James R. Lilley - Thoughts on a perfect American ambassador

November 28, 2009
Taipei Times

By John Tkacik 譚慎格

Saturday, Nov 28, 2009, Page 8

James Lilley, who died on Nov. 12, served as the senior US diplomat in both Taipei and Beijing, and was therefore intensely interested in Taiwan-China interactions. But he also had a healthy skepticism of the supposed benefits of cross-strait peace if it meant Taiwan were to be absorbed by China. Jim’s uppermost concerns were the values of freedom and democracy and the interests of the American people.

He was always unsettled by colleagues in the State Department and the CIA who insisted on what he called a “political correctness, the idea that there is a strategic partnership with China that is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and [that] Taiwan is an obstacle to progress in that relationship.”

He was particularly worried that there were people in the US government who could only think of Taiwan as an “obstacle” to US-China cooperation.

In July 2004, when we at The Heritage Foundation hosted a launch for his book China Hands, he mentioned this in his remarks (listen to them at multimedia.heritage.org/mp3/lehrman-122004.mp3 at minute 32:30). He worried that too many people in the CIA, in particular, “helped at the time to load up the [diplomatic] movements with intelligence, but you can’t do that! The State Department can do it; the Agency can’t. And I think we’ve got to be very much aware of political correctness.”

Of the idea that our “strategic partnership with China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world,” he said that “I think our experience tells us that is a false concept, and the people that try to load up the intelligence to advance that position are not doing their country a favor.”

Jim was a towering figure in US policymaking in Asia, from his years in Taipei as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), when he helped guide then-president Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國) away from reactionaries like General Wang Sheng (王昇) and toward democratization, and his tenure as ambassador in South Korea during the violence of June 1987 to his steady hand as ambassador in Beijing during Tiananmen and its aftermath.

As US assistant secretary of defense in 1992, I can say from personal knowledge that he single-handedly managed to get president George H.W. Bush to approve F-16s for Taiwan, and then sidestepped State Department anxieties. After his retirement in 1993, Jim continued his involvement in cross-strait affairs, and was one of the true “Wise Men” (or, as some called them, “grown-ups who offer adult supervision”) of the China field.

I worked twice for Jim — indirectly in 1981-1982 when I was on the Taiwan Staff at the State Department and he was AIT director, and more directly when I was deputy consul general in Guangzhou and he was my ambassador in Beijing.

Of the eight ambassadors I worked for, he was by far the best, and I worked for many great ambassadors — Leonard Woodcock in Beijing, Leonard Unger in Taipei, Stape Roy also while I was in Guangzhou, and Burt Levin when I was in Hong Kong. All superb diplomats, but Jim was the best — a true leader and inspirational, he respected his troops and was liberal in his praise of their work (and while quick to discipline some, he never seemed to hold a grudge); he was quick-witted and intellectual; and he was a generous advocate for the families of his staffers. He was the perfect ambassador.

I shall always remember him fondly for his career help and personal kindnesses to me, and my deepest sympathies and affection go out to his wife Sally and his entire family.


John Tkacik is a retired US foreign service officer with postings in Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Guangzhou. He was chief of China intelligence at the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the first Clinton administration.


For more information

For more information or to schedule a speaking engagement, please use our Contact form.

Mailing Address:
1307 Westgrove Blvd.
Alexandria, Virginia 22307

Phone Number: