What Obama should tell China's President Hu: No, you can't

Because of economic interests, Western governments have too long given China a pass on a litany of egregious global and domestic abuses. But increasing Chinese aggression can no longer be ignored. When President Hu arrives next Tuesday, Obama must draw a line in the sand.


It is time for an honest reckoning with China. That’s what President Obama should tell President Hu Jintao when he visits the US next week.

For 30 years, far from “containing” China, the United States and the West have supported its economic and military development and granted it diplomatic respectability. But Beijing has failed to reciprocate by meeting international norms and behaving like a responsible stakeholder.

Yet we continue to give China the benefit of the doubt as it offers a litany of excuses: It needs more time. It has a huge population. It is a Confucian society. It suffers from a history of Western humiliation. The Chinese people care more about prosperity than political or religious freedoms.

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Many American experts, in and out of government, buy into this catalogue of Chinese complaints and rationalizations. With that assured buffer, Beijing stays relentlessly on its course, using the international order when it benefits China, ignoring or actively undermining what it finds inconvenient.

China's abuses at home and abroad

China games the global economic system by labor exploitation, environmental degradation, currency manipulation, mercantilist trade practices, technology and intellectual property theft, and cyber-sabotage.

It props up regimes in North Korea and Burma (Myanmar); uses the Security Council to protect other international outliers like Iran, Zimbabwe, and Sudan, and proliferates weapons of mass destruction and missile technology through a global network of anti-Western powers.

It threatens democratic Taiwan with inevitable war if it does not “peacefully” yield to Communist rule. It aggressively asserts legally baseless claims in the South China Sea and other international waters.

It has created an alternative development model to subvert the World Bank and other international financial institutions. It offers African and other Third World countries easy money unencumbered by accountability, transparency, or labor and environmental standards.

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China crushes Tibetan and Uighur minorities, persecutes Christians and Falun Gong, censors the Internet, jails democracy advocates like Nobel Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo, and bullies the international community for honoring him – the same nations it persuaded to award Beijing the 2008 Olympics with false promises of political reform.

Has China really changed in 60 years?

President Nixon called his historic opening to Communist China “a strategic gamble.” He and his successors hoped engagement with the West would gradually soften the regime’s implacable ideological hostility.

Beginning in the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping scrapped Marxist-Maoist economics, eventually improving the lives of many Chinese. But when students and workers took the promises of democracy too seriously, the tanks and guns of the People’s Liberation Army brutally settled the issue in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989.

Sixty years on, China’s Leninism still brooks virtually no political competition, deviation, or dissent.

As the world has learned tragically, governments that abuse their own citizens also threaten their neighbors. Lacking domestic legitimacy, they hold power by cultivating a sense of nationalist grievance. China has long mastered this technique, conjuring up external threats to justify its massive military buildup.

Why economics trumped human rights

For all this, Western governments have given China a pass by allowing economics to trump human rights as cheap labor and a vast potential market attracted investment and trade. Now that China’s increasingly aggressive behavior has finally highlighted a military danger ignored in the quest for profit, its ownership of massive US debt is seen as inhibiting clear and decisive policies. But it should not. Dumping US Treasuries and crashing the dollar would scuttle China’s own economy.

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President Obama cannot turn all this around in one meeting. But he can lay out a new framework for US-China relations, based on candor and resolve to protect US national interests and those of our friends and allies.

Obama must draw these lines

Beijing doesn’t hesitate to declare its “red lines” and “core interests”; it is time an American president drew a few lines for our side:

Human rights: Our public criticism of China’s lamentable record will be civil but sustained and unapologetic. We call for a democratic China that can be a genuine friend and strategic partner and enable the Chinese people to achieve their full greatness.

Taiwan: To avoid miscalculation in Beijing, the US will help defend democratic Taiwan against Chinese aggression or coercion. Underlining that commitment, we will sell Taipei the state-of-the-art weapons it needs to confront China’s military threat, including the latest F-16 aircraft.

North Korea: We reject China’s argument that it cannot use its huge economic leverage to rein in its close ally. The specter of regime collapse and hordes of refugees flooding into China is disingenuous. That scenario is far more likely if Pyongyang precipitates military conflict with the South (and its ally, the US). A unified and democratic Korean Peninsula is China’s real fear, and it has recklessly encouraged the North’s nuclear blackmail as the way to block it.

Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology: Until China stops selling dangerous materials and knowledge that could fall into terrorists’ hands, the US will shine a light on its actions. The Chinese people are unlikely to feel national pride in their government’s immoral and irresponsible behavior.

No weakened US message

While Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo languishes in a Chinese prison, Mr. Hu will be honored with a lavish state dinner and 21-gun salute when he arrives at the White House next week. Mr. Hu also probably expects to find a politically weakened US leader he can cajole or intimidate into accepting China’s harmful domestic and international conduct.

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But President Obama will have the full support of Republicans, Democrats, and the American people when he tells Hu: No, you can’t.

Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer and previously taught graduate seminars on China-US relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.

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