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Beyond Tiananmen: Managing Sino-American Relations

Beijing:Tiananmen Square 180 degree overview picture

Beijing: Tiananmen Square 180 degree overview from Tiananmen gate looking south.

While the economy is central focus of most presidential elections, foreign policy serves as proxy for demonstrating presidential leadership. A strong record on foreign policy can help to bolster re-election prospects, but challengers can also use foreign policy failures for electoral advantage or to distinguish their policy platforms. In a series of posts this week, Riding the Tiger will examine the implications of foreign affairs for the presidency and the presidential election.

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Students sparked the popular demonstrations following the death of liberal reformer Hu Yaobang on April 15. The students called for economic and political reform and expressed grievances over inflation, limited career prospects for students, and corruption of the party elite. Military suppression ended the demonstrations just seven weeks later on June 4.  It is unclear how many protestors were actually killed by the military action and some are still serving prison sentences for participating in the demonstrations. The anniversary remains a sensitive subject for the party leadership in China. Twenty-three years later, censors continue to prohibit public commemorations, except in Hong Kong, and numerous internet search terms related to the date are blocked. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Stock Exchange opened on Monday at 2346.98, which looks like the date of the crackdown written backward, followed by the 23rd anniversary, prompting Chinese censors to block search terms related to the stock market. The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index also fell 64.89 points, which of course looks like June 4, 1989.

American foreign policy toward China has been a careful balancing act between managing the economic relationship, human rights, and democracy for decades. And the president and his adminsitration is charged with managing the relationship. At the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre, President George H.W. Bush faced criticism for not being tough enough and choosing personal diplomacy over public pronouncements. Rather than publicly condemning the actions of the Chinese government, Bush wrote a letter to the Chinese leadership laying out his thoughts and grave concerns about the event. However, evidence from the Miller Center’s archives suggests that President Bush and members of his administration engaged in careful deliberation about how respond to the Tiananmen Square massacre and the implications for Sino-American relations. General Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security advisor explained some of the considerations to the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program in November 1999:

The Tiananmen Square crisis was a very complicated one. The President and I…felt that it was extremely important to maintain a relationship with China. We felt that, while the relationship had been really pretty good, it was based heavily on mutual antipathy to Russia and had shallow roots, and that China was wavering on its course between Deng Xiaoping and looking ahead. And the hardliners really wanted to return to a Mao-like system. Inasmuch as the Deng protégée—who was the Prime Minister at the outbreak of the Tiananmen demonstration—was sacked, we saw clear signs that the conservatives might reassert themselves. We also felt that the Chinese were deeply shaken and very fearful, not only of their own people, of their military, for example, but that this would be seen as an opportunity to come after them.

Were we moved by our relationship with China? I can’t rule that out. Probably so. I would plead that it was hardheaded realism, not romanticism, but it certainly played a role. I think we feared that if we simply gave way to the crowd, the Chinese would retreat and feel that they had no choice but to return to the autonomy of the Mao period.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III. Baker also defended the Bush administration’s handling of the situation and reaching the balance between upholding American principles and values while taking into account broader geopolitical considerations. In March 2011, he told the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program:

We confronted it in China, we handled it—again, this is an arrogant thing to say, but we handled Tiananmen Square just right. We sanctioned China; we said, ‘This is not the way you treat your people,’ but we kept the relationship going, an extraordinarily important relationship. We don’t need to be an enemy of China and they don’t need to be our enemy, and George Bush was able to thread that needle and walk that line. We didn’t give up on our principles and values, but we didn’t go to war against the Chinese government because they didn’t share those principles and values. We handled it just right in much of the Cold War, particularly toward the end, where we were able to get Soviet Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union because of our commitment to human rights and still keep a geopolitical relationship with our number one opponent out there. It didn’t devolve into something really bad.

Robert M. Gates, who held three different positions in intelligence and national security during the George H.W. Bush presidency, similarly defended the actions of the administration and noted that the administration received unfair criticism with regards to its response. Gates told the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program in July 2000:

...One of those little tidbits that’s gotten lost is the fact that the United States government was the first government in the world to impose sanctions on China after Tiananmen Square. For all the criticism of Bush for his inaction, he acted first and with, in most respects, the most severe measures of any of the governments around the world in terms of imposing the sanctions that we did on the Chinese. It got kind of lost in the congressional uproar over the thing. So I think there was a sense—again, I would have to go back and read the materials because my memory on this is really vague—of inevitability that there was going to have to be a crackdown or the Chinese were going to lose control. And, so we had, we had already talked about some of the sanctions and that was one of the reasons why, I think he imposed the sanctions within 24 hours. So I think we probably had already prepared some contingency plans.

How the president responds to events and policies in China is also a subject of foreign policy debate in this presidential election. Indeed, Mitt Romney has used policy toward China distinguish himself from President Barack Obama. Mitt Romney has vowed to “stand up to China” and demand the country play by international trade rules. He has also said would issue an executive order declaring China a currency manipulator. Romney also used the release of activist Chen Guangcheng, to highlight differences on human rights policy toward the Beijing. Romney said in a press statement: “This event points to the broader issue of human rights in China. Any serious U.S. policy toward China must confront the facts of the Chinese government's denial of political liberties, its one-child policy, and other violations of human rights.” It is worth recalling, however, that campaign rhetoric differs from governing realities. Indeed, Jon Huntsman, former Ambassador to China and former contender for the GOP nomination, recently made this distinction and chided Romney for his rhetoric on China:

It's no surprise during a campaign season you're going to have people use China as an issue.... I think -- this is a -- this is a typical trajectory where during a campaign season you're going to talk about China in ways that you're hearing today. We've seen that election cycles gone by. Then you get in office....

From office, President Obama has made tough statements on China, but has also called for increased cooperation. But his record boasts perhaps just as many successes as failures. While the administration launched the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue for discussion of trade and other issues in 2009 and has maintained a reasonable dialogue, the two countries have continued to clash over trade, climate change and human rights. During his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama announced “the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit that will be charged with investigating unfair trading practices in countries like China.” In 2011, the administration also released $5.8 billion in arms sales to Taiwan, to which the government of China registered its “very firm opposition.”

The relationship between the United States and China will likely fall somewhere on the continuum between cooperation and competition for the foreseeable future. The two countries continue to differ on a wide range of economic, diplomatic, security, and human rights issues. From the economy to American principles and values, whomever occupies the White House will have to balance a wide range of considerations and contend with events beyond their control in managing the relationship with China.

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