There’s More to U.S.-China Ties Than Human Rights

<i> Former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger frequently writes for The Times. </i>

The debate evoked by Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher’s visit to Beijing has been too concerned with whether his mission had “failed” to promote human rights. The issue is not whether the United States should abandon its pursuit of human rights altogether, but how to pursue its values in balance with other aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.

The fundamental motivation of U.S. human-rights policy rests deep within American tradition. No other nation has been so explicitly founded to vindicate liberty or been populated as extensively by refugees. This experience has infused U.S. foreign policy with a missionary quality. Other nations need to take this attitude seriously; to most Americans, the national interest cannot be separated from some concern for human rights.

Still, America’s perception of itself as the defender of global human rights is so ingrained that we too often forget how unique this perspective is compared with the way other nations view foreign policy. Every other major country conceives foreign policy as the balancing of risks and rewards to affect the actions of others. What Americans call human rights has generally been deemed to fall within domestic jurisdictions.

While the State Department insists that it is only pressing the Chinese government to live up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fact remains that no other signatory of that document has invoked it in its China policy. In short, the U.S. human-rights approach to China elicits next to no support from most other governments. Not a single Asian nation supports it.


A prickly insistence on sovereignty is a particular attribute of the Chinese government. In China, Western intervention is perceived as an uninterrupted humiliation since the Opium Wars.

To base Sino-American relations entirely on Chinese progress toward human rights will thus mortgage both the underlying relationship as well as progress on human rights. It is also a distortion of reality, since U.S. objectives go beyond human-rights promotion. It has become commonplace to point out that China has the world’s fastest-growing economy and that its population of more than 1 billion represents the single largest market. To exclude the United States from these prospects is not a trivial decision.

More important, Asia is both the most dynamic region of the world and the one with the greatest potential to threaten world peace. Its nations have not developed the patterns of cooperation that emerged in Europe after World War II. Fostering an Asian equilibrium is therefore central to world peace and must be a key objective of U.S. diplomacy.

The United States and China have a parallel interest in equilibrium. China wants the United States to help balance its relationships with powerful neighbors--Japan, Russia and India--until it is strong enough to do so on its own. The United States needs Chinese cooperation on these matters and on a peaceful evolution of the future of Taiwan, on nuclear proliferation in North Korea and on the transfer of weapons technology.


These are the sort of issues that should be key elements of the Sino-American dialogue. If they moved to the center of Sino-American relationships, they would facilitate human-rights issues by providing a strategic context. In the course of their history, China’s leaders have frequently taken account of the special needs of their counterparts provided such an action also served Chinese interests.

The basic challenge remains: If the United States’ interest in China is primarily human rights, the tactic of public pressures is appropriate. And it may even work. There is, however, a high risk of trapping both sides in a choice between capitulation and confrontation. The Administration may be tempted to continue watering down its demands and its penalties until its apparent victories are largely public-relations exercises. The Chinese may repeat their self-inflicted wounds of the 1950s, when they expelled all Soviet advisers for being too intrusive. The victim of such a process will be the American-Chinese political relationship that is key to Asian stability.

An alternative approach would not require the United States to abandon its reduced list of human-rights objectives, though some may have to be modified in the course of negotiations. It does, however, call for clear presidential leadership outlining U.S. purposes and strategy with respect to China. Such a statement needs to set forth the importance attached to U.S.-China cooperation in specific areas and on specific topics; it cannot merely be a shopping list of U.S. priorities. At the same time, such a document could emphasize the need for each side to take into account the special concerns of the other--a phrase Beijing will surely understand as referring to U.S. human-rights concerns. A reduction of public pressures and a broadening of the dialogue will produce a solution compatible with the self-respect of both sides. Specifically:

* China should understand that a concern for human rights in some form is not an Administration idiosyncrasy but inherent in the American value system as expressed in congressional pressures.

* The Administration should recognize that China’s interest in U.S. relations is based on its expectation of cooperation on global or at least Asian strategy. For that objective, it may well be prepared to make human-rights concessions, provided they can be presented as having emerged from its own choice.

* Congress should understand that, beyond a certain point, public pressures tend to produce the opposite of what is intended. Congressional concern has been clearly demonstrated; the Administration should be permitted to pursue it quietly on its own.

* The short-term objective of a renewed Sino-American dialogue should be to achieve sufficient progress to enable the Administration to de-link human rights from most-favored-nation trading status, once and for all. Afterward, the United States would pursue human-rights objectives in a manner compatible with Chinese dignity and via normal diplomatic processes within the context of an overall political and strategic dialogue.

These goals are within reach provided the focus remains on fundamentals, especially on the importance of a constructive, long-term Sino-American relationship for both countries.*