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Transformational Diplomacy or Delusion?

by Stanton Jue

A specialist in Chinese-U.S. relations analyses recent statements by arguably the two most powerful women in America today and what that might say about the future course of relations between these two major powers.

We are truly going to rise or fall together
–Hillary Clinton in Beijing in February ‘09

Two powerful American women, one Secretary of State and one Speaker of the House of Representatives visited Beijing in the span of three months, February – May 2009. The tone of their public statements gives a clear and unmistakable signal that the U.S. approach to China may be changing from traditional emphasis on human rights and political freedom to a new tenor and style to manage the hefty issues and challenges facing our two countries.

This shift is apparently based on three assumptions: 1) The traditional approach has not been particularly effective in altering Chinese policy or behavior, 2) the rapid rise of China as an emerging global economic and political power requires a resetting of U.S. foreign policy priority, and 3) a belated recognition of political reality also calls for a softer approach in order to advance the mutual interests of the United States and China in tough economic times.

In February, Hillary Rodham Clinton initiated a new approach to China on her maiden voyage as Secretary of State. She pointedly played down human rights and human dignity issues such as greater freedom for Tibet and other minorities by saying that “we pretty much know what Beijing is going to say.” However, she continued, “We have to continue to press them. Our pressing on those issues cannot interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.” This immediately stirred up consternation and outrage from human rights groups and western media pundits.

The Washington Post editorial (2/24/09) called Clinton’s statements misguided, understating the significance of her public expressions which might adversely affect the life of those fighting for freedom of expressions, freedom of religious rights and other basic liberties,

Over the past many years, each visit to China of an American president or senior officials might result in the release of one or two political dissidents to placate public outcry with no change in policy. I share the view of some observers that the Secretary’s approach to China centered on candor, honesty and realism is right on track, right on target. She created conditions and opportunities for the U.S. and China to address the large issues such as the deepening global economic crisis, energy, environment, climate change, public health, trade, among other issues guided by the principles of shared responsibilities and shared benefits, while recognizing China’s unique and distinct way that shapes its worldview.

As a matter of policy, the Obama administration has openly acknowledged there is no diminution of commitment to human rights and human dignity that is ingrained in American culture. During the presidential primary campaign, he stated a number of times that American security is not more important than human rights … and the two are complementary. The question is basically balance, depending on specific set of circumstances in a given time and place.

In a little noticed but immensely important speech before an influential audience of Chinese and American leaders at the first Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in Washington on July 27, Obama outlined his approach and commitment to a cooperative, constructive and candid relationship with China in the 21st century. He even quoted the China’s great philosopher Mencius, as saying “A trail through the mountains, if used, becomes a path in a short time, but, if unused, becomes blocked by grass in an equally short time.” Our task, said Obama, “is to organize a path to the future …mindful of the journey that we are undertaking together.”

To follow these general principles, Hillary Clinton’s approach really reflects the Obama administration’s central purpose of getting China more involved and to cooperate with us in resolving global economic issues at difficult times. She is one of a few who can decipher and explain complex issues in simple and understandable terms. It is clear, however, that human rights and political freedom remain major elements of U.S. policy and value that must be addressed at appropriate time and manner.

The basic question is how to approach these sensitive issues in international discourse. A highly respected China scholar, David Shambaugh of The George Washington University, recently said, “Foreigners generally get much further when they discuss human rights in quiet rather than in public, when it is framed in a non-confrontational way, and explained in terms of being in China’s best interests.” This sounds logical. Clinton thus has aptly changed the discourse by not lecturing in the belief that Chinese leaders do not believe U.S. government officials necessarily possess greater insight or wisdom on what is a right policy or what is a bad one for China, for they feel they know their country better. End.

Stanton Jue
Stanton Jue

Stanton Jue is a retired U. S. Foreign Service Officer. He had postings in Cambodia, Taiwan, Japan, South Vietnam, South Korea, Australia, and China as well as an extended tour in Washington to help in the reopening of U. S. – China relations. His focus has been on China and U. S. relations with Beijing and Taipei. His articles on China affairs have appeared in the Foreign Service Journal, American Diplomacy, American Journal of Chinese Studies, among others.


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