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Obituary

George H.W. Bush's China connection

Former president instrumental in developing Sino-American relations

Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush died on Friday at the age of 94.    © Getty Images

BANGKOK -- "He was a very good friend of China," said Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador in Beijing, when news arrived of the death of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush on Friday.

Branstad called for a moment of silence on Saturday during a luncheon address to Committee of 100, a nonprofit organization formed in 1990 by Chinese-Americans. It served as a bridge between the two countries in the fallout from the Tiananmen Square incident in June 1989, when the authorities in Beijing killed hundreds of demonstrators.

In a characteristically cautious and pragmatic approach designed to protect developing Sino-U.S. relations, President Bush resisted calls for a punitive response and imposed limited sanctions. Tiananmen was one of the first major tumultuous international events during his sole term, which also saw the end of the Cold War and the First Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991.

The month after Tiananmen, Bush secretly dispatched two top officials -- National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Lawrence Eagleburger, a deputy secretary of state -- to Beijing, but their covert salvage mission was exposed by CNN.

"I know how China works," Bush later told the press. His objective was to "see what we can do -- make a representation of how strongly we feel against the human rights abuse, but see what it's going to take to go forward."

U.S. Vice-President George H. W. Bush, right, and China's top leader, Deng Xiaoping meet in Beijing on Oct. 13, 1985.   © Getty Images

Bush, the 41st U.S. president, served from 1989 to 1993 and failed to secure re-election largely because of a weak domestic economy. He was unusually well acquainted with China, having been posted from 1974 to 1975 as head of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing. Bush and his wife Barbara explored the city on bicycles, and ordinary Chinese who often recognized him called him "Busher."

The Bushes much enjoyed their Beijing interlude, which followed the thaw in Sino-U.S. relations in February 1972, when President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to meet with Chairman Mao Zedong.

Nixon's purpose was to re-establish relations that had been severed after the communist takeover in 1949. During those decades, the U.S. diplomatic mission to China was on the island of Taiwan, which also occupied China's seat at the UN until late 1971.

When Nixon resigned after the Watergate scandal in 1973, the exchange of embassies between Washington and Beijing was shelved. It did not take place until 1979, well into the post-Mao era, when President Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping were in office.

Bush only got to meet an infirm Mao twice, and never met Zhou Enlai, who was by then stricken by lung cancer. Both Chinese leaders died in 1976. Bush's work at the USLO was hard to define, but his unrewarded aim was to encourage the Chinese government to relent on its "One China" policy and accept U.S. relations with both Beijing and Taipei.

This approach was an extension of Bush's efforts as the Nixon-appointed permanent representative to the UN in the early 1970s, when China's return to the organization was being negotiated.

As Washington's permanent representative to the UN, Bush voted to admit the People's Republic of China to the organization.   © Getty Images

In July 1971, Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, traveled secretly from Pakistan to Beijing after feigning illness in Islamabad. The groundbreaking visit was kept so secret that even Bush was unaware. "We were all still working on the Chinese representation question, advocating continued recognition of Taiwan," recalled Anand Panyarachun, Thailand's permanent representative to the UN at the time, and a longtime friend of Bush.

Bush and Kissinger never really got along. "He seems to tyrannize his staff," Bush observed in 1975. "He's disorganized." Bush, nevertheless, was called upon for help during a crisis at the end of the Vietnam War in mid-1975.

The SS Mayaguez, an unarmed American freighter, was captured by the Khmer Rouge off the Cambodian coast. The incident threatened considerable humiliation for President Gerald Ford and Kissinger, and echoed the January 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo naval vessel by North Korea.

Following operation Eagle Pull, in which U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean and his staff were extracted by helicopter from Phnom Penh, the U.S. no longer had any direct diplomatic contact with Cambodia. Diplomatic notes were instead delivered by Bush through the USLO in Beijing.

Bush passed messages to the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the Cambodian legation, but to no effect. The Khmer Rouge released the ship and crew, but a botched rescue attempt had cost the lives of more than 40 U.S. soldiers.

This was followed by the horrors of the Cambodian genocide, and China was unable to extricate itself from its support for the brutal regime until the early 1990s.

Nikkei Asian Review chief business news correspondent Kenji Kawase in Beijing contributed to this report.

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