The Blog

The Copenhagen Kowtow

Denmark sells out Taiwan and Tibet to advance the green agenda.

11:00 PM, Dec 17, 2009 • By KELLEY CURRIE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

While the U.S.-China tiff at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen was grabbing headlines last week, the conference hosts quietly issued a diplomatic note stating that Denmark "attaches great importance to the view of the Chinese government" on Tibet-related issues, "takes seriously the Chinese opposition" to government meetings with the Dalai Lama, and "will handle such issues prudently." The note also reaffirmed Chinese sovereignty over Tibet and Taiwan in language that sounded as if the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote it. It was quite a diplomatic coup for the Chinese regime, which had spent the better part of the week sabotaging the Copenhagen talks.

The Danes had previously been one of the strongest European supporters of Tibetan and Chinese human rights. In 1997, the Chinese government memorably attacked Denmark for its co-sponsorship of a resolution on China at the then-UN Human Rights Commission, warning that the resolution would "become a rock that smashes on the Danish government's head." But economic and political pressure has been building on successive Danish governments to take a more "pragmatic" approach. Following Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen's May 2009 meeting with the Dalai Lama, the Chinese reportedly froze relations with the Danes, including on climate negotiations.

Denmark's foreign policy and political elite have portrayed this latest move as an entirely sensible response to China's growing power, and a necessary step to keep the "more important" climate agreement on track. In abandoning their long record of strong support for Tibet, the Danes are following the example of nearly every other Western democracy. In an effort to soothe Chinese anger following their meetings with the Dalai Lama, French, German and Canadian leaders have issued similar statements or otherwise downplayed human rights concerns. The leaders of Australia and New Zealand have followed President Obama's example in refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama during his recent visits to their countries, and other nations appear to be doing the same. And the list goes on, with China achieving victory after victory by doing little more than pitching diplomatic hissy fits.

But as one of the last holdouts against China's blackmail diplomacy, Denmark's collapse should be cause for concern and soul-searching about the continued viability of the international human rights system. This is particularly true given China's consistent willingness to hold hostage its cooperation on a range of global public goods and important regional and bilateral issues in order to achieve a virtual blackout of international criticism of its human rights record. The Chinese have long claimed that the West cynically uses human rights as a political tool to contain China's rise. We prove them right every time a Western country abandons its principles by treating human rights issues as bargaining chips to be given away for marginal improvements to a global climate agreement, a heavily qualified promise of support on Iranian nuclear issues, the illusion of access to the Chinese market, or even just an improvement in the "atmospherics" of the relationship.

China's cynical perception will be further validated by the Obama administration's latest articulation of its human rights policy, in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's December 14 speech. By saying repressive dictatorships in Burma and Zimbabwe should be called out for their bad behavior, while explicitly stating that Chinese and Russian abuses will be addressed through "quiet diplomacy," Secretary Clinton's latest remarks on human rights go in exactly the wrong direction.

China well understands and fears the threat posed to its authoritarian system by consistent, principled international objections to its human rights practices--and consequently works hard to disrupt any moves in that direction. The democratic states, on the other hand, seem to chronically undervalue and misunderstand the true strategic value of developing a unified, coherent effort to support human rights in China. Confronted with the moral dilemma presented by close economic and political cooperation with authoritarian China, Western policymakers increasingly choose to disaggregate the Chinese state's treatment of its own citizens from its behavior in the international community. This solipsism allows them to marginalize difficult and awkward human rights issues as unimportant, when in reality--as recent events have shown--there are serious political and economic consequences to giving a free pass to an ever more powerful and authoritarian China.