The release of Wei Jingsheng, China's most famous dissident, will renew debate on human rights in China when Congress reconvenes in January.
Before adjourning, the House passed the omnibus Political Freedom in China Act, with several initiatives to pressure Beijing. A similar bill is before the Senate. Both propose a "Helsinki Commission" for Asia, to target China's human rights record.
The Helsinki idea, based on the 1975 East-West accords, appeals to the romance that lingers in Washington over the fall of the Berlin Wall. The proponents of an Asian Helsinki model argue that China, like the Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s, would become enmeshed in a web of standards and reporting requirements on human rights.
To be sure, the results of the Helsinki process in Europe were impressive. Country monitoring groups provided a framework, and some degree of protection, for dissidents such as Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia. Havel and other Helsinki monitors rose to national leadership in democratic revolutions of 1989.
In the face of this phenomenon, many in Washington see a universal "quick fix" for authoritarian regimes. In reality, the Helsinki process would be difficult to replicate outside Europe. A wide-ranging multilateral framework requires a level of prior integration. NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the EEC, and COMECON were building blocks for the Helsinki accords.
It was that range that led the Eastern bloc into a blunder of historic proportions in signing the accords. In exchange for cooperation on security and trade, the Soviets reluctantly accepted review of their human rights practices. So great was the miscalculation that it was Moscow, not Washington, that pushed for a Helsinki process.
China has taken pains to learn from the Soviet Union's mistakes, which ultimately led to its demise. And Asian governments are unlikely to adopt a regional initiative whose transparent purpose is to censure an individual nation. The US has failed repeatedly to rally Asian governments behind a resolution criticizing China at the UN Human Rights Commission. Proposing a Helsinki network would be twice as difficult, and twice as doomed.
NOR does Asia have the institutional scaffolding for a Helsinki process. Regional cooperation is emerging, but at a cautious, incremental pace. The ASEAN Regional Forum and the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation organization are closer to dialogues than formal frameworks. Asian governments oppose expanding the reach of either organization, blocking linkage to human rights.
But the greatest flaw in the Helsinki proposal is that it overlooks existing human rights initiatives in Asia. Asian nongovernmental organizations are quietly moving forward with "track two" dialogues and institutions that focus on human rights. These have the potential to expand across the region as political traffic permits.
One example is the ASEAN Human Rights Working Group, represented at the ASEAN meeting last July. The group, made up of government officials and NGO representatives, wants to lay the groundwork for a formal human rights mechanism. US support is important.
To encourage a human rights framework in Asia, the US must demonstrate that it is a Pacific as well as an Atlantic nation. Many of Washington's China critics believe the most effective initiatives are those modeled after cold-war Europe and driven by the US. Yet that is precisely why, structurally and strategically, they will not work in Asia.
* Catharin Dalpino is adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.