By Steven Phillips
12:31 p.m. EDT, May 7, 2012
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.
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For several reasons, human rights must remain a significant part of America's China policy:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.