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Human rights must be at the center of U.S.-China policy

President Barack Obama's China policy combines deterrence and engagement, but it gives insufficient attention to human rights. Since early 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that human rights "can't interfere" with other aspects of Sino-American relations, the administration has tried to avoid public discussion of the issue.

Over the past year, the Obama administration has increased attention and resources devoted to East Asia. Expanded military cooperation with Australia and the Philippines, a robust Japanese-American defense relationship, and enhanced naval and air forces in the region illustrate Washington's efforts to counter China's growing assertiveness and military power. Human rights, however, has been left out of this regional effort.

Attempts at engagement were on display last week when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner and a host of high-level American officials traveled to China for the fourth round of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Each side promised to increase economic integration, scientific exchanges and environmental cooperation. Human rights have not been a significant part of these meetings. When the two sides do discuss human rights, the talks are held separately and are led by lower-level officials.

The Obama administration's strategy was nearly overwhelmed by Chen Guangcheng, a blind, self-taught lawyer from Shandong Province. Because of Mr. Chen's efforts to obtain justice for the victims of China's coercive family planning policies, local officials harassed, confined and brutalized him and his family for years. Beijing tacitly approved these actions. Mr. Chen made a daring escape to the United States Embassy, and his plight brought renewed attention to human rights violations in China. American and Chinese diplomats rushed to forge an agreement to ensure Mr. Chen's safety prior to the dialogue meetings. The agreement did not provide adequate protection for Mr. Chen, and the resulting recriminations only increased tensions. Now, a new agreement may enable Mr. Chen and his family to leave China to study in the United States. Whether Washington likes it or not, the fate of Mr. Chen and other dissidents now dominates Congressional, media and public attention.

For several reasons, human rights must remain a significant part of America's China policy:

•First, enhancing America's military capabilities in the region may be necessary, but it is not sufficient. Simply reacting to China's military build-up will create an arms race that no one wants. Through greater attention to human rights, the United States can focus on what it is for, rather than whom it is against. Promotion of human rights can be one non-military way to promote regional cooperation.

•Second, when Americans vacillate on human rights, it fosters the idea that the United States and its ideals are in decline. The United States is one of the few nations willing and able to openly rebuke China on human rights or other issues. If support for human rights in China is lukewarm in Washington, it will become almost non-existent elsewhere. Human rights should be a key component of American "soft power."

•Third, when the political party in power (whether Republicans or Democrats) gives short-shift to human rights concerns, it invites criticism from the human rights community and the opposition party. Particularly in an election year, partisan conflict over human rights reduces American credibility on this issue, as many in China can portray American concerns as nothing more than domestic political posturing. A better strategy would be for the administration to show that it is serious about this issue and to seek a bipartisan consensus.

•Fourth, a more systematic high-level dialogue on human right issues in China could help prevent the sort of rushed, ad hoc, negotiations that have made the Chen Guangcheng incident so potentially explosive. China's President and Communist Party chief Hu Jintao and its probable future leader, Xi Jinping, will probably object to any effort to raise the profile of human rights concerns. However, the risk that the next dissident seeking United States protection will spark a crisis makes it worthwhile to push this issue. The onus should be on Beijing to reject these talks.

Secretary Clinton should include discussions on human rights in the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings. Further, she should lead these discussions. Greater attention to human rights will provoke short-term anger from the Beijing government, but it will garner long-term benefits. China's leaders will have a more realistic understanding of American views, and the United States can show its allies that China policy is built on more than military power and immediate economic benefits.

Steven Phillips, a professor of history at Towson University, is currently on sabbatical and living in Taiwan. His email is sphillips@towson.edu.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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