Both the American public and a series of U.S. administrations have struggled with maintaining a balanced posture regarding China. Recently, the tendency has been to adopt a disturbingly hard line toward that country. The much-discussed U.S. “pivot” or rebalancing of military forces to East Asia, Washington’s deepening involvement in the territorial quarrels in the South China Sea, and the confrontational stance regarding allegations of Chinese cyber hacking all reflect that tendency. A hostile attitude toward China has had a long, unfortunate history. It took U.S. officials nearly a quarter century to accept China’s 1949 Communist revolution and move toward normalizing relations with Beijing. In the meantime, the two countries fought a hot war in Korea, nearly came to blows twice in the Taiwan Strait, and backed opposite sides in Vietnam’s civil war. For much of that period, the image of “Red China” in the American news media and the public imagination was a caricature of a dire alien menace.
But there have been occasions when the opposite tendency to romanticize relations with China and overstate that country’s importance has been apparent. After President Richard Nixon pursued a rapprochement with Beijing in the early 1970s, members of the American foreign policy community boasted about “playing the China card” to cause consternation for America’s Cold War Soviet rival. During the 1980s, a growing number of Americans felt that China was on the brink of becoming a Western-style capitalist democracy. And officials stressed the importance of placating and accommodating Beijing.
The last point became evident with Washington’s response to the crushing of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in June 1989. Just hours after the tanks rolled in, Richard Nixon called President George H. W. Bush and urged him not to let the episode derail the bilateral relationship. Bush agreed, and he emphasized that while he would have to impose sanctions and put the relationship on hold for a while, he would not recall Ambassador James Lilly home from Beijing, and he intended to keep the lines of communication open.
In mid-July, barely a month after the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square, the White House dispatched National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft on a secret trip to Beijing to mend ties. That trip followed an impassioned personal letter that Bush sent to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Bush’s letter captures the importance that the White House attached to preventing a breach with China despite how what had happened to the students was perceived in the United States and around the world. His missive sought to straddle the line between foreign policy realism and appeasement. “I write in the spirit of genuine friendship,” Bush stated. The letter, he emphasized, came “from one who believes with a passion that good relations between the United States and China are in the fundamental interests of both countries. I have felt that way for many years. I feel more strongly that way today, in spite of the difficult circumstances.” He asked Deng for his help in preserving that relationship, adding that, “I have tried very hard not to inject myself into China’s internal affairs.”
Bush seemed almost apologetic about the actions that he took to express public revulsion about the crackdown in Tiananmen. Given fundamental American principles and values, “the actions I took as president could not be avoided.” (Bush had suspended all military sales to China and all military contacts between the two countries.) Indeed, the president warned, “the clamor for stronger action remains intense.” He assured Deng: “I have resisted that clamor, making clear that I do not want to see destroyed this relationship that you and I have worked so hard to build.”
Diplomatic efforts to soothe tensions continued in the following weeks and months. On July 21, shortly after Scowcroft’s return, the president sent a second letter to Deng, this time with the salutation: “Dear Chairman Deng, Dear Friend.” Once again, the president endeavored to strike a balance between realpolitik and appeasement, but this time, the balance seem to shift a bit more toward the latter. Bush again went out of his way to placate the Chinese regime. “I have great respect for China’s long-standing position about nonintervention in its internal affairs,” he wrote. “Because of that, I also understand that I risk straining our friendship when I make suggestions as to what might be done now. But the U.S.-China relationship, which we have both worked so hard to strengthen, demands the candor with which only a friend can speak.” Bush’s principal policy suggestion was that Deng’s government show “forgiveness” to the students and other demonstrators, an idea that seemed more than a little naïve. Another passage reinforced a disturbing impression that the president’s behavior verged on supplication. “Please do not be angry with me,” he pleaded, “if I have crossed the invisible threshold lying between constructive suggestion and ‘internal interference.’”
American hawks who regard China as an implacable geopolitical adversary exhibit an unhealthy foreign policy perspective. But U.S. leaders and the American public also need to be careful not to lean too far in the other direction—toward an appeasement policy toward Beijing. The latest report from the Pentagon that singled out China (along with Russia) as a major threat to U.S. interests is an example of the former. The supplicating tone of President Bush’s correspondence following the Tiananmen Square incident is a textbook example of the latter. Policymakers and the public need to maintain a careful balance that avoids both extremes.