What Great Powers Do

June 7, 2013

US President Barack Obama and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping last met in February. When they meet again this week, they should not shy away from the topic of human rights (Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images).
US President Barack Obama and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping last met in February. When they meet again this week, they should not shy away from the topic of human rights (Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images).

As President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China begin discussions designed to forge closer personal bonds between the two nations, they should not shy away from uncomfortable topics.

President Xi says he wants a “new type” of great power relationship with the United States.  President Obama says he welcomes China’s peaceful rise, provided that it occurs in a way that reinforces international norms and enhances security.These statements suggest that neither leader is comfortable with the relationship as it stands, and both are seeking greater clarity and trust.

So what will be on the agenda? There are many pressing issues, from promoting equitable global economic growth, to achieving lasting peace between North and South Korea and denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.

But the centerpiece for this summit ought to be crafting a shared vision on human rights. On behalf of their nations, the two presidents should embrace the common obligation that great powers have to promote international respect for human rights norms.

China’s poor human rights record belies its claim to be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. It colors the way the world views everything else that China does. Additionally, the United States’ own human rights abuses – from detaining individuals at Guantanamo without due process, to the escalating reliance on lethal drone strikes under dubious legal authority – tarnishes the United States’ international reputation and undercuts President Obama’s leverage in complaining about Beijing’s track record.

By forging a joint commitment to human rights – consistent with international norms established under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights –  the two leaders can contribute to sustainable global economic development, peace, and security and in turn, better secure their own political legacies.

The summit meeting should not be focused on bashing China. The government of the People’s Republic of China deserves credit for lifting several hundred million people out of poverty and providing improved education, housing and health care to one-fifth of humanity. When it comes to economics and international security, China has made many efforts to integrate itself into the global community since the launch of reform and opening up to increased trade in the late 1970s.

But when it comes to respect for human rights, the plain truth is that China has failed to live up to its own laws or to the commitments it made when ratifying the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights and signing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

President Obama should not mince words and leave human rights issues on the cutting room floor in California. He should work with President Xi to forge a great power identity for China that is rooted in respect for human rights, even as he renews his own commitment to ensure that the United States also lives up to its domestic and international human rights obligations.

There was a time when great powers demonstrated their strength and innovation by building great walls. Those days are gone.

Today, great powers build great bridges – bridges of trade, communication, education and culture. To borrow a phrase from President Ronald Reagan’s playbook, President Obama should urge President Xi to tear down the walls that are obstructing China’s greatness – firewalls that restrict access to information and the ability to speak one’s mind, bureaucratic walls that limit freedom of association, legal walls that detain thousands for “reform through labor camps” without due process or fair trial.

Every day in China, thousands of citizens are standing up and fighting for the rights promised to them under their country’s Constitution. They understand that China cannot be a truly great country without political reforms. Americans are also standing up – demanding that their own government live up to the ideals on which it was founded. President Obama and President Xi should listen to their voices.

Because Great Powers don’t subject their own citizens to harassment, forced disappearances, torture, illegal house arrest and extrajudicial detention.

Great Powers don’t lock up Nobel laureates for peacefully advocating political reform.

Great Powers take steps to ensure that the rights of ethnic and religious minorities are respected, not trampled on.They don’t respond to the tragic self-immolation of more than 100 Tibetans by further tightening the screws.

And Great Powers don’t imprison people indefinitely without charge on Caribbean Islands.

If President Obama and President Xi can draw closer together on human rights, the rest of their agenda will prove much easier to resolve. But if they fail to note the centrality of human rights to every other major challenge they face – from Syria to Guantanamo – they will miss an historic opportunity to “rebalance” the relationship between the United States and a rising China.