On Sunday, John Brennan commented on the news that Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who made a daring escape from illegal house arrest, had found refuge in the American Embassy in Beijing. “We’re going to make sure that we do this in the appropriate way and that appropriate balance is struck,” the White House chief counterterrorism adviser told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, referring to negotiations with China. The US, he said, would “balance our commitment to human rights” while continuing “to carry out our relationships with key countries overseas.”
How can anything be wrong with a “balanced” approach? Brennan used essentially the same formulation that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton articulated in February 2009. Then, she signaled that the Obama administration would balance human rights concerns with other considerations. The Chinese, taking her comments as a sign of capitulation, went on a foreign policy bender. They even felt emboldened to attack a US Navy vessel in international waters the following month. So the White House should have learned its lesson.
It hasn’t, obviously. But then, no American administration has got its China policy right. Every time there is some “incident” involving that country, American policymakers worry that it will upset relations. Then Chinese leaders throw tantrums to obtain maximum advantage. You would think that after four decades we would have caught on.
We haven’t. Now, everyone seems worried that the Chen matter will derail the two-day Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which begins on Thursday in Beijing with Secretary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and a planeload of American officials. This set of meetings, which stretches back to 2006, has produced little progress, especially considering the effort Washington has devoted. So why should we be concerned that this round of talks might somehow fall apart over Chen? Almost no one was expecting substantial progress from these discussions, anyway.
Nonetheless, the State Department is treating the Chen matter as a crisis. Yes, it is a crisis, but not for us. It is a crisis for China’s Communist Party because it is fracturing at the same time the economy is faltering, the authority of the central government is eroding, the military is breaking free of civilian control, and the Chinese people are engaging in violent protest. In other words, the wheels are coming off.
The country has progressed about as far as it can within its existing political framework. Reagan was right: the nature of these regimes matter. What makes the Chinese one such a human rights abuser at home makes it an irresponsible power abroad. So by defending the human rights of the Chinese people, we are, in a real sense, also defending our national security. It’s time for the Obama administration—and the Republicans, for that matter—to view the Chen incident as an opportunity to discuss the real reasons why we have troubled relations with China’s communist state.