[World Politics Review] 2012-05-04

The Realist Prism: Chen Saga Pits U.S. Rhetoric vs. Interests

The saga of Chen Guangcheng, the blind legal activist who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing this past week, is still unfolding. Yet the Obama administration appears to have encountered its own version of President Dwight Eisenhower’s “Hungary 1956” moment: the point at which idealistic rhetoric about U.S. support for freedom and democracy collides with the harsh realities of U.S. national interests.

As long as Chen was detained in internal exile in the village of Dongshigu, he was an out-of-sight martyr for whom rhetorical support could easily be expressed without too much risk of damaging the larger Sino-American relationship. But Chen’s flight to the sanctuary of the U.S. embassy occurred right before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner were due in Beijing for another session of an annual bilateral Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the two countries.

U.S. officials were eager to make progress with China on a whole host of issues at this year’s talks. Clinton was hoping to see China increase its engagement “on the highest-priority regional and global issues,” including Iran and North Korea. Meanwhile, Geithner was expecting progress on a particularly sensitive matter — allowing the value of the renminbi to appreciate. And unlike in 1989, when Chinese astrophysicist Fang Lizhi sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in the aftermath of Tianamen Square crackdown (and was ultimately allowed to leave the country), the U.S. does not have similar leverage to deploy against China today. Is Washington going to declare an embargo on the importation of clothing and consumer electronics from China, or forbid Beijing from purchasing U.S. debt? Instead, finding a face-saving formula to get Chen out of the compound prior to the start of the strategic dialogue was the priority.

Chen has now told members of the U.S. Congress, however, that he wishes to travel with his family to the United States for “rest” and has expressed the hope that he would be allowed to leave China with Clinton and her entourage. But the prospect of another Fang-style exodus does not seem to be in the cards. The Chinese government is already coping with the fallout of the Bo Xilai drama, and would risk provoking further unrest should it make concessions in Chen’s case. Indeed, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin\’s accusation that “the U.S. took a Chinese citizen into the U.S. embassy via abnormal means” does not suggest an initial willingness to compromise.

In commenting on the Chen affair, Ai Weiwei, another prominent Chinese dissident, suggested that while “the U.S. side has made efforts on this issue . . . they probably don’t wish to see this issue stretch on or become more complicated.” But the Obama administration’s freedom of maneuver is constricted by domestic politics as well. Already the president’s handling of the Chen case has been roundly criticized by Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who argued that the United States “should stand up and defend freedom wherever it is under attack.” Given the intense criticism directed at Obama in March for his “live mic” comments with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — in which Obama asked for “space” until after the November presidential election, when he would be in a better position to work out some sort of deal on missile defense — it is highly unlikely that Obama will have the room to reach a quiet accommodation with the Chinese leadership over Chen’s case.

Having committed the prestige of the United States to a deal guaranteeing Chen’s safety, however, the Obama administration is in a tight position: If it continues to make vigorous representation on Chen’s behalf, it risks a rupture with the Chinese government at a time when bilateral relations are already strained. Abandoning Chen, on the other hand, is also not an option, since it would call into question America’s willingness to stand by its agreements — and its principles.

The dilemma facing the Obama team is shared by other major powers around the world, namely finding a way to strike the right balance in their relations with a rising China. At the Asan Plenum in South Korea last week, a number of commentators sounded similar themes. Rory Medcalf of the Lowy Institute in Australia used the term “competitive coexistence” to define relations between India and China; Amaury de Souza of the Brazilian Center for International Relations (CEBRI) described how, for other rising powers like Brazil, China is simultaneously both the “main partner” and the “main competitor.” There is little enthusiasm for directly confronting China anywhere, even if other states are willing to hedge against China’s rise by building up their military capabilities. This is why Washington is unlikely to find other partners willing to back a strong stance on the Chen question. And should the U.S. be perceived as “caving” on Chen, it will cause some to question whether the United States is prepared to keep the promises it has made with regard to China, especially in terms of security guarantees, should the cost be too great for U.S. economic interests.

Some might conclude that the best strategy for coping with a rising China is Theodore Roosevelt’s advice: speak softly and carry a big stick. Indeed, China’s neighbors may be quite mum on the Chen case, but as Russian military analyst Maksim Pyatushkin has noted, “China\’s power is provoking neighboring nations\’ arms renewal. . . . In short, nations neighboring China are all upgrading weapons and equipment.” But that raises the thorny question of where to draw the line at which the talking ends and the sticks are brandished.

Obama may still get lucky. The Chinese leadership might decide not to provoke a confrontation with the United States, and instead come up with a pretense that would allow them to let Chen leave without losing face. But if not, then Obama — unlike his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who found ways to avoid having to make a choice — will have to decide whether to uphold his administration’s rhetoric on human rights in China, or decide that Chen’s case is a Chinese domestic matter that is not America’s affair.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest, and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism appears every Friday.

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