After the end of the Cold War and victory over Iraq the focus of administration foreign policy changed from maintaining a military-strategic position to expanding trade on favorable terms. Bush worked hard for that objective, concentrating on China and Japan.
Bush's first foreign visit, in February 1989, a month after his inauguration, was to China. He met with Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping and Premier Li Peng. But the visit was marred when the Chinese blocked dissident Fang Lizhi, a distinguished scientist, from accepting President Bush's invitation to a banquet. The incident was a portent of trouble to come. Throughout the spring of 1989 ever-larger crowds of students in Beijing demonstrated against the government. In May, Premier Li Peng declared martial law. A half a million protesters marched in Shanghai while students in Beijing erected a "Goddess of Democracy" modeled on the American Statue of Liberty in Tiananmen Square. The bloody climax came on 3 and 4 June when the Chinese government responded with the clank of tanks and the rattle of gunfire—while television carried the scene around the world. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters were killed and wounded.
In public, President Bush joined the American people in condemning the Chinese government's actions. He suspended military sales to China and agreed to provide asylum for Fang Lizhi and his wife in the American embassy. The State Department advised Americans to leave Beijing, evacuated the dependents of diplomatic personnel, and recommended that international financial organizations postpone consideration of loan applications from China. The Bush administration suspended all high-level contacts between American and Chinese officials. Secretly, however, Bush dispatched National Security Adviser Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Eagleburger to Beijing to say that the United States remained interested in good relations. The implicit message was that the Chinese leadership should realize that the administration's measures in response to the Tiananmen events were temporary and connected with American politics.
A crucial question in Chinese-American relations was the continuation or suspension of China's unfettered right to export to the United States. The term for this right, "most favored nation" status (MFN), is somewhat misleading in that it does not confer any special privileges, but only distinguishes states with which the United States has good commercial relations. The withdrawal of MFN was favored by human rights activists and a majority in Congress as a means of punishing China for the human rights violations so vividly symbolized by the Tiananmen massacre. Bush disagreed and fought off congressional pressure to restrict trade, twice vetoing punitive measures. He argued that the best way to encourage reform in China was to have a thriving trade, and that cutting off trade would hurt both the American economy and Chinese men and women who were not responsible for human rights violations.
United States relations with Japan were plagued during the Bush presidency by the perennial problem of unbalanced trade. Japan sold far more to the United States than it purchased and, from the American point of view, used unfair tactics to exclude American products from the Japanese market. The Bush administration continued a twenty-year-old ritual of complaint and negotiation after which the Japanese would appear to make small concessions. The trade imbalance grew worse. Bush made the trade issue the first topic of discussion on a trip to Japan in January 1992, during which he was accompanied by a bevy of American automobile executives. Alas, he caught a stomach virus and vomited on the Japanese prime minister at an official dinner. That embarrassing incident got more headlines than the substance of the discussions.
Not all policy in Asia involved trade. The issue in the Philippines, an American colony from 1899 to 1946 and ally after that, was the future of the huge U.S. naval and air bases at Subic Bay and Clark Field. Washington had long considered the bases essential for the projection of American power in Asia and had used them heavily during the Vietnam War. Successive Philippine governments valued the rent and economic stimulus the bases provided, although many Filipinos considered the American presence de-meaning and culturally damaging. While negotiations were in progress in June 1991 the eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano severely damaged the bases. In July the negotiators agreed on the terms of a ten-year renewal, but the Philippine senate rejected the agreement. With the Cold War over and the damage from the volcano to confront, the United States no longer considered the bases essential. No effort was made to persuade the Philippine senate to reconsider. On 24 November 1992 the bases were turned over to the Philippine government, ending a near century of American presence.
Bush moved cautiously toward improved relations with Communist Vietnam. Even though American combat in Vietnam ended in 1973, the war left a bitter legacy, especially among those who believed that the Hanoi government was not providing all possible information on American soldiers missing in action (MIA) during the war. The political intensity of the MIA lobby deterred Bush from lifting the prohibition on trade with Hanoi and establishing diplomatic relations. He did authorize the beginning of discussions. Trade and full diplomatic relations were opened by the Clinton administration in 1994–1995.