American China Policy and the Security of Asia

American China Policy and the Security of Asia

by Robert S. Ross
December 1, 1990

Recent changes in U.S.-China relations and in Chinese foreign policy, nevertheless, have created an opportunity for the Bush Administration to promote both democracy in China and a stable security environment in Asia. The Administration should take advantage of this opportunity to fashion a post-Cold War China policy.

The major dilemma facing makers of U.S. foreign policy is planning for an uncertain future during a period of strategic optimism. As the Cold War comes to an end, the United States and other nations are turning inward to address social and economic problems deferred during an era of heightened threat perception. As a result, the American Cold War security consensus has eroded. In the absence of a new consensus, it is exceedingly difficult for the United States to pursue its long-term interests; its improved international security encourages attention to immediate concerns such as economics, human rights, and party politics to the exclusion of other important international considerations.

U.S. policy toward China has been particularly subject to these post-Cold War dynamics. The combination of China’s violent suppression of its fledgling democracy movement and the diminished Soviet threat has undermined the American consensus for stable U.S.-China relations and has placed human rights in China at the top of the American public’s agenda. Because the 1989 Tiananmen massacre was so widely televised, concern about long-term U.S.-China relations receded before the immediate concern for the welfare of Chinese student and for the course of democracy in China.

As a result, there has been insufficient attention in the media and in the public debate to the importance of the U.S.-China relations to American long-term interests in Asia. Although the end of the Cold War has greatly reduced the threat of global hostilities, the United States maintains important interests in Asia that over the long term are far from secure. And although the Bush Administration has tried to shape its China policy with an eye to U.S. security interests in Asia, the public and Congress have continued to place primary focus on short-term bilateral issues.

In these circumstances, U.S. policy toward China has been subjected to the pressures of domestic politics and public opinion. Bush Administration policymakers, as surprised as most observers were by the dramatic events in Beijing in 1989, had to formulate a new China policy in the midst of unexpected severe and highly politicized domestic criticism. The Administration’s response, however, undermined its objective of protecting American interests in stable U.S.-China political relations in the aftermath of the Beijing massacre. Recent changes in U.S.-China relations and in Chinese foreign policy,


The cold War in Europe is over, and the Soviet threat has all but vanished for the foreseeable future. Such circumstances permit both self-congratulatory feelings and a respite from military and diplomatic policies focused on containing the Soviet Union. For forty years the United States and its European allies paid a heavy price to weaken. Soviet power and the United States and its European allies paid a heavy price to weaken Soviet power and have earned the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of success. There is little doubt that in the future Europe will enjoy greater security even with a reduced American strategic presence.

But the future of Asia is far more uncertain. While Europe is witnessing the steady decline of Soviet power and thus greater symmetry among the European states, regional powers in Asia are experiencing uneven rates of economic and political change, with uncertain and potentially destabilizing strategic implications.

Contemporary Asia is remarkably free from both the threat of major war among the great powers and fundamental challenges to U.S. interests. Soviet power in Asia is in retreat. The Soviet Union’s economic, political, and strategic presence in Vietnam is diminishing, and its naval and air presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean is declining.[1] In Northeast Asia, Moscow’s efforts to improve relations with South Korea, including Soviet President Mikhal Gorbachev’s recent meeting with South Korean President Roh Tai Woo and growing Soviet-South Korean commercial relations, has enhanced North Korean isolation and contributed to the gradual yet significant thaw between Seoul and Pyongyang. Moscow has reduced its conventional and nuclear deployments along the Sino-Soviet border, easing Chinese security concerns and facilitating Sino-Soviet détente. Soviet-Japanese relations are the only anomaly in this broad picture of Soviet policy in Asia, but Gorbachev’s planned visit to Tokyo in 1991 may well provide the opportunity for a Soviet policy initiative on the disputed Northern Territories and lead to enhanced Soviet-Japanese economic relations.

Yet it would be a mistake to assume that the decline of Soviet power will eliminate Moscow’s strategic importance in Asia. Unlike in Europe, where the NATO allies can look forward to the retrenchment of Soviet power behind Eastern Europe, in Northeast Asia the Soviet Union will remain on the borders of China, Japan, and North Korea. Hence, the Soviet Union will remain a significant strategic player in the region; even with more limited resources and influence it will continue to possess significant capabilities and thus the ability to challenge the interests of other states in Northeast Asia. Indeed, the retrenchment of the Soviet navy from the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia into Northeast Asia has heightened security concerns among Japanese leaders.[2]

But while the future Soviet role in Northeast Asia remains uncertain, there is little question that Japan and China are developing their economic, political, and military power. Whereas Soviet power has been on the decline, Chinese and Japanese power are growing. This is certainly true for Japan. Having established the dominant economy in Asia, Tokyo is now enjoying the political benefits. Its influence throughout Asia has grown as its economic involvement has increased. The trend is apt to continue for the foreseeable future as the U.S. economic presence in the region declines, leaving Japan the dominant investor and trader in the region.

Complementing Japanese economic strength is the determined growth in Japanese military power. While the superpowers and European states have been reducing their defense spending, Japan continues to increase its annual defense budget. Moreover, the development of Japanese defense-related technologies, the production of new weaponry, and the debate over whether to send Japanese Self-Defense Forces to the Persian Gulf all point to a long-term trend of developing military power. Nevertheless, the issue is not hostile Japanese intentions or the bogeyman of latent Japanese militarism. Indeed, from Washington’s perspective, greater Japanese military power will likely supplement the U.S. position in the region. Rather, the mere likelihood of greater Japanese power in the future, regardless of Japanese intentions, has destabilizing implications. Many countries of the region, including North and South Korea, China, and the countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), fear that greater Japanese regional influence may undermine their security, and they can be expected to take countervailing measures. After an extended period of reduced regional tensions, the potential thus exists for heightened suspicions in response to greater Japanese capabilities.

Paralleling the growth in Japanese power is Beijing’s defense effort. Although for the last ten years China has placed its priority on developing its economy and modernizing its science and technology, it has also been modernizing its military capabilities. It has been developing a rapid deployment force, building a blue-water navy with potential basing facilities in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and enhancing its technology for long-range and medium-range missiles.[3]

Although China’s military technology lags far behind that of Japan and the United States, greater relative Chinese power projection capabilities will nonetheless influence the calculations of regional actors. As with Japan, the issue is not so much Chinese intentions but the fact of greater Chinese power.

Thus the future of relations among the major powers in Asia is filled with uncertainty. The determined decline of Soviet power will not eliminate Soviet capabilities in Northeast Asia but will merely increase the uncertainties over Moscow’s future role in the region. Greater Japanese and Chinese power, regardless of Tokyo’s and Beijing’s ambitions, may lead to regional tensions. This is especially the case concerning Sino-Japanese relations. Tokyo and Beijing are suspicious of each other’s intentions and may find themselves adopting policies that promote national security but exacerbate regional instability.[4]


The trend in relations among the local powers in Asia closely resembles the developments among the great powers. Clears, the smaller Asian states have recognized the wisdom of focusing their resources on economic development. South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore each have valid security concerns. Nonetheless, their past economic successes have alleviated their defense concerns, and through the 1990s they are likely to continue to pursue the economic policies that have contributed to both modernization and greater military security. Moreover, the lessons of development in the Newly Industrialized Economies (NIEs) of Asia (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong) have not been lost on their neighbors. Malaysia and Thailand, for example, are on the threshold of becoming advanced industrial economies. Similarly, Indonesia has learned from the NIEs the benefits. Of export-led economic development. In the past few years Jakarta has reformed the Indonesian industrial and trade system, and the country has experienced corresponding economic growth.

The great success of East Asian economic development strategies will encourage policy continuity into the 1990s, and continued stability among the local powers is the most likely result. Nevertheless, prudence requires attention to local sources of instability. This is particularly the case in Southeast Asia, where the diminished. Vietnamese threat will no longer serve as the source of the strategic consensus among the six members of ASEAN (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines). Moreover, potentially significant domestic upheaval within these ethnically divided states could have implications for the entire region. Finally, it is important to remember that various territorial disputes remain in Southeast Asia that could become the focus of heightened tension, including the sovereignty dispute over the islands in the South China Sea.[5]

Domestic factors throughout the region may exacerbate the international sources of regional tensions. The governments of the region’s market-economy countries are all experiencing the dilemmas of economic development and political and generational transformation. (The Philippines may be only the first state to develop problems that could haunt other states in the region.) There is no guarantee that these countries will be able to respond to these emerging challenges without experiencing severe domestic instability and corresponding tension with their neighbors. Vietnam and North Korea, on the other hand, while also undergoing generational transformations, have yet to make the necessary and very difficult decisions to realign their economic and political systems. As events in China underscore, the reform process in socialist countries can interact with succession politics to create domestic instability with significant international consequences.[6]

In this context of regional and domestic political change, the smaller states in Asia are increasing their defense budgets and acquiring advanced military technologies. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia have all purchased sophisticated military aircraft from the United States and Europe, and each is enhancing its respective naval capabilities Moreover, states throughout the region are interested in acquiring airborne electronic-warfare equipment.[7] Although the primary reason for increased defense spending is the greater wealth associated with economic development, it is nonetheless unsettling to observe the smaller regional states enhancing their power-projection capabilities during an era that may witness increased domestic and regional instability.

Clearly, with the diminished Soviet military presence in Asia, the need for a large-scale American naval presence in Asia has been reduced. Washington can adjust to diminished access to the Subic Bay naval facilities in the Philippines. Nevertheless, U.S. interests in the local powers of Asia have never been limited to nor even primarily concerned with acquiring military bases, but arise from their intrinsic importance to regional stability and U.S. economic and maritime interests throughout the Pacific. It would not be in U.S. economic and maritime interests to see the Philippines or any other Asian state become engulfed in domestic conflict and subject to pressures from either their immediate neighbors or regional powers.


Given such uncertainties, the United States should integrate its China policy into its overall objectives of maximizing regional balance and stability in Asia. Stable and cooperative U.S.-China relations promote a multitude of U.S. regional security interests. First, they maximize the likelihood that China will focus its enhanced military power toward constructive ends. Favorable U.S.-China relations can minimize Beijing’s sense of isolation and encirclement. To the extent that Beijing benefits from interaction with the United States and other market-economy countries, it is less likely to assume the worst concerning their intentions. Moreover, stable U.S.-China relations expand Beijing’s diplomatic options regarding regional disputes, thus reducing the necessity for recourse to unilateralism.

On the other hand, poor U.S.-China relations will heighten Beijing’s threat perception and thus its propensity to pursue security through unilateral, non-cooperative methods, including the use of force. This is especially the case considering China’s recent history of tension with the superpowers and the propensity of many of its aged leaders to view the capitalist world with intense suspicion. Simply put, a history of positive U.S.-China relations reduced the likelihood that China will act belligerently.

An extended period of cooperative Sino-American relations also creates positive incentives for China to consider regional stability and U.S. interests when making foreign policy. Consolidated trade relations and an extended period of political cooperation can help to offset any Chinese potential to act contrary to the interests of the United Sates or its allies. Similarly, U.S.-China educational exchanges furnish Chinese elites with parochial interests in stable U.S.-China relations, providing additional insurance against deteriorated relations during possible periods of heightened tension. And the reservoir of goodwill fostered by long-term cooperative relations will further assist the two countries’ diplomats during trying periods. Indeed, China’s recent efforts to improve U.S.-China relations and maintain its most-favored-nation (MFN) trading status, including its release of political prisoners and its decision to allow dissident Fang Lizhi to leave China, testify to the importance of the previous ten years of U.S.-China economic cooperation. Despite the intense succession struggle in Beijing, Chinese leaders found the will to make politically difficult concessions to the United States.

These recent developments underscore the importance of maintaining China’s most-favored-nation status. The growth of U.S.-China trade relations has not only benefited U.S. and Hong Kong traders, but has also contributed to the stability of Asia.[8] Because of growing Chinese reliance on foreign technology and investment in its modernization program, Beijing’s reform leadership has also developed an interest in stable U.S.-China relations. Increased integration with the international economy enhances both the understanding throughout China of the necessity for continuing economic reform and the political support for stable U.S.-China relations. Moreover, as China’s economy modernizes, there will be greater domestic pressure for political liberalization.

Stable U.S.-China economic and political relations will also allow the United States to use diplomacy to help manage regional disputes. Washington’s distance from Asia enables it to broker peaceful solutions to local conflicts. But without good offices in Beijing, not only are such options foreclosed, but even states with which the United States is friendly may have to rely on unilateral measures to resolve bilateral disputes with China.

Indeed, cooperative U.S.-China relations will solve half of an important U.S. objective—preventing the necessity of choosing sides in Sino-Japanese relations. In the 1930s America’s support for China against Japan was a major factor contributing to U.S,-Japanese conflict. In the 1950s and 1960s U.S. conflict with China created tensions in U.S.-Japanese relations. Since the early 1970s the United States has enjoyed good relations with both China and Japan, thus experiencing no costs from the respective bilateral policies. It behooves the United States to extend this situation for as long as possible.

Finally, maintaining cooperative U.S.-China relations will also maximize Washington’s ability to develop once again strategic cooperation with China, should it prove necessary. Given the uncertainties in Asia, including engaging Soviet power, the development of Japanese and Chinese power, U.S. ambivalence to maintaining a dominant regional presence in the aftermath of the Cold War, and the possibility of increased tensions and domestic instability among local powers, Washington may well have to cooperate with China in resolving emerging regional conflicts, as it does today regarding conflicts in Indochina and the Middle East and on such issues as nuclear and missile-technology proliferation. In an era of true multipolarity, Washington will likely want to cooperate with China on some issues and oppose it on others.

Thus after an extended period of reduced tension among the great powers and a focus on prompting stable Soviet participation in world affairs, China’s importance in Asia and in U.S. foreign policy may well increase. Washington’s objective should be to establish during the present period the basis for a relationship it may need in the future, rather than wait until China’s conservative octogenarians pass away or until the necessity presents itself.

The reasons for this approach are clear. First, there are many contemporary concerns that require China’s cooperation, including issues noted above. Ostracizing an isolating China’s current conservative leadership would only complicate international relations in the region.

Second, future stability requires attention to short-term developments. History is full of examples of “lost chances” of improved relations due to the inability of one side to reciprocate the willingness of the other to move relations forward. Domestic politics and contrary strategic perspectives often undermine the opportunity for policy change. It is striking just how many different factors came together in 1969-71 to enable U.S.-China rapprochement. It would be unwise to assume that such fortuitous circumstances will again develop just when the need for U.S.-China cooperation arises. Moreover, to the extent that stability in Asia depends on relatively cooperative Sino-American relations, a working economic and political relationship will be a valuable asset. It takes time to develop such relations, and the longer they have to develop, the greater contribution they can make to maintaining stability in periods of uncertainty. Such relations were instrumental in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre and may well be of even greater importance over the long term.


But these are policy recommendations aimed at achieving long-term goals, and policymakers rarely have the luxury to focus beyond the immediate agenda. In an era of reduced security concern the necessity for cooperative relations is less and the challenges to stable relations are greater, as previously peripheral issues receive greater political attention. This is clear today when neither Beijing nor Washington feels a need to compromise and when China’s violent domestic policies warrant and demand U.S. condemnation and responses detrimental to stable relations.

The challenge is to formulate policies that simultaneously address both short-term and long-term objectives. To do so requires attention to two interrelated factors. First, the Bush Administration must maintain domestic support for its China policy in a political environment in which there is neither understanding nor extensive support for stable relations with China. To do so, it must express fully American abhorrence for China’s human rights violations and develop a policy that promotes greater democracy in China. Second, the United States must continue to develop a dialogue with the Chinese leadership on common interests and try to maintain elements of a working relationship that may prove beneficial to U.S. interests in an uncertain future.

The Bush Administration clearly understands the necessity for ongoing U.S.-China cooperation, but in its first year in office the constant pressure of domestic politics often undermined its efforts. Indeed, the politics of China policy overwhelmed the domestic debate. Congress and the American public understandably perceived the July 1989 secret mission to Beijing by National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and his second visit in December as violations of the president’s pledge to suspend high-level exchanges with the Chinese leadership. Although the Administration insisted that such meetings were “contacts” and not “exchanges,” this apparent breach of faith, along with the president’s inability to express adequately American revulsion at events in June 1989., Scowcroft’s assurances in Beijing that he and his colleagues “come as friends” and that “we extend our hand in friendship,” and the Administration’s insufficient explanation of its strategic objectives, combined to undermine domestic confidence in President bush’s ability to make policy, despite his personal knowledge of China and U.S.-China relations.[9]

Given the president’s high popularity and the reduced strategic importance of U.S.-China relations, the Democratic Congress was not about to be forgiving. Ultimately, partisan politics rather than national interests dominated the discussion of such issues as sanctions and fueled the battle between the White House and Senate Democrats over the president’s veto of the Pelosi bill, legislation that would have replicated the president’s efforts to permit Chinese students to stay in the United States indefinitely.

As American policymakers scrambled to respond to their domestic critics, China policy was made with insufficient attention to the bilateral consequences. In particular, the decision to cut off high-level diplomatic exchanges with Chinese leaders undermined U.S. objectives; it set back the entire U.S.-China relationship and created additional obstacles to developing relations in ways that furthered U.S. interests. Insofar as U.S. retaliation contributed to the breakdown in relations and created conditions that U.S. policymakers found unsatisfactory, the Bush Administration as well as Chinese officials had to take steps to improve relations, including the two Scowcroft missions.

U.S. policy toward China in the aftermath of the Beijing massacre should promote the simultaneous development of several dialogues on distinct sets of issues, as was the case in U.S.-Soviet relations during the Brezhnev era. The president, the secretary of state, and other high-level U.S. officials ought to travel to Beijing if there is important business to conduct requiring Chinese cooperation. During such meetings they can forcefully raise human rights issues and meet with and express support for Chinese democracy activists. The United States must have both a human rights policy and a security policy.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the cost that U.S. support for democracy imposes on the Chinese leadership. It both undermines the government’s domestic and international legitimacy and contributes to the vitality of China’s democracy movement. Such human rights diplomacy, combined with sanctions against U.S.-China military relations, would impose a significant price on the Chinese leadership and elicit support from the American people, while simultaneously permitting Washington to seek cooperation in areas affecting U.S., interests. Moreover, it would restrict the damage to relations to an area in which the United States holds the upper hand—human rights. Ronald Reagan proved the efficacy of this approach in U.S.-Soviet relations. Moreover, as Richard Nixon emphasized, differences between the United States and China are expected because we have different social systems. We may need to cooperate, but we do not have to like each other.[10]


After a year of continuous setbacks, U.S.-China relations are improving. He most obvious impediments to better relations have been removed with the lifting of martial law in Beijing and Tibet and the departure of Fang Lizhi from China. Moreover, in 1990 congressional Democrats failed to override the president’s decision to extend most-favored-nation trade status to China. Equally important, both sides appear to be adjusting to the fact that human rights will remain high on the bilateral agenda for the foreseeable future and that vitriolic exchanges over this issue need not sour otherwise mutually beneficial exchanges. Essentially, U.S.-China relations are becoming normal for two countries with radically different social and political systems in an era characterized by reduced security concerns.

Moreover, in recent months China has been pursuing a number of policies that favor U.S. interests. It has contributed to the international isolation of Iraq, made significant efforts to compel the Khmer Rouge to accept the emerging Cambodian political settlement, normalized relations with Indonesia, and put forward a significant proposal for shelving conflicting sovereignty claims to the islands of the South China Sea and promoting joint exploitations of the natural resources in the vicinity of these islands. These Chinese initiatives make a major contribution to global and regional stability, and Washington should encourage this trend in Chinese policy.

The emerging stability in U.S.-China relations, albeit at an appropriately reduced level of friendship, and the encouraging trend in China’s overall foreign policy afford the Bush Administration an opportunity to adjust its China policy to better suit U.S. long-term interests in Asia. The United States should now aim to respond to the differences in U.S.-China relations while developing the basis for long-term cooperation Thus, the Administration should begin to restore gradually high-level exchanges with Chinese leaders in areas where U.S. policy can have a beneficial influence, such as in trade and economic issues, and to continue to develop the high-level exchanges with Chinese leaders in areas where U.S. policy can have a beneficial influence, such as in trade and economic issues, and to continue to develop the high-level security dialogue concerning regional conflicts and international level exchanges. The United States should also begin to ease its restrictions on international lending to China. Economic assistance should not be limited to human-needs projects. China’s involvement in the international economy, including its receipt of international financial assistance, promotes internal economic and political reform. This in turn serves U.S. interests in promoting human rights in China, encourages constructive Chinese participation in the global economy, and contributes to the development of Chinese interest in stable U.S.-China relations.

At the same time, however, the Bush Administration must keep America’s concern for human rights high on the bilateral agenda. High-level dialogues should address areas of both conflict and cooperation. Not only will continual attention to Beijing’s human rights violations impose on the Chinese leadership a significant price for its policy of domestic repression, but is also will earn the Administration the domestic support necessary for conducting a multifaceted China policy that serves U.S. interests in promoting both Chinese democracy and U.S. security concerns in Asia.

Beijing will undoubtedly continue to object to U.S. efforts to focus world attention on China’s human rights violations. Nevertheless, by restoring high-level dialogues and seeking cooperation where possible, while simultaneously emphasizing human right issues, Washington imposes on Beijing the full burden of making the difficult and unlikely decision to disrupt the entire relationship and isolate itself in Asia, thereby incurring the associated economic and diplomatic costs as well as the sole responsibility for “untying the know” in U.S.-China relations.


[1] For a discussion of reduced Soviet economic and military presence in Vietnam, see, for example, Far Eastern Economic Review, February 1, 1990, pp. 8–9; Far Eastern Economic Review, July 5, 1990, pp. 44–45; Washington Times, February 13, 1990, p. 2. Also see the most comprehensive Bush Administration discussion of U.S. interests in Asia, A Strategic Framework for the Asian Pacific Rim: Looking Toward the 21st Century (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Defense, 1990).

[2] See Mike M. Mochizuki, “Japan After the Cold War,” SAIS Review, Summer 1990.

[3] For a comprehensive discussion of China’s domestic priorities, see Harry Harding, China’s Second Revolution (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1987). On China’s post-Tianenmen foreign policy, see Banning Garett, Bonnie Glaser, and Dov. S. Zakheim, Chinese Foreign Policy in the 1990s and Its implications for U.S. National Security (Arlington, VA: System Planning Corporation, 1990). On Chinese policy in Asia, including military developments, see Robert S. Ross, “China’s Strategic View of Southeast Asia: A Regions in Transition,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 12, No. 2 (September 1990).

[4] Allen S. Whiting, China Eyes Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).

[5] On the various claims and recent developments concerning the disputed islands, see Chang Oao-min, “A New Scrabble for the South China Sea Islands,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 12, No. 1 (June 1990).

[6] For an extended discussion of these issues, see Robert A. Scalapino, “Asia and the United States,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 1 (America and the World 1989/90).

[7] For a discussion of trade in defense acquisitions in Southeast Asia, see Jane’s Defense Weekly, May 19, 1990, “Airborne EW, Southeast Asia,” pp. 970–974; Far Eastern Economic Review, August 30, 1990, pp. 50–53.

[8] For a discussion of the costs of withholding MFN status from China, see The United States-China Business Council, The Cost of Removing MFN from China (Washington, DC: The United States-China Business Council, 1990).

[9] Scowcroft’s speech was reported by Xinhua News Agency, December 9, 1989, and translated in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Daily Report: China, December 11, 1989, pp. 1–2. For the domestic reactions, see, for example, the editorials in The New York Times, December 12, 1989. For the congressional reaction and the Administration’s defense, see, for example, United States Senate, United States Policy Toward China, (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1990).

[1] Richard Nixon, “China and the United States, The Next Ten Years,” paper presented to the National Council on United States-China Trade, June 1, 1983.

Robert S. Ross is an assistant professor of political science at Boston College. He is a specialist in U.S.-China relations and Chinese security policy toward Asian and the author of The Indochina Tangle: China’s Vietnam Policy, 1972–1979 (1988).