Asia's Future: A Conversation with Maurice R. Greenberg
Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the National Interest, spoke with Maurice R. Greenberg in mid-November 2017 in New York. Greenberg is chairman emeritus of the Center for the National Interest’s board of directors and chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr & Co., Inc.
Jacob Heilbrunn: What is your assessment of the approach of China and America to North Korea?
Maurice R. Greenberg: When it comes to North Korea, there is no visible change that you can see—obviously there is a lot of gossip about the situation. When I met with President Xi, I asked him directly about North Korea, and he said that they are working on it—he wasn’t very specific. That has to be a high priority for us: South Korea and Japan. If we don’t see progress, then sooner or later, Japan and South Korea will want to become nuclear powers. That is not in China’s interest. Everybody knows that, so the question is obvious: what has to be done?
It is not the missiles that I am concerned about, it is the leader, Kim Jong-un. How do you change him or get rid of him? It has to be one or the other. I can speculate, but that doesn’t do any good. All the countries involved know what I am thinking as well—they’re thinking the same way. It must be resolved, and it is going to be sooner rather than later.
Had Europe, France and the United States acted on a timely basis and stopped Hitler before he really started, World War II might have been avoided and millions of people would have been saved. Failure to act is not a great strategy.
Heilbrunn: Do you think Russia will play a role in the resolution?
Greenberg: They are playing a role now by trading with North Korea. President Trump has alluded to this. How do you cut off all trade? China is still trading with North Korea. I don’t know if there is an easy solution. It is unclear how President Trump can influence President Vladimir Putin. They spoke in Vietnam and had conversations on different topics—including Syria, including allegations of interfering with our elections.
Heilbrunn: What should President Trump do next toward China—what would be beneficial moves for American interests?
Greenberg: Don’t have a meeting, as President Trump and President Xi did, which from all outward appearances was quite good, but then President Trump departs China and starts hammering on about something different. You have to be consistent with what you are doing. I was in China about the time when President Trump arrived. I am on the advisory board of Tsinghua University, the top university in China. After the advisory board meeting, we met with President Xi. I think President Trump had a much better visit and relationship with President Xi than I think many people realized or acknowledged. Many of the things that China gave in on were being negotiated for some time before, but nonetheless, there was definite progress. China did agree that foreign life insurance companies, which currently could own up to 50 percent of a life operation in China, will go to 51 percent very soon, and in five years, likely to 100 percent, which is a major step.
Whether it applies to other than life companies remains somewhat vague. My guess is the insurance market will open up in a reasonable period of time. That is a good thing. China has more banks and financial services than ever before, and that is good. From the point of view of progress on things that were irking many American businesses, there is some progress, but we should continue to negotiate and move the ball forward.
Heilbrunn: One topic that’s faded away is the issue of control over the South China Sea.
Greenberg: Well, how much is China’s fault and how much is our fault? President Obama did nothing about it. He walked off the stage internationally. And the vacuum got filled right away. China filled the vacuum in Asia, and Russia filled it in the Middle East. That is the reality. Now you want to take it back? Good luck. It is much harder to do.
Heilbrunn: So you think Obama is the culprit, at bottom?
Greenberg: I think he walked off the stage internationally. You can call it anything you want, define it any way you want, but the fact of the matter is he did. When China first began to build these little rocks into islands, and ignored the decision in the World Court on the Philippines, what did we do? We did nothing.
Heilbrunn: What do you think about the eleven Asian nations agreeing on economic trade, and the United States being on the sidelines?
Greenberg: I think that was wrong. I think to go around as President Trump does and to say “America First”—why are you saying it that way? I don’t think it helps the relationship at all to say “America First.” Quite the contrary. It is counterproductive. You may believe that, but why advertise it that way?
Heilbrunn: With all the talk about “America First,” is free trade in danger?
Greenberg: I don’t think in the rest of the world.
Heilbrunn: But what about the United States? We have a lot of conflict now with Mexico and Canada on NAFTA. President Trump periodically threatens to jettison the trade agreement.
Greenberg: I was very involved in NAFTA during the George H. W. Bush administration. Carla Hills was then the U.S. trade representative and the chief negotiator of NAFTA. I was on her committee and we worked very hard together to get a satisfactory agreement with Mexico and Canada.