- NBR - The National Bureau of Asian Research

American China Policy and the Security of Asia

Robert S. Ross

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, 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.