UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

[CRS Issue Brief for Congress]

China Policy: Crisis Over Taiwan,
1995 -- A Post-Mortem

Robert G. Sutter
Senior Specialist in International Politics
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division

December 5, 1995



The October 24, 1995 meeting between President Bill Clinton and China's President Jiang Zemin helped to ease the crisis in U.S.-PRC-Taiwan relations that ensued from Beijing's harsh response to Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's June 1995 visit to Cornell University.

According to some U.S. and Chinese specialists consulted for this report, Beijing's hard line reflected in part the surprise and embarrassment of some Chinese leaders who reportedly had used the Clinton Administration's initial stance against the Lee visit to argue for a more flexible PRC stance toward the United States and Taiwan against Chinese officials favoring a harder line. The Clinton reversal and Lee's perceived persistence in seeking recognition during the U.S visit apparently fed deep suspicions in the PRC leadership, prompting a notably harsh PRC stance toward both the U.S. and Taiwan leadership, including military exercises in the Taiwan area.

Although China succeeded in warning Washington, Taipei and others of the possible dangers in confronting the PRC over Taiwan, PRC leaders soon judged that their posture toward the U.S. was too extreme. By August 1995, they had redefined the problem with the U.S. to allow for a more workable relationship that would include some resumed contact and dialogue sought by the United States. They continued strong pressure against Taiwan for the rest of the year, however.

It appears that Chinese President Jiang Zemin has taken a personal interest in trying to promote a better atmosphere in U.S.-China relations, although his room for maneuver may be constrained by Chinese suspicion of U.S. motives and skepticism regarding the ability of the Clinton Administration to set and keep to a clear China policy. President Clinton may be less inclined than Jiang in making gestures to China, cognizant that earlier U.S. steps received little positive response from Beijing. The President's sense of freedom may also be constrained by Congress. On the one hand, congressional sentiment appears to be shying away from a new showdown soon with Beijing over Taiwan. On the other hand, even some Members and staff associated with a more moderate U.S. stance toward China judge that it would be inappropriate for the U.S. to appear to accommodate the PRC at this time. They fear that it could be seen at home and abroad as a sign that the United States was intimidated by Beijing's harsh outburst and provocative military activities following the Lee Teng-hui visit.

                             TABLE OF CONTENTS
INTRODUCTION ..................................... 1
     IMPACT ON PRC POLICY ........................ 2
     JUNE-OCTOBER, 1995 .......................... 6
LESSONS LEARNED -- PRC ........................... 9
LESSONS LEARNED -- U.S .......................... 10
OUTLOOK ......................................... 11



The October 24, 1995 summit meeting between President Bill Clinton and China's President Jiang Zemin proceeded smoothly despite earlier wrangling over the protocol level and site of the meeting.[1] U.S. and Chinese officials endeavored to portray the session in New York's Lincoln Center as the most positive of the three face-to-face encounters between the chief executives.[2] The meeting achieved no notable breakthrough in U.S.-Chinese relations, but it was accompanied by other tentative signs that both governments were interested in improved relations. These included China's agreement to the appointment of U.S. Ambassador designate James Sasser; the return of China's Ambassador to the United States after his abrupt withdrawal in June; and the U.S. dispatch of Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Nye for talks in Beijing designed to resume high-level defense discussions suspended in mid-1995.

Taken together with the private assessments of U.S. and Chinese officials and other specialists on Sino-American relations,[3] the recent events signal that the crisis in U.S.-China relations over Taiwan has eased, at least temporarily. The Clinton Administration's decision to bow to congressional and other pressure to allow an unofficial visit by Taiwan's President Lee Teng-hui to Cornell University in June 1995 had prompted an extraordinary reaction by the People's Republic of China (PRC). Beijing responded to Lee's visit with strongly worded protests, suspension or cancellation of a number of important dialogues with the United States, suspension of most important ongoing dialogues with Taiwan, and widely publicized military exercises, including ballistic missile tests, new Taiwan. China's invective was accompanied by dark warnings of what China would do (i.e., invade Taiwan) if Taiwan were to move toward de jure independence, and admonition suggesting that Beijing foresaw a protracted cold war with the United States over Taiwan and a number of other issues.[4]

U.S. efforts to reassure Beijing of U.S. intentions and Beijing's reassessment of the costs and benefits of its hard line against the U.S. and Taiwan led to the recent thaw in relations. Assessments by U.S and Chinese officials and other specialists suggest that the easing of the crisis is tentative, relations remain in a delicate state, and the outlook for improvement in relations is mixed, at best.

Looking over the events in mid-1995 with the benefit of hindsight and two dozen recent consultations with U.S. and Chinese officials and specialists closely following the course of U.S.-Chinese relations, this report briefly assesses what happened with an eye toward explaining why the PRC reacted so strongly to the Lee visit; what motivated the PRC subsequently to reach a modus vivendi with the U.S. allowing for the Clinton-Jiang summit; what lessons have been learned by officials from both sides regarding U.S. - China relations; and what the events of the past year may mean for U.S.-Chinese relations in the near future.


The U.S. decision despite Chinese objections to allow the Taiwan President to visit the United States mid-1995 not only resulted in the suspended diplomatic and other official ties noted above, but perhaps of more importance it also resulted in a strongly negative view of U.S. policy intentions on the part of Chinese officials, intellectuals and other opinion leaders.[5]

This reinforced existing PRC suspicions that the United States had decided to "contain" China in a new cold war in Asia. For some time, this kind of negative view of U.S. policy has been articulated in private by Chinese government officials, military officers and others.[6] It holds that U.S. Government officials are basically opposed to the rising power of China under Beijing's communist system and are taking a variety of measures in various policy areas, including Taiwan, in order to "hold back" China's power. Events cited by Chinese officials and other opinion leaders to support their view range from recent U.S. statements about the security environment in East Asia and the South China Sea that are seen as directed against China, to the pressure brought by the United States against China's trade practices, human rights policies and proliferation of technology for weapons of mass destruction.

In general, Chinese officials and opinion leaders have maintained that despite lively debate in the United States over many issues in policy toward China, U.S. policymakers were acting as though China's growing power poses a threat to the United States that must be countered by weakening China's strength through security, economic, political, and other measures. Presumably because senior PRC leaders were as yet unwilling to confront the U.S. leadership directly on this question, the top Chinese officials and authoritative government commentary often have refrained from directly accusing the United States of this intent to "hold down" and weaken China. Nevertheless, Chinese officials and intellectuals repeatedly have affirmed in private conversations with U.S. observers that senior Chinese leaders do indeed harbor such sinister views of U.S. intentions.

Many Chinese officials and intellectuals trace the alleged U.S. desire to weaken and hold down China at least to the reevaluation of U.S. policy toward China following the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and the concurrent collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War. At that time, they claim that U.S. leaders took a number of measures in the form of economic, military and political sanctions against China that were designed to help bring down Beijing's communist system. U.S. leaders at this time were not seen as fearful of China's power under Beijing's communist rule; rather, they expected the Chinese regime in a few years time would be swept away by the same forces of history that had just removed their ideological comrades in Europe and elsewhere.

This did not happen as anticipated and the PRC began to grow at a remarkable rate of economic development beginning in 1992 and continuing until the present. China's economic growth was accompanied by greater military power, successful expansion of China's foreign relations and greater self confidence and assertiveness by Chinese leaders both at home and in Asian and world affairs. In response, the Chinese claimed the U.S. began to step up its efforts in a wide range of areas to curb the growth of China's power. From this view, evidence of such U.S. efforts include:

  • Stronger U.S. support for Taiwan, Tibet and Hong Kong as entities separate of PRC control. U.S. support for the Taiwan President's visit and provisions on Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet in recent U.S. foreign policy legislation (e.g. H.R. 1561, S. 908) were viewed as designed to keep the PRC preoccupied with tasks of protecting China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and reduce its ability to exert influence elsewhere.
  • Pressure on Chinese trade and other economic practices. The year 1994-1995 saw strong U.S. efforts to press Beijing to observe intellectual property rights, to open its markets to outside goods and services and to meet strict conditions before gaining entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Chinese leaders apparently saw these steps as being designed to help to keep the PRC economically weaker and less influential that it otherwise would be.
  • Restrictions against military related and other high technology to China and pressure on China to restrict its sales of technology and equipment that could be used for weapons of mass destruction. For example, the United States maintained its own technology restrictions against China and warned others (e.g. Russia) about the dangers of military or military technology sales to China--steps interpreted by Beijing as designed to keep China from becoming militarily stronger.
  • Warnings against Chinese assertiveness in Asia. The Clinton Administration's February 1995 statement about the security environment in East Asia[7] was seen in Beijing as implicitly critical of China's assertiveness and lack of transparency in flexing its military power in the region. At the same time, the Administration articulated a security approach to the region that gave renewed emphasis to Japan as the center of U.S. attention in the face of regional uncertainties--a statement also viewed with some suspicion in China.[8] In May, the Administration stated a stronger position about U.S. interests in the South China Sea--a statement coming after China had caused serious concerns in the region by taking unilateral military action in South China Sea islands claimed by others. Meanwhile, Congress has been considering legislation (H.R. 1561, S. Res. 97) that took aim at China's assertive actions in the South China Sea. Some in Congress have added that the United States should move ahead with full diplomatic relations with Vietnam as a way to counter PRC expansion.[9]

U.S. analysts differed on the importance of such a conspiratorial Chinese view for U.S.-China relations. On one side were those who judged that Chinese government leaders were deliberately and cynically manipulating Chinese opinion mainly for other motives. Thus, Chinese criticism of the United States is seen as part of a broader effort by PRC leaders to use nationalism and nationalistic themes, which enjoy widespread support in China, to fill the ideological void caused by the collapse of world communism and to help shore up the sagging prestige of the PRC leaders in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre. In particular, by associating the policies and practices of the Beijing regime with Chinese nationalism, PRC leaders were able to portray criticism of those policies by the United States and others as affronts to the Chinese nation and the Chinese people. This could have the side affect of alleviating the need to deal with the substance of complaints.

Meanwhile, another perceived ulterior motive of Chinese officials is to put the U.S. side on the defensive. In particular, U.S. officials anxious to restore a meaningful dialogue with China presumably would first be expected to "prove" their intentions with some gestures designed to show the Chinese that their conspiratorial view of U.S. policy was not correct. Of course, such gestures would involve unilateral U.S. steps of benefit to China. Chinese leader were said to have used similar techniques against Japan in the 1970s and 1980s--whipping up sometimes strident campaigns against Japan's alleged "militarist" designs against China and the rest of Asia until Japan agreed to several billions of dollars of grants or low interest loans for China. Once the money was promised, the charges against Japanese "militarism" subsided.[10]

A very different view comes from U.S. analysts who see the Chinese leaders conspiratorial view of U.S. policy as misguided but genuine. They believe it has reflected the mix of U.S. pressures on China, the suspicious view of the outside world of many Chinese leaders and the pressures of domestic Chinese politics during a period of leadership succession. The latter pressures were thought to incline PRC leaders to adhere to more narrow, somewhat chauvinistic views of foreign powers, especially those like the United States with an ability to threaten Chinese interests. They argue that this Chinese perception has now reached a point where PRC leaders are convinced that the U.S. Government was "out to get them" and would almost certainly interpret future U.S. policy actions toward China along those lines.

U.S. specialists with recent extensive contacts with Chinese officials and experts in China and the United States generally have supported the latter view of China's intentions with the following points:

  • The Clinton Administration's reversal on the Lee Teng-hui visit was said to have undermined those in the Chinese leadership arguing for a more moderate approach toward the United States. As most of China's American specialists had reportedly predicted that the Administration would stick to its declared policy and not allow Lee to visit, they were discredited when the U.S. President reversed policy and allowed Lee to come. The way was then open for advocates of a more suspicious view of U.S. intentions to pursue a harder line toward the United States.
  • The Administration's reversal also prompted most PRC specialists on the U.S. to "play it safe" and go along with the strongly negative view of U.S. policy at the time, even though they may not personally have agreed with the negative view.
  • Finally, Lee's determination to visit the U.S. appeared to undermine PRC President Jiang Zemin's efforts in January 1995 to encourage a dialogue with Taiwan's leaders on the basis of a flexible sounding PRC eight-point proposal. In the view of PRC specialists, Jiang's "flexible" approach on Taiwan was now seen as naive, as PRC leaders began to view Lee Teng-hui as determined to pursue Taiwan's independence from the mainland.[11]


Despite repeated Clinton Administration efforts to reassure Beijing that the United States Government was not attempting to contain or hold back China's development, Chinese officials remained unmoved during June and July 1995. At the time, Beijing indicated that only "concrete" action by the United States Government--at minimum a pledge by the Clinton Administration that it would not give a visa to other senior Taiwan leaders--would allow U.S.-China relations to go forward. To underline the point, Beijing called home its Ambassador, refused the U.S. offers to send Under Secretary of State Tarnoff to China for talks, and rebuffed reported U.S. queries about a possible U.S.-China summit. Beijing also escalated political and military pressure on Taiwan and Lee Tenghui in particular. These pressures included the most provocative military exercises in the Taiwan area and the most hostile rhetoric against a Taiwan leader seen in over 20 years.[12]

The tough PRC approach continued until the August 1 meeting between Secretary of State Christopher and Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen in Brunei.[13] Chinese officials saw no particular accommodation by Christopher of Chinese demands on Taiwan, as the Secretary confirmed to the world media that the United States was not prepared to promise to prohibit senior Taiwan visitors from traveling in a private capacity to the United States. Some Chinese officials did point to reassurances contained in U.S. communications, including a letter from President Clinton to Chinese leaders, reaffirming past U.S. policy on Taiwan. In any event, Chinese officials and commentary soon adjusted their view of the United States to allow for some forward movement in U.S.-PRC relations. Significant steps included:

  • Private acknowledgement by several Chinese officials in the United States that the U.S. Government is indeed not working to contain China, even though these same officials judged that senior leaders in Beijing continued to believe this theory.[14]
  • Strong efforts by officials of the PRC Embassy in Washington and other PRC officials to build better ties with Congress. Senior Chinese leaders in Beijing went on record strongly endorsing interaction with Congress, with Foreign Minister Qian stating on August 18 that "China is willing to increase contacts and exchanges with the U.S. Congress and welcomes more U.S. congressmen to visit China."[15]
  • China's agreement to the previously rebuffed visit by Under Secretary Tarnoff and to move ahead similarly with plans for a U.S.-China summit.
  • China's publicly acknowledged willingness--for the first time--to consider the appointment of former Senator James Sasser as Ambassador to China.[16] Beijing's refusal to consider the appointment had stalled the nomination for many months. China also decided to return its Ambassador to Washington following his withdrawal in June.

Meanwhile, China improved the overall atmosphere in U.S.-China relations by releasing detained human rights activist Harry Wu after his conviction in August--a step that eased the way for First Lady Hilary Clinton to attend the International Women's Conference in Beijing in September.

China's more moderate approach to the United States stood in marked contrast to Beijing's continued harsh pressure against Lee Teng-hui. In effect, Chinese officials and media now acknowledged that Lee's visit reflected more the strong desire of Lee and others in Taiwan to assume a greater role in international affairs than it did a U.S. conspiracy to use the "Taiwan card" to check the growth of Chinese power and influence.

A sharply worded New China News Agency commentary of August 22 provided the most authoritative justification up to that time of Beijing's shift toward more moderation toward the United States.[17] At one level, the commentary was harshly critical of "hegemonists" in the U.S. media and elsewhere who had brought Sino-U.S. relations to their "lowest ebb" in 16 years. (U.S. media reaction to the Chinese commentary focused on the harsh anti-U.S. rhetoric in the piece.)[18] In fact, however, the Chinese commentary differentiated between the so-called U.S. "hegemonists" in the media (Time magazine, the New York Times and the Washington Post were specifically mentioned), and "quite a few sensible people" in the United States who oppose the containment strategy advocated by the "hegemonists." The commentary clearly implied that the Clinton Administration was among the "sensible people" and that the hegemonists in the media and elsewhere were becoming increasingly "unpopular" in the United States. The commentary did not link Congress with one side or the other in the American debate.

Chinese officials privately offered a somewhat different rationale for China's shift and also provided a somewhat more optimistic outlook for U.S.-China relations. One official returned from many weeks of consultations in Beijing and privately advised that at the PRC leadership meetings in August 1995 at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, senior Chinese leaders reportedly reconfirmed their view that the United States Government may be conspiring to contain China. But these officials also recognized China's need for a workable relationship with the United States. Thus, while suspicious of U.S. intentions, and determined to resist any perceived U.S. efforts to "contain" China, Chinese leaders recognized a need for China to work pragmatically with the United States in areas of importance to China. The official added that Chinese leaders recognize that at present "China needs the United States more than the United States needs China."[19]

Another Chinese official specializing in Sino-American relations assessed the situation this way in August, 1995. Since the United States refused to provide Beijing with the concrete action it sought on Taiwan, there would remain a certain coolness and distance in the U.S.-PRC relationship for some time to come. Nonetheless, Beijing would move forward in areas of Sino-American relations where it saw important advantage for China."[20] The official was cautiously optimistic about the outlook for the visit of Under Secretary of State Tarnoff and for the proposed summit meeting between President Clinton and President Jiang Zemin, even though he acknowledged that no substantial "breakthrough" in bilateral relations appeared likely.

Subsequent reports by Chinese officials and official media in fall 1995 along with observations by some prominent U.S. officials and experts with close contacts with China, pointed to Chinese President Jiang Zemin's rising power and influence in the Chinese leadership, especially following a series of important Chinese leadership meetings in August-September 1995.[21] Some Chinese officials' private descriptions of the Chinese policy deliberations at those meetings asserted that Jiang strongly defended a moderate PRC stance toward the United States and was successful in achieving a consensus behind such a stance despite deeply felt skepticism and criticism from other Chinese leaders urging a harder line toward the United States.

U.S. officials and specialists knowledgeable of the negotiations leading to the Clinton-Jiang summit are careful to note that China's changed posture toward the United States was not merely a Chinese retreat toward a more realistic posture in line with Chinese interests. From their perspective the Chinese reaction to the Lee Teng-hui visit had achieved several PRC objectives, notably:

  • It had intimidated Taiwan, at least temporarily, from taking further assertive actions to lobby in Congress and elsewhere for greater international recognition.
  • It had prompted second thoughts by some pro-Taiwan advocates in the U.S. Congress as to the wisdom of pursuing their agenda at this time.
  • It had resulted in heightened sensitivity by the Clinton Administration regarding PRC policy toward Taiwan, including official U.S. assurances to the PRC that any future visits by Taiwan leaders would be only under exceptional circumstances.[22]
  • It had caused at least some pro-independence advocates in Taiwan to reassess their previous claims that the PRC was bluffing regarding its warnings against Taiwan independence; and to adjust their claims that a PRC attack on Taiwan, even if prompted by a unilateral Taiwan declaration of independence, would result in U.S. military intervention on the side of Taiwan.
  • It had dampened the enthusiasm of some international officials to have their governments follow the U.S. lead in granting greater recognition to Taiwan's government and leader.


Chinese officials and specialists consulted in recent months have gleaned several lessons from the crisis over Taiwan. On the one hand, many in China recognize that Beijing appeared to overplay its hand in pressing the United States for "concrete" pledges against Taiwan official visits and in pressing Taiwan people to abandon Lee Teng-hui in favor of a leader more committed to reunification with the mainland. Beijing also appeared to recognize that accusing the United States of attempting to contain China and shunning dialogue with the U.S. until the U.S. proved otherwise merely strengthened the hands of those U.S. officials who are deeply suspicious of or hostile to the Chinese government and weakened the arguments of U.S. officials in the Clinton Administration and Congress who argue for a more flexible and moderate U.S. approach to China. Given China's perceived need to sustain a working relationship with the United States for the foreseeable future, Beijing officials have tried through President Jiang's meeting with President Clinton and other means to find and develop common ground in U.S.-China relations while playing down bilateral differences to some degree.

In the wake of the October 24 summit meeting, Chinese officials have privately made known China's interest in sustaining a "smooth" relationship with the U.S. in general and the Clinton Administration in particular. Some Chinese and U.S. officials aver that whereas Beijing appeared prepared in mid-1995 to freeze contacts with the Clinton Administration, awaiting the results of the 1996 U.S. elections, Beijing now appears to have judged that endeavoring to work constructively with the current U.S. Government is in China's best interests. In particular, U.S. and Chinese officials say that Beijing now sees the prospect of a possibly difficult year ahead in U.S. China policy as a result of initiatives from a wide array of critics of the Chinese government in the U.S. Congress and the media; and the possibility that China policy may become a contentious issue in the 1996 Presidential campaign, with possible negative impact on China's interests. As a result, they believe Beijing has decided to attempt to work more closely with the Clinton Administration.

Beijing also appears determined to do a better job of working with the U.S. Congress, with Jiang Zemin telling U.S. reporters in mid-October that lobbying Congress would be an important priority in the year ahead and Chinese specialists also saying that the PRC will put more effort into winning greater understanding and support from other U.S. sectors, notably the media and business.[23] Meanwhile, Chinese officials and specialists often acknowledge privately that Beijing's strident invective against Lee Teng-hui has generally served to strengthen Lee's political support on Taiwan. After a while, they aver, China will need to adjust its hard line in order to allow resumption of dealings with the Taiwan leader.

On the other hand, Chinese officials and specialists are careful to emphasize how delicate is the current status of U.S.-Chinese relations and how concerned they are with what they perceive as unpredictable U.S. policy on sensitive issues like Taiwan. Many Chinese leaders and specialists remain fundamentally suspicious of U.S. intentions toward China. Others who are more flexible and moderate toward the United States nonetheless have little confidence that the U.S. Government will adhere to a policy approach on sensitive issues like Taiwan that will avoid a future crisis in relations. In the view of some of these moderates, the U.S. Government lacks clear sense of priorities in policy toward China in particular and foreign policy in general. As a result, issues are seen to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, which makes it hard to predict what the ultimate outcome of U.S. policy might be on specific issues. The Clinton Administration's reversal on the Lee Teng-hui visit was said to represent just such a phenomenon and thus Chinese specialists warn that without a clear sense of order and priorities in U.S. policy toward China, similar reversals could occur in the future with possibly very negative results for U.S.-China relations.


Clinton Administration officials and many in Congress acknowledge that Beijing's harsh response to the Lee Teng-hui visit took them by surprise and that the United States will need to be more careful in dealing with Taiwan related issues in the future. Inasmuch as the Administration had been opposed to the Lee visit and had bowed to congressional pressure in allowing him to come, the effect of the PRC actions on congressional attitudes appears most important in determining U.S. policy on sensitive issues like Taiwan, at least for the near future.

On the one hand, some congressional officials acknowledge that Congress has "pulled back" on Taiwan related issues in order to avoid antagonizing the PRC at this time. In part this reflects greater discretion by the Taiwan government, which has adopted a much lower profile on Capitol Hill in the second half of 1995 than it did in the first half. In part, it reflects greater sensitivity by many Members and staff who follow China-Taiwan issues to the need for more discretion in order to avoid difficulties and dangers in the U.S.PRC-Taiwan triangular relationship. A case in point cited by several congressional observers is a resolution, H. Res. 63, expressing support for Taiwan's representation in the UN. Such resolutions have been passed in the past, but this one is seen as delayed on account of the judgement by some in Congress that raising and passing the resolution at this time would be disruptive and counterproductive for U.S. interests in relations with China and Taiwan.

On the other hand, some congressional observers not normally associated with a hard line vis-a-vis China have also become more rigid on U.S policy toward China as a result of Beijing's mid-year outburst over Taiwan. Some suspect that Beijing was attempting to use extraordinary means, including the provocative use of military force, to not only intimidate Taiwan but also to intimidate the United States to give concession on U.S. relations with Taiwan. Others are less certain of PRC motives. In general, however, these congressional observers judge that the United States Government needs to stand firmly on Taiwan and related issues. In effect, the PRC mid-year actions were seen as a test of U.S. resolve and a probe for weakness against an Administration seen by some as less than rigorous in its adherence to specific policy lines. As a result, this bipartisan group of Members and staff have urged that the President not appear to be "rewarding" the PRC "temper tantrums" over the Taiwan issue.

They generally believe that the United States was within its rights under agreements with the PRC to allow the Taiwan President to visit Cornell University in a private capacity. Some go on to assert that the Administration did not respond strongly enough to the PRC military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and they are determined that the U.S. government should avoid any appearance of deference to what they view is unwarranted PRC demands backed by disruptive and destabilizing PRC actions over the Taiwan issue.


While the sense of crisis that surrounded U.S.-China relations has eased to some degree, most observers consulted are pessimistic about significant progress in relations over the next year. They offer several reasons:

  • PRC Leadership. President Jiang Zemin has recently strengthened his position in the PRC leadership and has associated himself with a more moderate line toward the United States. Jiang presumably would benefit from improvement in U.S.-PRC relations, but his room for maneuver in coming up with PRC policy initiatives that might encourage forward movement appears constrained. In particular, PRC officials remain deeply suspicious of the United States and have generally adopted the position of the aggrieved party in the relationship. Thus, U.S. positive moves toward China in the recent past (e.g. the 1994 decision delinking U.S. Most Favored Nation tariff status and China's human rights practices[24] have not elicited positive PRC responses. Rather Beijing officials have tended to portray these U.S. decisions as the U.S. unilaterally "righting a wrong" that requires no positive response from them.
  • U.S. Leadership. President Clinton is seen as even more tentative than President Jiang Zemin in associating himself with a more positive approach to U.S.-China relations. Reportedly reflecting his own thinking and the conflicting political pressures he receives from within the Administration and Congress, the President is seen as reluctant to move forward with the PRC in substantial ways without some solid evidence of forward movement on the part of China. In particular, congressional opinion on China remains skeptical and resistant of signs of U.S. concessions, thereby restricting the President's room for maneuver. Officials in the President's own party further judge that the President also may be reluctant to move forward significantly with China lest his political opponents use such actions in the 1996 campaign in ways similar to candidate Clinton's attacks on President George Bush in 1992.
  • Taiwan's Policy. A key variable in the next few months remains Taiwan. Some in the Clinton Administration and Congress judge that if the Taiwan government were to revert to a stronger lobbying effort in late 1995 or 1996, the Taiwan government would be able to garner sufficient congressional support for actions likely to strongly impact the PRC. These include congressional support for Taiwan's entry into the United Nations, support for higher technology U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan, and/or support for another visit by a Taiwan leader to the U.S. At present, Lee Teng-hui and his administration remain relatively low key on these issues, but circumstances could change.
  • Other U.S.-China Disputes. Because of the wide range of human rights, trade, weapons proliferation, territorial and other sensitive issues in U.S.-China relations, officials and specialists consulted for this study were less than optimistic that disputes would not arise in some of these areas in ensuing months. China's missile sales to Pakistan, congressional legislation dealing with U.S.China differences, and the rapidly rising U.S. trade deficit with China were among issues seen as possible focal points of potentially acrimonious debate in late 1995 and 1996.

1. For background see China-U.S. Relations, CRS Issue Brief 94002.

2. New York Times, October 25, 1995.

3. In addition to sources noted in specific footnotes, this report is based heavily on interviews and consultations with 25 U.S. and Chinese specialists and others with close associations with Chinese and U.S. approaches leading up to the Clinton-Jiang summit. To encourage them to be as frank as possible in the interviews, it was agreed that their remarks would not be for attribution.

4. For background, see CRS Report 95-727S, and CRS Report 95-750S.

5. For details on China's breaking off of contacts with the United States and other reaction to the Taiwan President's visit, see Sutter, Robert, China Policy: Managing U.S.-PRC-Taiwan Relations After President Lee's Visit to the U.S., CRS Report 95-727S, June 19, 1995, 5p.

6. This finding is based on interviews and in-depth consultations with 60 Chinese specialists during two visits to China in 1994; consultations with 30 Chinese specialists who have visited the United States over the last two months; and consultations with 25 U.S. specialists who have traveled to Beijing in recent years for consultations on U.S.-China relations. For background, see CRS General Distribution Memorandum Sino-U.S. Relations: Status and Outlook-Views from Beijing, August 15, 1994.

7. U.S. Department of Defense, United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region, Washington, February 1995, 32p.

8. Washington Post, February 19, 1995.

9. These latter events are reviewed in CRS Issue Briefs 94002 and 93081.

10. See among others, Allen Whiting, "Sino-Japanese Relations," World Policy Journal, V. 8, Winter 190-91, p. 107-134.

11. For background on PRC-Taiwan relations, see CRS Report 95-968S.

12. For background see, CRS Issue Brief 94002, China-U.S. Relations and CRS Issue Brief 94006, Taiwan.

13. Los Angeles Times, August 2, 1995.

14. Consultations, Washington, DC and/or New York, August 23, 25, and 28, 1995.

15. New China News Agency, August 18, 1995.

16. Radio Beijing, August 2, 1995.

17. New China News Agency, August 22, 1995.

18. See for example, "China Bitterly Attacks Critics in U.S.", the Washington Post, August 24, 1995.

19. Consultations, Washington, D.C., August 29, 1995.

20. Consultations, New York, August 8, 1995.

21. Consultations, Washington, DC, October 17, 1995.

22. Interviews, Washington, D.C., November 9, 13, 1995.

23. U.S. News and World Report, October 23, 1995, p. 72.

24. See CRS Issue Brief 94002 for background. For background see CRS Issue Brief 93114. Beijing's arrest of prominent dissident Wei Jingsheng soon after President Jiang's meeting with Vice President Gore in Osaka Japan in November 1995 seemed to illustrate conflicting trends influencing China's policy toward the U.S.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list