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China-US relations

The days of Bush are what China needs

  • Former US president George H.W. Bush, who has died at 94, represented civility, prudence, and graciousness, and used these traits to forge better ties with Beijing during difficult times
PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 7:42pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2018, 11:32pm

The passing of former United States leader George H.W. Bush on the eve of Saturday’s meeting between President Xi Jinping and American counterpart Donald Trump reminded the world of an era in diplomacy that has seemingly disappeared. Civility, prudence, graciousness – they are traits that contributed to him helping his country forge better ties with China and deftly steer it through difficult times on the world stage. Then, relations with allies were cordial and the international order was respected – a far cry from the views held by the present occupant of the White House. Understandably, his death at the age of 94 was met by Beijing with deep condolences and he was accorded the title of an “old friend” of the Chinese people.

China does not easily hand out such accolades; it reserves them for only those who leave a positive mark. Bush did that repeatedly from the early 1970s, breaking the ice after president Richard Nixon’s landmark visit in 1972 by serving as head of the US liaison office in Beijing in 1974 and 1975. He built trust and forged personal ties with Chinese political figures that proved invaluable in later bilateral talks. As vice-president to Ronald Reagan, he was twice assigned to Beijing to handle negotiations over Taiwan and as American leader during the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and the subsequent international backlash, he was instrumental in getting relations back on a steady diplomatic course.

George HW Bush – the foreign policy realist and ‘old friend’ of China

Foreign policy was his great strength and his single term, from 1989 to 1993, also coincided with the reunification of the two Germanies, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the first war with Iraq, during which he played a pivotal role in ejecting Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. He was not so deft on domestic issues, though, and a lacklustre economy led to him not winning re-election. His elder son later served two terms as president, though.

Bush’s kinder and gentler style of politics and diplomacy are what he is remembered for. But the virtues of modesty and dedication have not vanished; they are just not so prevalent under Trump’s bombastic leadership. There is every chance for the US to return to cooperation and multilateralism.