Addressing the Human Rights Issue in Sino-American Relations

By Van Ness, Peter | Journal of International Affairs, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview
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Addressing the Human Rights Issue in Sino-American Relations

Van Ness, Peter, Journal of International Affairs

Under the best of circumstances, policymakers from China, the United States or any other major power must attempt to reconcile at least three competing priorities: national security, economic viability and moral authority. Each of these three dimensions of foreign policy typically has its own separate and conflicting logic. security issues are most often seen in realist terms, assuming a world of anarchy and the inevitability of zero-sum games (e.g., I can gain only at your expense). Economic problems are usually addressed from a quite a different perspective, assuming instead opportunities for interdependence and mutual benefit in a struggle, often understood in liberal terms, over how the benefits are to be shared (e.g., we both gain; but each will try to get the bigger share). Finally, moral questions are typically perceived in terms of absolutist alternatives (e.g., "mine vs. yours, or even good vs. evil") -- we might choose to coexist, to compete, or even to fight over who is right, but the outcome is rarely a compromise.

These three dimensions of foreign policy also seem to represent a rough hierarchy of priorities: first security, then economics and finally questions of morality. If the state is threatened, national security takes precedence. Economic policy is reshaped to support national defense, and moral debate tends to be suspended for the national emergency (e.g., my country, right or wrong). If, however, there is no major perceived threat to state security, then economic priorities take precedence. Finally, moral issues are most likely to receive priority in those countries, like the Group of Seven today, which perceive no military threat from any other state and which are economically well off.

This is not necessarily the hierarchy of foreign policy priorities that one might prefer; rather, it is presented here as a general approximation of what seems to happen in response to changing world events.

Human rights has emerged as one of the foremost moral issues of the post-Cold War world. Foreign ministry officials and national security advisors are being pressed by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and citizen activists to take human rights abuse more seriously as a foreign-policy priority. Systematic monitoring and detailed reporting of human rights abuse by NGOs (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House), individual journalists and government reports (like the annual Department of State country reports) have produced a growing database to support comparative analysis and sustained policy debate.

This paper is an analysis of how the United States and China are treating the issue of human rights in their bilateral relationship. It assumes that no matter how much some U.S. and Chinese officials and trade council lobbyists may hope that the issue will disappear, NGOs and citizen activists in both countries will keep human rights high on the agenda of Sino-American relations -- particularly in a post-Cold War world characterized by a sharp decline in state-to-state security threats and increasing general economic prosperity.

Human rights, however, cannot be treated in isolation. In order to implement an effective and sustainable human rights policy, it must be designed in a way to complement security and economic concerns. Especially when considering that each of the three main dimensions of foreign policy is customarily treated in terms of a separate logic, human rights, like any moral foreign-policy priority, must be considered in terms of a broad concept of "national interest." This analysis attempts to show how both Beijing and Washington might address human rights as a foreign policy issue more effectively -- and in ways that could enhance economic and security cooperation between China and the United States rather than threaten it.

There is an emerging consensus among analysts that the recent differences in Sino-American relations have the potential to evolve into a strategic confrontation between the two countries.

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