Whatever Happened to Chinese Human Rights?

On the American campaign trail this year, China's people went missing.

Every four years, presidential campaigns thrust China into the political limelight. The candidates seem to relish any opportunity to accuse their opponents of being "soft" on China and its human rights abuses. The campaign's intoxication with tough talk is often followed by a post-inauguration hangover, however, as the winner realizes the difficulty of finding solutions to a wide range of international challenges -- halting the spread of nuclear weapons, promoting economic growth, protecting the global environment, ensuring energy security -- without cooperation from the Chinese government. It is a Washington ritual that goes back to the country's 1949 founding and the debate over who lost China to the "immoral" and "godless" communists.

President Jimmy Carter is famed for injecting human rights issues more prominently into U.S. foreign policy, but when he normalized relations with Beijing in 1979, it was Republican candidate Ronald Reagan who seized the moral high ground, saying he "would not abandon friends and allies." (Ironically, Reagan went on to authorize the sale of advanced military hardware, including Blackhawk helicopters, to China's People's Liberation Army.) In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, candidate Bill Clinton accused then President George H.W. Bush of coddling the "butchers of Beijing," and then promptly abandoned attempts to link trade and human rights after taking office.

But this year, the human rights element has largely been missing from the campaign. Even the dramatic case of blind human rights defender Cheng Guangcheng, who briefly thrust issues of rule of law and justice onto the U.S.-China agenda in April by fleeing into the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, has not inspired either candidate, beyond a brief attempt by Mitt Romney to politicize Chen's case. Compared with past campaigns, human rights in China have largely been an afterthought.

Both Romney and his opponent, President Barack Obama, had a chance to speak more comprehensively about China at their foreign-policy debate on Oct 22, but both punted. When moderator Bob Schieffer asked the candidates what kind of relationship they wanted to have with a rising China, Obama said China was both an "adversary" and also a "potential partner in the international community, if it's following the rules." The rules he referenced were those governing trade and freedom of navigation, not human rights.  Romney, like Obama, struck a cooperative tone: "We can collaborate with them if they're willing to be responsible."  But he too defined "responsible" only in terms of trade policy.

Neither candidate mentioned human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang, the Great Firewall, jailed Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, China's support for Sudan, or China's obstruction of United Nations Security Council action on Syria. Neither named the leader of China, President Hu Jintao, or made reference to the leadership transition underway and what it might portend.

China has been present in the campaign, but mostly in one dimension: trade. Obama fired a salvo in this year's State of the Union Address, noting that his administration had brought trade cases against China at nearly twice the rate of the previous administration. The president also announced the creation of a Trade Enforcement Unit to investigate "unfair trading practices in countries like China."

Romney countered with a February 2012 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that the United States should, "directly counter abusive Chinese practices in the areas of trade, intellectual property, and currency valuation." He promised to designate China a "currency manipulator" on the first day of his presidency, and also pledged to beef up U.S. military forces in the Pacific to "guarantee the region remains open for cooperative trade. Romney did briefly mention China's human rights record in his op-ed, but offered no specifics on how his administration would support Chinese dissidents, or how his approach would differ from Obama's.

China might now be powerful enough that both candidates are reluctant to raise human rights issues for fear of it withholding cooperation in other areas. In February 2009, on her first trip abroad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said about issues like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights that "Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis."

But one of the principle architects of U.S. engagement with China, Ambassador Winston Lord, takes a different view. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lord who was ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989, offered up his "10 commandments" for dealing effectively with China. First commandment: "Don't Demonize China." Second commandment: "Don't Sanitize China." Speaking up for human rights in China may not curry favor with China's ruling elite, but according to an October Pew Research Center poll, 52 percent of Chinese people remain favorably inclined toward U.S. ideas about democracy even though only 43 percent have a favorable view of the overall relationship. Perhaps not surprisingly, the younger, richer, and better-educated Chinese are, the more likely they are to identify with U.S. ideas about democracy and human rights. This suggests that U.S. advocacy for human rights may resonate among those Chinese most likely to shape the country's future.

And human rights issues don't have to be viewed in isolation. The candidates could easily pivot from human rights in China to the creation of U.S. jobs. The links between China's human rights practices and the ability of the United States to compete globally on a level playing field may not be obvious, but linked they are, as Yoda might say. China gains a competitive advantage from cheap labor, lax environmental protection laws, and expropriated land. Beijing will continue to enjoy those advantages so long as Chinese workers are denied the right to form independent labor unions, Chinese people are punished for demanding clean air and water, and Chinese peasants are pushed off their land without fair compensation.

The candidates' failure to put forward concrete ideas on how to advance human rights in China is a shame. There are many avenues available to encourage reforms -- through educational exchanges, judicial training, journalist training, rule of law seminars, support for civil society, broadcasting, Internet freedom initiatives, vocal support for dissidents, and official human rights dialogues.

Increasing U.S. support for rule of law and human rights in China would be a smart play for three reasons. First, it would garner favor within China. The most courageous advocates for human rights and justice in China live inside the country, not along the banks of the Potomac. Second, it would enhance U.S. economic opportunities by strengthening the Chinese middle class (the consumers of the future) and depriving Chinese state-owned enterprises of some of the unfair advantages they enjoy as a result of low-wage labor, lax environmental regulations, and stolen land. Third, it would actually promote China's own long-term stability. China is experiencing tens of thousands of protests every year, many focused on economic injustice. By repressing those seeking redress for grievances -- whether they are Tibetan monks or disconsolate factory workers -- the Chinese Communist Party is only undermining its own legitimacy and allowing problems to fester. Maybe by 2016, an American presidential contender will notice.

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National Security

Littoral Combat Clip

The U.S. military needs to prepare for more operations along the world's coastlines.

The United States may be winding up over a decade of war, but the military is facing significant challenges -- in no small part because it is expected to prepare for a wider range of contingencies at a time of shrinking budgets. Among other things, the Department of Defense's 2012 report, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, asserts that the U.S. military must strengthen its power-projection capabilities to assure access to contested regions and unfettered freedom of movement.

Protecting such freedom of movement has been a near-constant mission of naval forces since strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan first defined the "wide commons" in the late 19th century. But, confronted with such an ambitious task, it may be useful to conceive of the wide commons more narrowly. Consider that an increasing majority of the world's population, more than 80 percent at last count, resides within the littorals -- that narrow strip of coastline that rings the world's continents. Increasingly, this is where the world's transactions and interactions occur. This concentration of people, political power, and economic dynamism means that the littorals are where the world's future crises will take place.

Since World War II, the United States has sought to avoid the tragedy of war. There has been a continual effort to find technological solutions to deter our adversaries (nuclear weapons) or to fight a "clean" war (precision strike). Yet the nation has repeatedly called on its Marine Corps to protect its citizens and interests. In particular, the demand for amphibious forces to engage forward and respond to crises has risen dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The critical employment of these forces in uncertain and austere environments where access is challenged is exemplified by the more than 50 amphibious operations that have taken place since Sept. 11, 2001.

Ongoing budget constraints and force reductions will test the ability of all the military services to meet today's missions while preparing for tomorrow's threats. As access to the littorals is further complicated, expeditionary naval forces must be able to respond with what is immediately within reach and available -- "come as you are." And that in turn means that the Marine Corps -- which, among other things, specializes in projecting power in coastal areas -- is going to be increasingly central to U.S. national security. But it must adapt to the new environment.


The United States has entered an expeditionary era, one in which it does not enjoy ready access to overseas bases in the regions where conflict is most likely to occur or unchallenged access to all regions -- not unlike when the nation first began trading globally and lacked the capability to adequately protect its foreign trade. The United States remains a global power, but it now competes in a world where many regional powers, nation-states, criminals, and extremists are expanding their influence. This challenge requires Marines to engage forward and build partners, create access where adversaries challenge us, and protect U.S. interests and citizens when necessary.

Today, new threats emerging in the littorals include piracy, area-denial weapons, and competition among populations for scarce resources, to name only a few. The littorals are where the action will be in the coming years -- indeed, they will only become more important as the global flow of commerce increases. Specifically, a handful of strategic maritime chokepoints scattered across the world's littorals must remain free and open to all commerce. For example, consider what impact closing the Suez would have on the world's economy when the shipping of two to three million barrels of oil was interrupted or trade from Asia was delayed from reaching the Mediterranean.

These chokepoints represent the archipelago of action for American naval forces:

  • The Malacca Straits are arguably the most important chokepoint in the world. Located midway between Australia and India and bisecting the Malay Peninsula and the island country of Indonesia, the straits are a 500-mile-long narrow body of water that directly links the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Described as the "Fulda Gap" of the 21st Century, its geographic and strategic significance has drawn the attention of India, China, Japan, and the United States. Tanker traffic in the straits is expected to increase by 50 percent by 2020. The threat posed by non-state terrorist groups and pirates has increased in recent years. Regional states like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have increased naval patrols, which have stymied the piracy surge. This "triad" of littoral states, however, has asserted it is solely responsible for security in the Malacca Strait, making it difficult for other nations to assure safe passage.
  • Approximately 35 percent of all oil traded by sea transits the Persian Gulf via a maritime chokepoint: the Strait of Hormuz. Recent Iranian statements and activities across the region threatening harassment at sea only escalate security concerns. For example, the well-publicized Iranian "swarming" fleet of small boats armed with rockets and anti-ship cruise missiles poses an operational challenge to access through the strait. The importance of both the Malacca and Hormuz straits, situated at each end of the Indian Ocean, will only increase in strategic value in coming decades as trade and commerce continue to expand across the region.
  • The Arctic Ocean could soon emerge as a new strategic transit route, as the polar ice cap recedes and more nations eye its sea lanes to shave valuable time on shipping cargo from Asia to Europe. Shipping companies could save as much as 35 percent using Arctic routes compared to using the Panama Canal or transiting the Horn of Africa. Within 30 years -- possibly sooner -- the Arctic Ocean could be ice free for up to two months of the year, allowing dramatically more shipping and exploration for large oil, gas, and mineral deposits.
  • The Panama Canal is growing in strategic importance as a huge revitalization effort nears completion in 2014 that will dramatically increase the size of cargo vessels the canal can handle. The canal will soon be able to accommodate dry bulk cargo ships of up to 180,000 tons, compared to only 80,000 tons today. This will increase the number of cargo vessels in the Caribbean Sea and enhance the strategic importance of Panama and its surrounding waters.
  • The waters off East Africa have become pirate-infested in recent years, negatively affecting global shipping. The pirate scourge has forced the world's navies to devote considerable assets to protecting the free flow of commerce. Piracy has been steadily increasing since 2006, with an 11 percent increase from 2010 (489 incidents) to 2011 (544 incidents). Piracy off the Somalia coast impacted commercial shipping at a cost of $7 to $12 billion dollars in 2010. According to the International Maritime Bureau Piracy Reporting Centre, there were 13 vessels and 185 hostages being held by Somali pirates as of June 2012.
  • At the onset of the 1967 Six Day War, Egypt closed the Suez Canal without warning, locking 15 cargo ships in the canal for the next eight years until it finally reopened. This act significantly affected trade patterns and in many cases forced trade partners to more than double their transit distance. Oil, food, and other goods rose in price as shipping companies adjusted to the additional time and fuel costs associated with longer routes. What would the effect be today if Egypt closed the Suez? The turmoil associated with the Arab Spring, including political uncertainty in Cairo, is reason to pause and contemplate the possibility. If commercial shipping were forced to reroute south around the Cape of Good Hope, it would further exacerbate piracy issues not only on the eastern coast of Africa, but the western coast as well.
  • The Gulf of Guinea on Africa's western coast is emerging as a globally significant region because of its economic development. Estimates that the region could eventually provide 25 percent of U.S. oil imports within the next five years provide ample reason to ensure the stability and security of its littorals. While West Africa shares many characteristics with East Africa, the focus of piracy is quite different. Ransoming of crew, goods, and vessels challenges the local West African pirates more so than in the East due to the lack of secure sites for the vessels that have been seized. Instead, kidnapping of high-value individuals or stealing of goods, to include oil to be sold on the black market, is the modus operandi. The lack of regional stability affects security both ashore and at sea and warrants further examination as the United States ramps up economic interest in this region.

The inherent flexibility built into every Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) -- a unit that integrates infantry, aviation, and logistics support into a coherent force -- provides U.S. leaders with a uniquely adaptable force that is fully prepared to deal with the challenges emerging in the world's littorals and maritime chokepoints. As Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, has said, the Corps is the nation's middleweight force, "light enough to get there quickly, but heavy enough to carry the day upon arrival, and capable of operating independent of local infrastructure."

In the maritime environment, Marine Corps Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Units (ARG-MEUs) are forward deployed every day, providing a ready response force that is ideally organized and equipped to operate in the littorals' unique land-and-sea environment.

During deployments, the sailors and Marines that make up these amphibious teams routinely conduct security cooperation exercises and activities with partner nations, provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and undertake combat operations ashore. When operating forward deployed in the littorals and a terrorist attack or some other crisis erupts that threatens one of the strategic maritime chokepoints, Marines on Navy amphibious ships are specially equipped to respond immediately. They can undertake such tasks as port security; visit, board, search, and seizure; incident response; humanitarian assistance; and combat operations.

The composition of this team enables it to accomplish such a wide variety of missions. The amphibious group brings both seaborne maneuver and a sea base for the embarked Marines. Additionally, its tie into the Navy's global logistics capability provides the amphibious team with theoretically endless sustainment, allowing unrivaled time on station in a crisis area. Complementing the amphibious ships, the embarked Marine units bring a general purpose combat force whose inherent ground, air, and logistics elements provide a highly capable force ready to respond immediately and stay indefinitely.

While a fully equipped Marine amphibious team is most formidable when operating as a cohesive unit, certain instances require "disaggregated" operations, in which individual ships and Marine units break off from the larger group and operate in separate locations under potentially separate chains of command. This disaggregation is another element of flexibility embedded in the Marine amphibious force, and the ability to operate in multiple areas over larger distances provides commanders with a richer set of options to meet national interests.

For example, in 2011 the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit carried out three distinct missions, all on the same day:

  • Operating off the coast of Yemen, Marines boarded the Magellan Star, a German-owned commercial shipping vessel, in order to neutralize pirates and liberate the crew.
  • Launching from and recovering to the USS Kearsarge, Marine Harrier aircraft conducted strike operations in Afghanistan.
  • Responding to the worst flooding in more than a century, Marines airlifted humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to Pakistan citizens.

Maintaining this capability in the littorals is vital to U.S. interests, as demonstrated during Operation Odyssey Dawn in Libya. As Vice Admiral Walter Skinner emphasized in recent Senate testimony, having Harriers offshore "slashed transit times to the battlefield by two-thirds and kept close air support aircraft on station without strategic tanking assets." That allowed Marine MV-22 Ospreys to rescue a downed F-15 pilot, who had been shot down by Qaddafi forces. "Twenty minutes from the time he was evading capture in hostile territory, the rescued pilot was safely back on American territory aboard USS Kearsarge."


As the world's littorals increase in importance, the United States requires a force that is forward-deployed, engages locally, creates relationships and develops access, and is poised to quickly respond to crises. Since the turn of the 19th Century, that force has been naval, and our capabilities today are impressive. But change is required. As Admiral John C. Harvey, Jr. and Colonel P.J. Ridderhof recently wrote, the Navy and Marine Corps "must break out of the ARG-MEU mold to explore the possibilities and fully take advantage of the flexibility and combat power of a larger MAGTF."

As states and non-state actors increasingly challenge our ability to project power across the global maritime commons and access contested regions, our naval forces must be able to operate in scalable and adaptable formations. The ARG-MEU is one tool, but larger naval forces, including forward-deployed and amphibious forces, may be needed -- for example, to secure one of the world's chokepoints or sea lanes. Marine amphibious forces may also be required to seize an advance base for use by U.S. air forces or for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations -- or simply to deny the use of terrain to the enemy.

For example, if an adversary were to disrupt a strategic chokepoint, ship-based aviation and ISR, patrol craft, and Littoral Combat Ships with detachments of Marines could be employed to counter fast attack craft. Simultaneously, other Marines could maneuver to prevent enemy use of islands or littoral areas or to destroy specific anti-access sites or capabilities. The entire naval force would operate in this contested maritime domain, which increases the importance of exercising up-front command arrangements before a crisis occurs.

Training as a larger, aggregated naval force is required now in order to surmount the evolving threats of tomorrow. By exercising and training to larger force compositions, the United States will be better postured to counter the increasing capabilities of potential adversaries throughout the world. Often the discussion about amphibious assault focuses too much on ship-to-shore movement. Regardless of the means of ship-to-shore movement, the proliferation of anti-access and area denial challenges, such as the Iranian capabilities in the Strait of Hormuz, requires an assessment of the whole littoral maneuver challenge. This includes a future amphibious vehicle to provide maneuver and lethality; long-range, high-speed, and large-capacity connectors (craft that move cargo and personnel from larger ships to a beachhead); and multi-functional, sea-based platforms to increase our ability to aggregate amphibious forces in crisis response.

This expanded look at the littoral maneuver challenge requires more attention and effort focused on the selection, reconnaissance, and control of the air and surface landing sites before the assault force arrives on station. Meeting this requirement places a premium on deception, ISR, and cyber operations. It also demands an amphibious force capable of maneuvering throughout the depth and breadth of the littorals to enlarge the operating area, confuse the enemy, and dilute their "home field" advantage in order to exploit the Marine Corps' and Navy's own asymmetric advantages. Achieving this edge requires embracing sea control and power projection from what the U.S. military calls a Single Naval Battle perspective, closing gaps between Marine and Navy operations, and providing flexibility to maneuver throughout the littorals with speed, agility, and capacity.

Maritime nations make up 80 percent of the international community, increasing the likelihood that the next crisis or regional conflict will occur within the operational reach of U.S. naval forces. With the initial response capability and decision room it provides, the naval force represents the leading edge, forward operating force called for in the nation's power projection strategy. As a critical element in that strategy, the Marine Corps conducts operations to deter and combat adversaries or deny them the ability to exert their will on U.S. interests. However, further refinement of aggregated operations and littoral maneuver is required to exploit our at-sea advantage.

Gregory N. Juday/U.S. Navy via Getty Images