Behind America's Confusing China Policy

  • Share
  • Read Later
Rebuking China's human rights record may have become an essential part of selling a China trade deal on Capitol Hill, but that doesn't mean Beijing has to play ball. The U.S. suffered an embarrassing defeat in the U.N. Human Rights Commission Wednesday, when the international body voted in support of Beijing to table Washington's resolution condemning Chinese abuses. Despite a U.S. lobbying campaign that began in January — and included a rare personal appearance by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright before the commission in Geneva — Beijing's motion was supported by 22 countries and opposed by only 18, with 12 abstentions.

In the bigger picture, of course, such resolutions are mostly harmless international name-calling — Beijing was never going to mimic the histrionics of Havana, which held mass official demonstrations Wednesday against criticism by the U.N. commission — but the vote may be a bellwether of international sentiment on China. Washington's failure to rouse a majority for castigating China suggests that the international community is increasingly unwilling to manage its relationship with Beijing through the prism of U.S. concerns, and that gives China plenty of room to maneuver. Even Washington's closest international ally, Israel, has rebuffed U.S. efforts to stop it from selling China an advanced airborne radar system.

Of course, in pointing to China's deteriorating human rights situation over the past year, particularly in respect of repression of religious activities, the State Department may risk raising questions about the basic premise of U.S. "engagement" with China — that trade with the West and economic reform will have a liberalizing effect on Chinese society. Then again, even if Washington had succeeded in orchestrating a nasty wrist-slap of Beijing by a U.N. talk shop, it might not have significantly altered the prospects for passing the China trade deal on Capitol Hill. After all, while they cite concerns over human rights abuses, most congressional opponents of the trade deal are out to protect the jobs of the hardworking folks back in the district from competition by Chinese sweatshops. In other words, like the "engagement" policy itself, the anti-China trade lobby is motivated, for the most part, by enlightened self-interest.