The Balance has Shifted

For any who may have missed it, Speaker Pelosi has come and gone from China (one among many summary articles; this one from AP via Yahoo News: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090526/ap_on_re_as/as_china_pelosi_12;_ylc=X3oDMTB0cHRwdmExBF9TAzIxNTExMDUEZW1haWxJZAMxMjQzMzMwNzUx) .

The big news:  she kept her focus on the climate change and energy issues that had been bruited as the focus of the trip.  That is to say, she did not publicly raise human rights in any significant way, and this virtually on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen.

THIS IS A VERY BIG DEAL.

Since 1989 Speaker Pelosi has been among the leaders of those in the Congress who have wanted to elevate human rights issues above all other issues in our relationship with China.  In addition to visiting China in 1991 and unfurling a banner in Tiananmen Square, she has made human rights the focus of virtually all her major public statements on China and generally sought to keep this contentious issue front and center in bilateral relations.  On a practical level, she has been among those who have helped ensure that only limited USG cooperation funds could be used for programs with China.  Clearly, her approach has changed dramatically now (and for the better; I don’t know if she raised human rights privately with Chinese officials (my guess is she did), but that is certainly more effective than banners in Tiananmen Square).

But I will go out on a limb and say that the real big deal here is that, 20 years after Tiananmen, US priorities with regard to China have finally and definitively (and appropriately) been reset.  When Hillary Clinton laid out Administration priorities on her first trip to Beijing (cooperation on the economic crisis and climate change/energy) it was not clear that human rights hawks in Congress, esp. Speaker Pelosi, were on board.  We can now be certain she is.

To be clear:  I don’t think Speaker Pelosi (nor the Administration) is swearing off raising human rights issues with Chinese counterparts (nor should they).  Secretary Clinton made that clear in her comments in Beijing and subsequently.  But it makes a difference how you raise such issues (privately is much more effective than publicly) and the context within which you do so (ie, making clear that cooperation on critical global challenges is the centerpiece of the relationship).

However, the balance in the US regarding our approach on human rights has shifted.  With the Speaker of the House of Representatives/one of the leaders on human rights issues with China having recalibrated her approach, I predict that (barring another “Tiananmen-type” incident in China) human rights for the rest of this administration, and beyond, will revert to its appropriate place in the overall bilateral relationship (think about where it was when Nixon pursued his opening to China or when Ronald Reagan authorized the sale of weapons to the PLA).  And it’s about time.

Finally, I’d note that while not intended as a tit-for-tat by the Administration or Speaker Pelosi I would think, the Chinese government will attach importance to this change in approach.  For this reason I believe that, in addition to making our human rights efforts more effective, this recalibration of our approach will also create a better environment for tackling issues of common concern, be it climate change or North Korea.  An added bonus.

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Explore posts in the same categories: China, Environment, Human Rights

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