How to Talk to China

Posted on September 19, 2012


The policy of the Obama administration toward China has been a failure. Secretary Clinton’s recent trip was a reminder of this, because it was filled with friction and achieved very little. Here is an account from the Los Angeles Times:

In a short, frustrating visit to Beijing, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was stood up Wednesday by the future leader of China and delivered a stern lecture on China’s rights in the South China Sea…..During the third stop in her nearly two-week sweep of Asia, Clinton had hoped to meet with Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to get the nod next month to succeed Hu Jintao as China’s president. Xi also canceled meetings Wednesday with the Singapore prime minister and Russian officials, claiming a back injury. Nonetheless, the no-show at the session with Clinton was widely interpreted as a snub.

In advance of the visit, Chinese state media lashed out at Clinton, ridiculing what it said were her efforts to maintain American “hegemony” in the Pacific. Beijing particularly resents U.S. efforts to mediate China’s competing claims with neighbors — Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, in particular — to barren islets and reefs around its waters.

On Wednesday, Clinton reiterated a proposal for a code of conduct to help countries resolve such disputes. But she was shot down by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi during a joint news conference in the Great Hall of the People.

What is striking about this policy failure is that comes even though the administration has for four years gone out of its way to avoid criticizing China’s severe human rights violations. During Hu Jintao’s visit to the White House, human rights as a topic virtually disappeared.

The Dalai Lama was famously led out of the White House through a side entrance where he had to dodge garbage bags. Of course the administration says it talks to the Chinese about human rights, but that tells us little; having something on a lengthy agenda, without any particular emphasis, would signal to the Chinese that it has little priority.

When the United Nations Human Rights Council reviewed China’s human rights record earlier this year, Australia and Canada were at the front of the line in offering criticism.  The U.S. delegation was silent.

As early as March 2009, Obama administration policy led the Washington Post toeditorialize that “Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton continues to devalue and undermine the U.S. diplomatic tradition of human rights advocacy. On her first foreign trip, to Asia, she was dismissive about raising human rights concerns with China’s communist government, saying ‘those issues can’t interfere’ with economic, security or environmental matters.”

For all its kowtowing the administration has gained nothing from the Chinese regime except disrespect. A far better approach to China would emphasize American strength, and in fact that argument has been made recently—and in China, directly to Communist Party cadres. Sadly, it was not made by an American official.

Perhaps that should lead us to pay even more attention to the remarks, which were made by Singapore’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Central Party School two weeks ago. Here are four key paragraphs from the section of the speech entitled  “CHINA-US RELATIONS.”

10.     Among China’s external relationships, none is more important than that with the US. This is the most important bilateral relationship for both parties, and for the entire world.

11.     The US will remain the dominant superpower for the foreseeable future. It is currently facing some very difficult problems, but it is not a nation in decline. The US is an enormously resilient and creative society, which attracts and absorbs talent from all over the world, including many from China and the rest of Asia. These new arrivals often integrate successfully into the US and make significant contributions to their society, academia or business. All eight Nobel Prize winners in science who are of Chinese descent either were or subsequently became American citizens. We should never under-estimate the US’ capacity to reinvigorate and reinvent itself.

19.     The US is and will remain an Asia-Pacific power. Chinese leaders have welcomed the US’ presence in the Asia-Pacific. On a visit to the US in May, National Defence Minister GEN Liang Guanglie acknowledged that the Asia-Pacific was big enough to accommodate both the US and China, even though both countries have very different national circumstances, strategic needs and interests.

20.     Singapore believes that the US’ continued presence in the region contributes to Asia’s prosperity and security. The US has legitimate long-term interests in Asia, and plays a role in Asia which no other country can. This is not just because of its military or economic strength, but for historical reasons. In the 60 years since the end of World War II, the US presence has created a peaceful environment which enabled the region to thrive. This is why many Asia-Pacific countries hope that the US continues to contribute to regional peace and stability.

We can only hope that because these comments came from an official of another government rather than an American they will have even greater impact in China. Coming from Mr. Lee, the reminder to the Chinese Communist Party that “All eight Nobel Prize winners in science who are of Chinese descent either were or subsequently became American citizens” might attract more attention, and more thinking about China’s difficulties and America’s strengths, than American policy has managed in years.

Elliott Abrams