Michael Posner is the assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, a position he has held for about nine months. Don't feel bad if you have not heard of Mr. Posner, as his issues have not exactly been the top priorities for the current administration's foreign policy team. But unfortunately for Mr. Posner, his media profile has risen quite a bit since a press conference he held last week to mark the close of the U.S.-China bilateral human rights dialogue. In response to a question about whether the controversial Arizona immigration law had been raised by either the Chinese or U.S. side in the course of the human rights talks, Mr. Posner gave the following disturbing reply:

We brought it up early and often. It was mentioned in the first session, and as a troubling trend in our society and an indication that we have to deal with issues of discrimination or potential discrimination, and that these are issues very much being debated in our own society.

The Chinese, who ruthlessly enforce their own immigration laws (just ask the thousands of North Koreans they forcibly repatriate every year), must have found this a curious example of American social ills.

The right-leaning blogosphere, with good reason, lit up Mr. Posner for these ill-considered remarks and the animating spirit behind them, but he was hardly the worst offender last week. The attitude displayed by Mr. Posner was shared by U.S. ambassador to China (and former Republican governor of Utah) Jon Huntsman, who was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune last week saying that the U.S. had "trampled on a couple of China's core interests" by meeting with the Dalai Lama and selling defensive weapons to democratic Taiwan. It was phrasing straight out of the Chinese propaganda playbook.

But in the competition for most detached-from-reality rhetoric about China, Posner and Huntsman were no match for the administration's putative China mastermind -- Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg. Speaking at the Brookings Institution last week on the state of U.S.-China relations, Steinberg was positively gushing about the Obama administration's China policy. Here's a sample:

I think it’s fair to say that if you look back over the last 18 months, this has been a very strong and productive period in U.S.-China relations.

And this:

This is not to say that everything is always perfectly smooth sailing. I don’t think any of us who have dealt with U.S.-China relations would ever expect this to be without its difficulties or the cooperation would be automatic, but I think we’ve demonstrated over time that where there are difficulties, we can work through them, and that when there are differences or disagreements either of goals, but more typically among means, that we can work through them through dialogue by building trust and trying to find common ground, by recognizing that on most of these big issues, the core objectives, the core interests are common between our two countries.

In fact, Steinberg's talk was full of references to "common interests," "common core interests," "common goals," "common and shared vision," and "common objectives." The word "common" actually appeared in his brief remarks 19 times.

Unlike American officials who often have a rather loose allegiance to talking points in even the most formal settings, Chinese officials are very disciplined about using certain terms of art and stock phrases in very deliberate ways, with very specific meanings and connotations. "Core interests" is one of these phrases. The most thorough recent Chinese explanation of their own "core interests" was made by PRC State Councilor Dai Bingguo, at the close of the first U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in last June:

China’s number one core interest is to maintain its fundamental system and state security; next is state sovereignty and territorial integrity; and third is the continued stable development of the economy and society.

Now, China's "fundamental system" is that of an authoritarian dictatorship under the absolute control of the Chinese Communist Party. The references to "state sovereignty and territorial integrity" are code for Chinese control and/or right to exercise dominion over Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. I'm willing to give Deputy Secretary Steinberg the benefit of the doubt that he does not mean to say that the U.S. shares Beijing's interests in preserving China's authoritarian system or its views on the use of force against Taiwan. But Steinberg has been around long enough to know that when he and other officials talk about "common core interests" or "respect for each other's core interests" (as was expressed in the November 2009 U.S.-China joint statement), the Chinese side imports their own understanding -- about which they have been quite clear -- into this phrase. Nobody should be surprised when the Chinese then become enraged by actions the U.S. side considers routine (if irritating), but which the Chinese see as the U.S. breaking promises to respect China's "core interests."

This rhetorical mismatch is one of the main causes of instability in the U.S.-China relationship, and one of the most easily avoidable if U.S. officials would stop using Chinese jargon when talking about American policies and perspectives. Maybe at the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue next week in Beijing, the two sides should take a break from talking about common interests that don't really exist, and start working on a common vocabulary that isn't so loaded.

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