When Obama Goes to Beijing

Can the president pull a Cairo-speech moment in China?

President Barack Obama's maiden trip to China will be his first face-to-face opportunity to shape U.S.-China relations -- the bilateral relationship he has labeled "as important as any in the world." It would be easy to sidestep discussion of the United States' more controversial political differences with China and confine the dialogue to polite issues of strategic and economic concern. But taking such an approach would underutilize Obama's superlative skills as a communicator, bridge-builder, and moral beacon. New currents within Chinese society provide an opening for Obama to press Beijing on harder questions. The president's challenge this week will be to walk a fine line between respect for China and pulling all his punches, careful to recognize China's recent achievements while reflecting candidly on American ideals.

In a departure from his White House predecessors, this president has already signaled a more respectful U.S. posture toward China. Since the 1989 Tiananmen uprising, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have felt compelled to point fingers and lecture the Chinese government on human rights (Bill Clinton's "butchers of Beijing" 1992 campaign jab springs to mind). This tendency, an often shrill manifestation of very legitimate concerns, has been perceived in China as the arrogant hectoring of a superpower that sees itself as morally superior.

Such condescension has fueled the growth of a hypernationalistic segment of China's younger generation, the so-called "angry youth," and caused broad swaths of the Chinese public to think that the United States has a conspiracy to "keep China down." It is therefore productive that Obama has changed the relationship's tone, and even erstwhile China critics, such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have somewhat adjusted their tone in the new era.

This shift in U.S. approach is partly the result of Obama's "unclenched fist" worldview, but it is also a prudent reaction to China's increasing geopolitical importance.

Now the imperative for the United States is to avoid swinging too far in the opposite direction -- that is, seeming too deferential to China on hot-button political issues. Such a sudden change of heart would appear baldly opportunistic to the Chinese. There is already a nascent perception in Beijing that the United States is only interested in the country's continued financial support and expanding consumer market. A failure to represent American ideals honestly and engage the Chinese on areas of disagreement would risk cementing this impression.

To a certain extent, the Obama administration is already on the record in support of such an approach. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg recently introduced the catchphrase "strategic reassurance," a new policy framework meant to supplant the Bush-era call for China to become a "responsible stakeholder." According to Steinberg, strategic reassurance requires that both sides "find ways to highlight and reinforce the areas of common interest, while addressing the sources of mistrust directly, whether they be political, military, or economic."

Concrete steps have already been taken to address military and economic mistrust, but the political dimension of "strategic reassurance" remains largely undefined. In part, this haziness is a reflection of how discombobulated the world's leading liberal democracy feels vis-à-vis the increasingly powerful but still authoritarian China. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States and its allies expected successive waves of democratization to extend democratic capitalism to the farthest reaches of the globe. Instead, China's model of state capitalism appears to have weathered a series of financial storms better than democratic capitalism, and the United States now struggles with the question of how to engage this hybrid authoritarian-capitalist state in the post-Cold War world.

The good news is that Chinese society is gradually becoming more pluralistic, and its leadership more open-minded, on the once-intractable issues of democracy, human rights, and even religious freedom. The country's top two leaders, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have voiced strong support for the incremental implementation of democratic reforms, conceiving of democracy in roughly the same way that the West does. "When we talk about democracy," Wen explained to a Brookings Institution delegation to Beijing in 2006, "we usually refer to the three most important components: elections, judicial independence, and supervision based on checks and balances." The influential Chinese intellectual Yu Keping caused a stir in late 2006 when he published an essay, "Democracy Is a Good Thing," in which he boldly posited the universal value of democracy and argued that the concept is not the proprietary possession of any particular country or region of the world.

And there are other encouraging signs of progress. Although tight media controls remain in place, the proliferation of Chinese news outlets and the advent of the Internet have vastly expanded Chinese citizens' access to information. There are now more than 2,000 newspapers, 9,000 magazines, and 350 TV stations in the country, a far cry from the handful that existed in the late-1970s. A rapidly expanding middle class is beginning to play a more active role in public affairs, and a burgeoning lawyerly profession is pushing for greater rule of law and stronger legal protection of individual rights.

The existence of these new currents in Chinese society provide an opening for Obama to engage Beijing on political issues in a way that can be at once consistent with American values and respectful of China's enduring cultural identity and ongoing efforts at reform. Instead of allowing "democracy" to be the elephant in the room, he should take a page from his speech at Cairo University this summer and broach the subject with respect for China's recent achievements, a dose of humility concerning the democratic project generally, and a sophisticated and sympathetic understanding of China's turbulent 20th-century political history. He can insist that different cultures often share the same values.

None of these hopeful indicators, however, should be allowed to obscure the Chinese state's most glaring violations of human rights and religious freedom. Last year's Tibetan uprising and this year's turmoil in Xinjiang should not go unmentioned during Obama's visit, and he may wish to impart to the Chinese the key lessons of America's civil rights movement. He may also wish to applaud the Chinese government's hesitant steps toward increasing government transparency and fairness in the criminal justice system, while cautioning that attempting to control the flow of information in the Internet age is no longer viable, and is almost certainly counterproductive.

Most centrally, Obama should make a point of stressing, perhaps at a public forum or with an audience composed of China's youth, that democracy is not a U.S. export, that it is actually the common property of humankind, and that its implementation will vary significantly across countries. In so doing, he will help undermine the widespread belief in China that the United States aims to contain its rise. Sincerity is a truer expression of respect than hollow obeisance.

Obama's trip will have been a success if, looking back in 10 years, the political leadership in Beijing and Washington consider 2009 to be the year they began to have candid discussions on every issue -- the hallmark of a mature relationship. Let us hope that the White House can muster the requisite political fortitude and diplomatic foresight to make this the case.

John Moore/Getty Images


A Boatload of Trouble

Think Hezbollah was tamed following the 2006 war? The recent seizure of a cargo ship full of weapons intended for the organization proves otherwise.

Ever since the end of the war in the summer of 2006 between Israel and the radical Lebanese Shiite organization, Hezbollah, there has been a major effort on the part of Hezbollah to rearm, especially with offensive weapons such as rockets and medium-range missiles. The organization has also rebuilt its bunker and defensive positions in southern Lebanon, despite the presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which expanded following the 2006 war to its current size of 12,425 troops from 30 countries.  

In sheer numbers, this international force is much larger than the one I personally observed in southern Lebanon on numerous extended visits earlier this decade, when my own country of Sweden was actively participating in UNIFIL's mission. Yet the sad fact is that today, notwithstanding its greatly increased size and strengthened mandate, UNIFIL has consistently failed to hinder Hezbollah from regaining its position as the only serious political and military player in southern Lebanon. The organization has even been unable to stop continued shipments of arms to Hezbollah, despite UNIFIL's explicit U.N. mandate against them. These arms shipments come mainly from Hezbollah's leading backer, Iran. Since long before the 2006 war, the bulk of the weapons and munitions came overland through Syria -- where they were flown in from Iran -- but there have been attempts to smuggle weapons into Lebanon by sea as well.

Accordingly, it came as no great surprise last Wednesday when the Israeli navy seized an Antigua-flagged ship outside Cyprus carrying almost 400 tons of weapons originating out of an Iranian port and bound for Hezbollah, via Syria. The cargo is considerably larger than anything previously intercepted, demonstrating the degree to which Hezbollah, and to a lesser extent Hamas in Gaza, is being resupplied by their main backer, Iran.

The shipment, of course, contravenes recent U.N. Security Council resolutions prohibiting Iran's arms exports and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. The seized weapons -- including offensive ones such as Katyushas, intended to target noncombatants -- show, yet again, the failure of the international community to come to grips with Hezbollah and its intent to disrupt any peace process with Israel.

This incident also shows Hezbollah's continuing dominance of Lebanon's domestic political scene. Since the 2006 war, there has been a long series of failures in confronting Lebanon's truly divisive political issues, particularly the problem of militant Islamism. Hezbollah has been able to call the shots in Lebanese politics, hindering any attempts to put together a new government unless it restores Hezbollah's decisive influence and reverses the movement's electoral loss last June. The organization has also been able to keep the conflict with Israel alive and simmering, though avoiding any dramatic new escalation thus far.

The repercussions of the 2006 war continues to weaken liberal and democratic forces in the region, which are essential for any peace-building process to succeed. Hezbollah's drive to rearm for another round with Israel endangers regional stability and has had a paralyzing effect on Lebanese democracy. On the regional level, the 2006 war and Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Hamas last winter have put "armed struggle" back on the agenda.

Hezbollah continues to proclaim the 2006 war as a victory. By tying this war to other "victories" for Islamist forces, such as the May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from the Lebanese security zone and the August 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons maintain the fiction that armed struggle is alive and well, and should be used as a means to defeat Israel. This lends some popular credence to the notion that there is no need to get involved in complicated and drawn-out negotiations with uncertain outcomes. One can get results, or so Hezbollah claims, only by taking on and defeating Israel on the battlefield. If a sufficient number of other Arab actors adopt that self-destructive analysis, the stage will be set for many more armed conflagrations that could envelop the region for many years to come.

The seizure of the weapons cargo marks a small dent in the military buildup of Hezbollah. But it amounts to no more than a temporary nuisance for the organization, unless the international community gets serious about implementing the resolutions that stopped the 2006 war in the first place.

As of the time of writing, there is no sign of that happening.