Blinken's visit there, it may portray a bit of weakness in terms of–

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean?

H.R. MCMASTER: Well, I think we've been so anxious to have this discussion with the Chinese and the Chinese have been really playing hard-to- get in terms of the discussion. I think what they hope with the optics of this meeting, and I'm sure Secretary Blinken is quite aware of this is, to create a perception that we're going there to pay homage to the Chinese Communist Party, because they want to use that kind of perception–


MCMASTER: --of China's strength relative the United States to bludgeon countries in the region and say, 'hey, time to bandwagon with us. This is our era, what they call the "new era of international relations"'

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well, arguably, a lot of the Biden administration policies look a lot like the Trump administration policies, at least directionally here, relations have been going downhill for years now. This is the first visit since 2018. So if the visit itself, you question is a risk, how do you make this successful?

MCMASTER: Well, I think it's okay to talk. Right. Diplomacy is okay. It's just the conditions under which the discussion is conducted and how it's portrayed. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean by that? Location?

MCMASTER: So I think not necessarily location, but just the atmosphere around it in connection with China, really, I think wanting to try to get some concessions, in exchange for just the privilege of talking with them. And this might have to- have to do with some policy decisions about whether or not to restrict or ask allies to restrict chip sales, for example, to Chinese industries. But I think what's really important to note is that China has not come off the path of aggression. You mentioned the People's Liberation Army aggression, but a broad range of economic aggression that China's engaged in. And so I think it's important just to stick to our guns on this. And-and it's important to have diplomacy with China. But let's have also diplomacy with countries that might be sitting on the fence to say, Hey, your choice, really, at this moment is not between Washington and Beijing. It's between sovereignty and servitude.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So one of the Secretary Blinken's stated goals is to help open up these lines of communication between the militaries, you can't oppose that, you must want that.

MCMASTER: No, no I think it's important to have those kind of Confidence Building Measures ways to deconflict, but it takes two, two parties to do it. 


MCMASTER: One, one of the obstacles to this is the Chinese Communist Party is so centralized in terms of the power of Xi Jinping that he's unwilling to decentralize communications to anybody else anytime. So when you- when you meet with Chinese Communist Party officials, wire, it's typically they're reading off five by eight cards. I mean, you try to you know, tell a few jokes, right? Make a personal connection, it's really hard to do.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So when we recently spoke with Bob Gates, the former CIA director and Defense Secretary, he said, even in the worst days of the Cold War, there was at least a way for the United States and Soviet Union to have communications about these kinds of military incidents to avoid escalation. That framework does not exist today with China. It-- doesn't one have to be created? Or do you think that ambiguity, or that risk, is a choice?

MCMASTER:  We must always say, hey the doors open for that kind of communication. But I think it's up to the Chinese Communist Party, it takes two to be willing to have that kind of that kind of that line open. The CCP has become very aggressive, not only against the United States, but a broad range of nations, and not even to mention, no short of military aggression, how about cyber attacks? How about campaigns of economic aggression against Australia, Lithuania and others? So I think it's important to look at the behavior of the party, because they talk a great game right- the new era of great power relationship, you know, a community of common destiny for all mankind. That sounds like a great program, right? That's not what I would want to sign up for, though- with the- with the Chinese Communist Party in charge.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So recently, it was publicly disclosed that China has set up and rebuilt part of its listening facilities that are located in nearby Cuba. Secretary Blinken acknowledged that this week, to a lot of people they hear and see something like that, and they think of the old Cold War.


MARGARET BRENNAN: How different is this model?

MCMASTER: It's worse, it's worse.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What do you mean? 

MCMASTER: Because it's a more difficult problem set because of the way that our economies have become interconnected, in large measure based on these flawed assumptions about the nature of relationship, and especially the intentions of the Chinese Communist Party. That's what we got wrong. We thought that, that we could determine the behavior of the party by the way we engage them. But hey, guess what I mean, the Chinese Communist Party leadership had aspirations that went far beyond anything in reaction to what we do. And China really does want to establish itself as it sees it at the center.

MARGARET BRENNAN: What are the key phrases, the key things you were looking for and watching for out of this meeting?

MCMASTER: I think competition and a recognition on our part, that the Chinese Communist Party has to change its behavior for there to be a better relationship. There's always an impulse in diplomacy, to think that a better relationship is an end in and of itself. But actually, if the perception is that we're going to make concession after concession, just for a better relationship, I mean, the outcome could be something that appears like a diplomatic achievement, but it could be a political disaster.

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