"I believe that a world of greater freedom and tolerance is not only a moral imperative -- it also helps keep us safe."
"America's support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism -- it's a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends, and are far less likely to go to war.... Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability."
- President Barack Obama, West Point commencement address, May 28, 2014.
The president reaffirmed a longstanding pillar of U.S. foreign policy at West Point last week. A world of greater freedom and respect for human rights is a world that is safer and better for the United States. This is not really a controversial statement. It is common sense, believed and articulated by every president since at least since World War II.
But on the 25th anniversary of the hope and then tragedy at Tiananmen Square, what are we willing to do to act "on behalf of human dignity" in China? The question has always vexed U.S. statesmen.
From President Nixon's opening to China in 1972 until the Tiananmen Square tragedy in 1989, U.S. presidents were content with China's economic progress. It was not unreasonable to think that, just like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, China would also make the transition from economic growth to political liberalization.
Then on June 4, 1989, the "Beijing Spring" ended in a nightmare. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was unwilling to allow political liberalization to accompany his economic reforms. Every U.S. president since Tiananmen has had to balance a desire for political reform in China against other national interests such as stable bilateral relations and strong economic engagement.
The first President Bush helped Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi, but made other questionable decisions. After Tiananmen, he famously sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to reassure the "butchers of Beijing" that the bilateral relationship would not suffer all that much.
President Clinton de-linked trade relations from Chinese progress on human rights. He believed, however, that the Internet and free trade would inevitability put China on the "right side of history."
The second President Bush prioritized religious freedom in China and often met with pastors and other religious leaders to press this cause. He shared Clinton's unwarranted optimism that a more liberal economy in China would lead to political reform.
President Obama has yet to find his voice on issues of human rights and democracy in China. Though his administration negotiated the release of human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, it has not initiated any other efforts on behalf of human rights in China.
Since Tiananmen, then, U.S. human rights policy toward China has been uneven at best. But it is a mistake to neglect or grow complacent about the issue. Here's why:
First, while change in China is inevitable, democratic change is not. As Minxin Pei predicted, China is now in a "trap." The economic reforms it requires -- from an efficient and open capital market, to property rights -- also demand a loosening of political control and the protection of individual rights.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping seems unwilling to make those changes. It is no wonder that a Chinese political warhorse like Wang Qishan is encouraging his colleagues to read not Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but The Old Regime and the Revolution. There is reason to fear that the corrupt "red aristocracy" at the top will falter and that there is no real civil society between the state and the people. If so, then the "next" China may look more like France after the French Revolution than America after the American Revolution.
Second, respect for human rights in China may help tame the Sino-American security competition. Beijing and Washington are not destined to fight. Indeed, the U.S. has stood with China for most of American history.
While China and the United States have a number of serious conflicts of interests, some stem from the way in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) defines its interests. Although there is no officially sanctioned debate about foreign policy in China, some Chinese elites are openly embarrassed about having a "Party" instead of a "National" foreign policy.
China's foreign policy serves the CCP first and foremost, which means protecting its absolute rule from threats, foreign and domestic. Japan and the United States may be rivals in the eyes of the CCP but so are, according to the CCP's propaganda arm, "constitutional democracy" and other "Western" values. For the CCP, Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is as much of a threat from his jail cell as U.S. ships based in Japan.
And it unrealistic to expect Washington to develop real trust for a country that abuses its people's rights at home. It is axiomatic that since the CCP settles disputes by coercion at home it will do so abroad. This is why President Obama is correct in his assessment that more freedom and democracy make us safer -- the way a regime behaves at home is a good indicator of how it will behave abroad.
The many Chinese fighting against corruption and injustice and repression hold the keys to the future of Sino-American relations. Should they prevail, China and the U.S. may continue to have their differences, but true friendship is also possible.
Back to the main question: What, if anything can the president do to support the furtherance of human rights in China? We can play an "inside" and an "outside" game.
We can provide moral support and political support to Chinese reformers and activists. This involves more meetings and greater communication with dissidents as well as efforts to break down the "great firewall" of Internet censorship. And, we can shore up democratic/capitalist allies, creating free institutions that a freer China might want to join. A free market Trans-Pacific Partnership is one such institution. An Asia-Pacific league or concert of democracies is another.
Both of these approaches would help Chinese liberals make their case about what country China should become.
In the short term President Obama can wade into the internal Chinese debate by writing an open letter (translated into Chinese) to his fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The CCP will try and censor it, but Chinese Internet users are savvy. It will circulate. Such a letter would be a powerful boost to Liu who sits in prison as well as to Chinese on the front lines of reform.
The Chinese people will decide how hard to push for liberty and human rights. But as President Obama stated last week, our own long-term security is linked to freedom and China. We can begin to tip the scales toward the reformers.
Update: Watch Daniel Blumenthal further explain the problem of how the United States should address China's human rights abuses below.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images