Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations 1989-2000

Beyond Tiananmen: The Politics of U.S.-China Relations 1989-2000

by Robert L Suettinger

Paperback(Revised ed.)

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It has been thirteen years since soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) raced into the center of Beijing, ordered to recover "at any cost" the city's most important landmark, Tiananmen Square, from student demonstrators. The U.S. and other Western countries recoiled in disgust after the horrific incident, and the relationship between the U.S. and China went from amity and strategic cooperation to hostility, distrust, and misunderstanding. Time has healed many of the wounds from those terrible days of June 1989, and bilateral strains have been eased in light of the countries' joint opposition to international terrorism. Yet China and U.S. remain locked in opposition, as strategic thinkers and military planners on both sides plot future conflict scenarios with the other side as principal enemy. Polls indicate that most Americans consider China an "unfriendly" country, and anti-American sentiment is growing in China. According to Robert Suettinger, the calamity in Tiananmen Square marked a critical turning point in U.S.-China affairs. In Beyond Tiananmen, Suettinger traces the turbulent bilateral relationship since that time, with a particular focus on the internal political factors that shaped it. Through a series of candid anecdotes and observations, Suettinger sheds light on the complex and confused decision-making process that affected relations between the U.S. and China between 1989 and the end of the Clinton presidency in 2000. By illuminating the way domestic political ideas, beliefs, and prejudices affect foreign policymaking, Suettinger reveals policy decisions as outcomes of complex processes, rather than the results of grand strategic trends. He also refutes the view that strategic confrontation between the superpowers is inevitable. Suettinger sees considerable opportunity for cooperation and improvement in what is likely to be the single most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century. He cautions, however, that routine misperceptions of goals and policies between the two countries—unfortunate legacies of Tiananmen—could lead to an increasing level of hostility, with tragic consequences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780815782070
Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
Publication date: 10/08/2004
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 556
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Robert L. Suettinger is a nonresident senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies program and an affiliated fellow of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. He served as national intelligence officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council; director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council (1994-97); and in several analytical positions with the U.S. Department of State. He is currently a consultant in the private sector.

Read an Excerpt

Beyond Tiananmen

The Politics of U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000
By Robert L. Suettinger

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2004 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-8207-1

Chapter One


It has been fourteen years since soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) raced into the center of Beijing from their suburban encampments, ordered to recover "at any cost" the capital city's most important symbolic landmark, Tiananmen Square, from student demonstrators who had occupied it for seven weeks. Fourteen years since the terror, the noise, the fires, the shooting, the bloodshed, the screams of rage and fear. Fourteen years since the collapse of the Communist Party's leadership cohesion and what remained of its moral authority, causing it to resort to force and intimidation to maintain its grip on power. Fourteen years since the United States and other Western countries recoiled from China in horror and disgust, expelling it from the company of modern civilized nations through sanctions of various kinds. Fourteen years since the relationship between the United States and China went instantly from amity and strategic cooperation to hostility, distrust, and misunderstanding.

Time has healed many of the wounds of those terrible days of June 1989. The dead have been laid to rest, if not accounted for or forgotten; the wounded have been treated and healed. Most of those arrested and imprisoned in the massive roundup that followed June 4 have completed their sentences and been released. The universities that were cauldrons of unrest and dissatisfaction then are thriving now, with improved equipment and better living conditions attracting China's best and brightest. Students have turned from the youthful pursuit of democratic ideals to the pursuit of advanced degrees and lucrative jobs in China's growing private sector, much of it foreign funded.

Most of the Communist Party elders who decided that military force was the only solution to the problem of the democracy activists in Tiananmen Square have died. Many of the students who emerged as leaders of the 1989 democracy movement and the hunger strike are in exile in the United States, having escaped during the early phases of the crackdown or having been released from prison on "medical parole." Most of the soldiers who took part in the attack on the city of Beijing have left the PLA. Many of the officers who were promoted for their leadership in "quelling the turmoil" have subsequently been retired or demoted. The Communist Party leadership "core" under General Secretary and State President Jiang Zemin-brought in after June 4-has been one of modern China's most stable and successful leadership groups, its rule uninterrupted by major internal strife or political upheaval.

Tiananmen Square has been repaired-the bullet holes filled, paving stones cleaned and later replaced for the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1999. It is again the people's square, with casual strollers, schoolchildren, kite-flyers, and tourists in abundance. People's Armed Police and other security forces still patrol in groups of two and three, on the lookout for practitioners of Falun Gong-a form of breathing exercise and spiritual awareness banned by the still-nervous communist government-rather than democracy activists. Traffic clogs the streets around the square, with bicyclists making more rapid progress in their separate lanes than the hordes of tiny red and yellow taxis, tourist buses, and private automobiles crawling through the midday rush hours. There is no sign, no memorial of what happened there in 1989.

The city of Beijing itself has been transformed in these fourteen years. The streets down which the students marched and the tanks raced now are lined with new hotels, shopping centers, and modern office buildings, and many are adorned with neon signs advertising Western corporations and foreign products-McDonald's, IBM, Intel, Coca-Cola. A new "central business district" of multistory office towers has sprung up near the intersection of Jianguomen Dajie and the Second Ring Road, where heavily armed troops faced east in 1989, seemingly fearing attack from other military units. Shoppers no longer pick through piles of shriveled cabbages piled along dusty streets, as they did then, but walk through air-conditioned grocery stores and shopping malls looking for well-packaged foods, designer fashions, sporting goods, and consumer electronics. China has become one of the most dynamic economies in the world, and Beijing is its showcase capital city. Having won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, the city is even more eager to show its new look, new economy, and new style to the rest of the world.

Amid all the change-the forgetting, if you will, of Tiananmen-the relationship between the United States of America and the People's Republic of China has remained one of wary distrust that occasionally deteriorates into enmity. There has been little forgetting and less forgiving of what the two countries accused each other of in 1989. Although the two governments have improved their cooperation and even achieved a degree of amicability in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, these changes nevertheless seem tenuous, unsupported by improved trust or understanding. There is still plenty of rancor on both sides.

The United States regularly castigates China for a broad array of human rights abuses, with the State Department issuing in February 2002 the longest and most critical report about China in its annual series on human rights practices worldwide. China responds with charges of hypocrisy, racism, and "demonization" against the United States and issues its own critiques of American legal and moral shortcomings.

-Beijing charges the United States with "interference" in its domestic affairs, not only in supporting democracy activists in 1989 but in seeking to use various sanctions since then to leverage improvements in China's treatment of religious and political dissidents. It suspects the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is supporting Falun Gong. In Washington, many believe China sought to use illegal contributions to some candidates in the 1996 election campaign to distort American politics and policies. Business lobbyists and academics who seem sympathetic to China's positions sometimes are portrayed as disloyal to the United States.

-Many Americans believe that China's pressure on Taiwan-where the government of the Republic of China retreated after it lost the Chinese civil war in 1949-actually emanates from a post-Tiananmen fear of the American style of democracy that Taiwan has instituted successfully since the early 1990s. For its part, China accuses the United States of deliberately violating its agreements on sovereignty and arms sales to Taiwan in order to keep China from achieving unification.

-Despite a rapidly growing trade relationship between the two countries, Washington criticizes China's trade practices regularly as "mercantilist," and a special commission has been appointed by the U.S. Congress to monitor the relationship between the bilateral trade flows and the modernization of China's defense industries. Many in China believe the United States is determined to prevent China from becoming the world's largest economy.

-Washington charges China with selling the technology, know-how, and materials to make nuclear and chemical weapons, as well as ballistic missiles, to unstable or "rogue" states, such as Pakistan and Iran. China counters that Washington is the world's largest arms dealer and is only trying to prevent China's emergence as a competitor.

-Despite the easing of bilateral strains in light of their opposition to international terrorism, China and the United States remained locked in strategic distrust at the start of the twenty-first century, based largely on misperceptions. Many in China, including in the leadership, believe the United States has an insatiable lust to be the world's dominant power and will go to great lengths to prevent China from becoming a global force. They refer to the United States as "hegemonic," similar to the kingdom of Qin in the second century B.C., which forcefully conquered and incorporated the various kingdoms of China into a unified state. Some Americans see China as a modern counterpart of nineteenth-century Germany or Japan-an ambitious, aggressive emerging state that will upset the international balance of power and force a conflict. Strategic thinkers and military planners on both sides plot future conflict scenarios with the other side as the principal enemy.

-Perhaps most important, the United States and China have developed negative stereotypes of each other, contributing to all the above problems. Despite warm and even improving people-to-people relations, polls since 1989 have consistently shown most Americans consider China an "unfriendly" country that violates the rights of its citizens. Although polls in China are not independent or systematic, there is a clear growth in the manifestation of anti-American sentiment, particularly among students and intellectuals.

Axioms and Assumptions

How did this situation develop? What are the causes of the hostility and what are the political factors in both countries that sustain it? What does this situation portend for future relations between China and the United States? Are the two sides heading for war? Or can efforts be undertaken to ameliorate the suspicions and hostility, and if so, how?

This book is about relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China from the calamitous events of June 4, 1989, to the last days of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton in the year 2000. It takes as its starting point the events of Tiananmen, as I believe those events marked a critical turning point in the bilateral relationship. Before that time, the relationship was founded on a more or less shared set of strategic perceptions about the nature of the threat from the Soviet Union and on a "realist" viewpoint that Soviet power needed to be balanced by cooperation between its principal opponents. Although the relationship grew and flourished in many other ways after the visit to China by President Richard Nixon in 1972 and the issuing of the "Shanghai communique" establishing the ground rules for Sino-American cooperation, the strategic underpinning remained a constant in the relationship. After Tiananmen, when American perceptions of China were radically changed, and after the fall of first the Soviet "bloc" in eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself, that constant disappeared, or at least lost credibility. Justifying a close, cooperative relationship thus became far more difficult for both sides, while all the other problems and disagreements in the relationship became far more apparent and difficult to manage.

Equally important, after Tiananmen, the bilateral relationship lost its insulation from domestic politics. In the United States, President George H. W. Bush found his China policy directly challenged by congressional Democrats, as President Bill Clinton's was by congressional Republicans. Although Deng Xiaoping's primacy over foreign policy was hardly challenged, even after Tiananmen, President Jiang Zemin's stewardship of the U.S.-China-Taiwan relationship became an issue in his efforts to consolidate his power and authority within the Chinese leadership as Deng faded from the scene. In both countries, bureaucratic maneuvering and broader sociopolitical changes also affected the conduct of foreign policy, particularly bilateral relations. And both countries experienced periods of intense popular suspicion and even revulsion that political decisionmakers could not ignore.

The principal focus of this book is decisionmaking-that very human process by which ideas, beliefs, strategies, theories, prejudices, pressures, tradeoffs, and choices become identifiable foreign policies. It is a complex and confusing process, often misunderstood, especially by those who look only at the policy outcomes. Readers will find no grand theory to explain American or Chinese actions or to put them in a lucid strategic context. Quite the contrary. This book consists of a series of narratives about policymaking, by which the complexity and confusion of the process of making decisions are laid out in somewhat greater detail-from an "insider's" perspective, in part. From April 1989 until the end of 1998, I served in positions within the U.S. government-on the National Intelligence Council and the National Security Council-that enabled me to observe the policy process at close hand. While I would by no means depict my position as a major "policy player," I was a participant on occasion and familiar with the events and individuals that shaped the relationship during that period. Moreover, before that time, I had been an analyst and observer of China's domestic politics and leadership for many years. My purposes for writing this book are, first, to tell the stories as completely as I can and, second, to create some doubts about the theories, suppositions, and unspoken assumptions that underlie "strategic analyses" on both sides of the goals and intentions of the other.

There are two fundamental propositions underlying the following chapters. First, foreign policies are not the product of pristine calculations of national interests by trained experts with all the facts at their disposal. Rather policies are the result of a profoundly political process in which differing, sometimes competing, domestic interests, bureaucracies, and individuals affect the outcome. Although some of the key players are well-informed experts, they are often working with incorrect or incomplete information, as well as inaccurate assumptions and cultural prejudices. Second and related, "strategic" assessments that extrapolate historical or ideological trends and project future policies and behavior are likely to be wrong, as they seldom take account of the domestic politics of decisionmaking or the effect of unpredictable events that often drive the process. Unlike a number of contemporary observers of bilateral relations, I believe that conflict between the United States and China is not inevitable; there is no ineluctable war between the two countries just waiting for the strategic paths to reach their convergence. There is, in fact, considerable prospect and opportunity for cooperation and improvement in what is likely to be the single most important bilateral relationship of the twenty-first century. However, the routine misperception of each other's goals and policies, one of the legacies of Tiananmen, is leading to increasing hostility and distrust that could eventually have tragic consequences. It is my hope that this work might contribute to an understanding of policy decisions as outcomes of complex processes rather than the results of grand strategic trends.


Excerpted from Beyond Tiananmen by Robert L. Suettinger Copyright © 2004 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
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