The Corner

Obama’s Fundamental Misconception

The best the defenders of President Obama’s trip to Asia can say at this moment is that the resounding chorus of criticism is premature. Of course, no presidential visit can be fully assessed until months — and sometimes years — after the event.

But the president has united the political spectrum against him for his abandonment of human rights as a central element of the American dialogue with China. The New York Times gently put it this way this weekend: “The American president must always be willing to stand up to Beijing in defense of core American interests and values.” 

What the president does not understand is that American values are American interests. American diplomats tend to separate the two and sometimes think that promoting the former can undermine the latter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton obviously subscribes to this view.  After all, this February she famously said that the issue of Chinese human rights cannot be permitted to “interfere” with important topics of discussion with Beijing. The president, for his part, broke the precedent of the last three administrations and refused to see the Dalai Lama during His Holiness’s trip to Washington early last month. The administration indicated Obama did not want to rile the Chinese before his visit.

What Obama and Clinton fail to comprehend is that America derives its security because of its values. Peoples around the world support our policies precisely because they share our beliefs. And with the Chinese there is another dimension: Beijing’s ruthlessly pragmatic leaders see our failure to press human rights as a sign that we think we are weak. And if they think we are weak, they see little reason to cooperate. So promoting human rights is protecting American security.

Chinese officials were reported to have been ecstatic when Secretary Clinton issued her February remarks. Since then, they have been noticeably less cooperative on the great issues of the day. And in March, just one month after her statement, they felt bold enough to order their vessels to harass two of our unarmed ships in international waters in the South China and Yellow Seas. The Chinese even attempted to sever a towed sonar array from one of the Navy vessels. That hostile act constituted an attack on the United States.

 — Gordon G. Chang is the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World. He lived and worked in China and Hong Kong for almost two decades.

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