Obama administration officials touted the visit to the United States last week by Communist first secretary Xi Jinping as “relationship building.” Xi is widely expected to succeed Hu Jintao as general secretary next fall and to run China for the next ten years. So he arrived to an agenda that included an Oval Office meeting, an elaborate Valentine’s Day lunch at the State Department, no pesky press conferences, and a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon, an unusual reception for a civilian foreign leader who is not defense minister.
“Relationship building” is just another way of saying “engagement.” Under that theory, which has guided China policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations, process is the point. When things go badly, you can assure yourself that you still have, well, meetings. The administration emphasized President Obama’s frequent meetings with China’s current leader Hu Jintao (“more than ten”) and number two Wen Jiabao (“more than four”). At the same time, to avoid raising expectations—including for the release of political prisoners—the administration underscored that Xi is not the “decision-maker.”
Let’s be clear. The relationship being built with the Chinese government excludes the Chinese people, and glosses over the real economic and strategic challenges that will characterize the U.S.-China relationship in the decades to come.
After China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria’s brutality earlier this month, weibos, China’s Twitter-like microblogs, lit up with messages like, “This government doesn’t represent me” and “Dictator supported dictator.” It is a mistake to think that the Chinese people do not care about democracy, or that they do not notice—and respect—American officials who speak and act in support of Chinese human rights. Beijing’s escalating repression, including the drastic lowering of the threshold for tolerated dissent and the harsh clampdown on Tibetans and Uighurs, oppresses its citizens and prevents political reform. The president and vice president let the Chinese people down last week when they confined themselves to a few bland words on human rights.
Congress did better. Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor hosted a meeting with Xi in which members expressed their concerns about China’s human rights record and denial of religious freedom. A letter regarding the plight of Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer missing or jailed since 2010, was delivered to Xi. Beijing’s obstruction of international diplomacy on Syria and Iran and China’s violation of intellectual property rights were also discussed.
This approach is probably more in line with the views of the American public. Americans are concerned about China’s holding of our debt and about the jobs lost to Chinese factories, but a recent ABC News report suggests Americans care about more than the economy: “Favorable views of China soared to 80 percent in 1989, then plummeted to half that a year after its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square” and have not changed much since.
A China policy that does not reflect American values from a president who is not willing to assert those values cannot be sustained. The Obama administration has, with much fanfare, announced an “Asia pivot” to shore up security in the Far East. Some in Asia are skeptical that Washington is serious about remaining a Pacific power. Cuts in the defense budget have created a credibility gap. But even with adequate defense spending and a strategic commitment to the Pacific, if the “pivot” is to be taken seriously, the president will have to articulate an approach to China that is honest about the values gap between the current Chinese leadership and the United States and our democratic allies in Asia.
The Obama administration missed an opportunity to do this during Xi’s visit. But at least it chalked up another meeting with a Chinese leader.