Managing U.S.-China Crises — Richard Weitz


This case study examines the formation and implementation of U.S. policies in response to three of the most important national security crises between the United States and the People’s Republic of China: the June 1989 decision by the Chinese military to employ force to suppress unarmed student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square; the accidental May 1999 bombing by U.S. aircraft of China’s embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War; and the April 2001 collision between an American EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter aircraft off China’s coast.

Three considerations make a study of how the United States has managed crises with China important for the Project on National Security Reform (PNSR). First, managing security relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been, and will probably remain for at least several more decades, one of the most important national security missions of the U.S. government. Second, assessing the U.S. interagency response to three short-term incidents sharing common characteristics provides examples of how the American national security system reacts to unexpected international crises. This evaluation complements other PNSR case studies that review how the U.S. government forms and executes strategies during longer-lasting events. Third, the three cases highlight various differences in American policies towards China that clarify the formation and execution of U.S. national security strategy.

The leading national security policy makers in each of the three administrations under consideration held different views about the appropriate U.S. strategy toward China even if they subscribed to a general consensus that a more democratic, less bellicose PRC would be a more favorable partner than an authoritarian regime that pursued repressive domestic policies and confrontational foreign policies.

George H.W. Bush entered office with a well-formulated strategy toward China. The President, who inclined toward a realpolitik perspective of great power relations that focused on the external rather than the internal behavior of countries, emphasized the need to prevent a rupture in Sino-American ties despite the end of the Soviet threat that had united the two countries during the Cold War.

In principle, the overarching strategic framework of the Clinton administration toward China was that of “constructive engagement.” Its adherents sought to promote China’s domestic liberalization, global economic integration, and responsible international behavior gradually by deepening bilateral dialogue and interaction on a range of issues. In practice, due to the lower level of presidential interest and other factors, the Clinton administration was divided over its strategic priorities regarding China. Some elements were most concerned with promoting human rights, others with securing commercial advantage, others with curbing nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation, and still others with pursuing defense diplomacy with a reclusive but increasingly powerful PLA. Absent senior White House direction, the U.S government agencies primarily responsible for America’s China policy often failed to integrate and prioritize these objectives.

The second Bush administration came into office with a strategic framework that saw China as a long-term strategic competitor, but the EP-3 collision occurred too early in the new administration for it to have developed a coherent strategy, with supporting interagency procedures, regarding China or many other important issues. The crisis might have accelerated the development of an integrated strategy that treated China as a potential near-peer competitor if the September 2001 terrorist attacks had not quickly overwhelmed U.S. government planning efforts and directed policy makers’ attention away from China and toward countering international terrorism.

The three specific incidents under review encompass a wide range of actors that have participated in the formation and execution of U.S. security policies towards China. These include several executive branch departments, agencies of the U.S. intelligence community, influential members of Congress and their staff, and diverse non-governmental organizations. Yet, each of the three administrations under consideration employed distinct processes for formulating and executing American security policies towards China.

U.S. policy toward China during the first Bush administration was directed by the President himself. George H.W. Bush relied primarily on his most senior advisers when making key policy decisions toward China after Tiananmen. These officials would reach decisions and then seek to implement them without necessarily requiring formal advanced or post-decisional meetings of the established NSC committees. Although this centralized system received criticism for being too closed, the fact that it involved key actors who played important roles in both the formal and informal structures helped keep the two processes in sync.

The priority that President Clinton and other senior U.S. government officials placed on winning the war in Kosovo perhaps disinclined them from attempting to disrupt formal U.S. government decision making structures and processes by substituting ad hoc procedures. That said, for much of the period leading up to the Belgrade bombing incident, the administration had experienced problems integrating the various components of its comprehensive engagement toward China. Diverse executive branch agencies readily engaged with Beijing, but often on their own terms in pursuit of distinct agendas. By the time of the embassy bombing in 1999, Chinese officials had become distrustful of Clinton administration statements and actions, since these were often contradicted by at least one U.S. government agency.

Since the EP-3 collision occurred so early in the life of the second Bush administration, the executive branch had yet to establish clear interagency procedures regarding China or many other issues. Decision makers resorted to several ad hoc interagency mechanisms to establish and implement policies during the crisis. The U.S. military heavily influenced the initial U.S. government response since one of its planes was directly involved in the incident and because much of official Washington was not yet awake. After the non-DOD agencies became more engaged, however, the defense establishment adopted a lower profile and allowed Secretary of State Colin Powell and President Bush to manage the public response more effectively.

The realpolitik approach of the first Bush administration created tensions in executive-legislative relations, as diverse members in Congress sought to challenge the administration’s policies. The White House felt compelled to threaten presidential vetoes to prevent Congress from adopting sanctions that the executive branch strongly opposed. Yet, the Bush administration, like other foreign governments, proved unable to prevent the Chinese leadership from inflicting widespread human rights violations or induce Beijing to alter other policies obnoxious to American values and interests.

The priority of the Clinton administration was to settle the Belgrade bombing crisis in a way that quickly returned the Sino-American relationship to pre-crisis conditions and allowed the U.S. government to continue to concentrate on winning the war in Kosovo.

The initial U.S. response, which failed, was simply to hope that expressions of contrition by American leaders would assuage Chinese authorities, who would then suppress the public demonstrations. Most participants in the interagency working group established to monitor the crisis subsequently acknowledged feeling they were making decisions excessively hastily, with incomplete information. Constraints on the president’s time, congressional attacks on the Chinese government, and other impediments also complicated the U.S. government’s ability to handle this crisis.

The second Bush administration sought to settle the EP-3 crisis through a solution that, while not worsening Sino-American ties, would not compromise future U.S. intelligence operations against China. In this case, differences in interagency perspectives, especially between U.S. civilian and military actors, hindered policy implementation.

In response to Tiananmen, President George H. W. Bush felt compelled to engage the Beijing government directly by circumventing traditional diplomatic and U.S. government channels. This approach had the advantage of flexibility but meant that, when details of the tactic became public, members of Congress felt less reluctance to attack the effort because they had never been briefed on the issue. More generally, congressional pressure continually forced the first Bush administration to pursue a harsher policy toward China than the President preferred. In terms of implementing its desired policy toward China, however, the main obstacle was not lack of interagency cooperation, but the dependence of the strategy’s effectiveness on Beijing’s response. Chinese policy makers proved unwilling to curtail their internal repression sufficiently to avoid undermining congressional support for the White House’s approach of pursuing long-term cooperation with China.

Despite having possessed several years of in-office experience conducting policies towards China, the Clinton team encountered problems orchestrating its diplomatic, economic, military and other foreign policy instruments before and during the embassy bombing crisis. The lack of interagency integration resulted from the embassy bombing’s unexpectedness and the White House’s preoccupation with winning a war in Kosovo that was proving much more difficult than originally anticipated. The military and intelligence communities proved reluctant to share information about their target selection procedures with their civilian colleagues, let alone the Chinese. As a result, the civilians in the State Department were left assuring the Chinese government that the incident had all been a mistake while acknowledging their limited understanding of why the intelligence failure had occurred.

The second Bush administration eventually achieved its immediate crisis objective of securing the return of the EP-3 crew and subsequently the plane. Nevertheless, the hard-line stance taken by U.S. military leaders was not well integrated with the softer approach of the U.S. State Department. A more integrated response might have helped secure the release of the crew and aircraft faster. Faced with unanswerable counterfactuals, however, one can acknowledge that the “good cop/bad cop” approach actually adopted, whether consciously or by accident, might have yielded the best results. In any case, congressional pressure for harsh U.S. retaliation if the Chinese failed to return the crew appeared to have strengthened the administration’s bargaining position by making its implicit threats more credible to Beijing.

Several patterns emerge from the three crises under consideration. First, even those presidents that assumed office with well-integrated strategies often found it hard to implement them within the U.S. interagency framework. Second, absent close presidential attention, the agencies would often develop and pursue their own China policies, contributing to undesirable policy incoherence. Third, responding to the immediate crisis almost always involved a mixture of formal and ad hoc interagency processes. Fourth, serious problems arose when the crisis occurred early in a presidential transition since the new administrations had yet to establish fully functioning interagency processes or secure Senate approval of many mid-level political appointees. Fifth, since the Tiananmen crackdown, sustained tensions have affected executive-legislative policies regarding China , with Members of Congress often advocating much more confrontational policies than the executive branch deems wise. Finally, the main achievement of the U.S. government response to all the crises involved costs avoided—normally not a major accomplishment, but important here, when mismanaging events could have escalated into nuclear war.