Journal of Northeast Asian Studies

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 3–14 | Cite as

American policy toward Beijing, 1989–1990: The role of president Bush and the White House staff

  • Robert G. Sutter


The Tiananmen massacre of June 1989 created a major crisis in U.S. policy toward China. President Bush and his aides on the National Security Council staff took the lead in formulating the U.S. response to the crisis. The president took charge personally in dealing with various issues during the next two years. He strove hard to maintain a balanced policy that would allow for continued U.S. involvement with the people and leaders of China.

In the crisis atmosphere of 1989–1990, the president appeared to judge that it was important to narrow sharply the circle of officials who would manage U.S. policy toward China. In part, this was because the president was attempting to strike a difficult balance in U.S. policy. On the one hand, he was attempting to elicit positive gestures from Beijing's beleaguered leaders in the wake of Tiananmen. On the other hand, he was attempting to avoid what he judged were overly punitive and counterproductive U.S. measures against China, which were being pressed on the administration by U.S. leaders in the Congress, media and elsewhere. The president and his close advisors took steps to ensure that State Department and other U.S. officials avoided comment on the most sensitive policy issue of 1990—the extension of most-favored-nation tariff treatment to China.

By the end of 1990, however, the president's policy efforts had not stilled congressional debate or restored a consensus in U.S. China policy. President Bush still labored under the misperception in many quarters that he was less interested than others in human rights in China, was overly attentive to the interests of Chinese leaders, and stressed excessively China's alleged strategic importance for the United States. In fact, the Chinese government's relatively constructive role in world affairs, especially over such vital issues as the 1990–1991 Persian Gulf crisis, appeared to do more to win U.S. support for the president's carefully balanced approach to China than the efforts by administrative leaders to explain the policy.


Foreign Policy Northeast ASIAN Study Chinese Leader China Policy Congressional Debate 
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© Springer-Verlag 1991

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  • Robert G. Sutter

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