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Experts Divided Over Whether Clinton Should Push China on Human Rights

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's maiden voyage to Asia includes stops in Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China. As a White House surrogate, Clinton said she hopes to restore the image of the United States in the Islamic world.

"I think she clearly feels it's necessary to induce realism and perspective to expectations and performance, and to tell the Chinese that Obama knows that we all need to work together, so she is determined not to let less centrally vital issues handicap that," said Chris Nelson, who writes an influential newsletter on Asian policy.

"I've always felt that the question with respect to human rights and China is not whether or not one presses the issue, but how one does it," said David Shambaugh, director of Asian policy studies at George Washington University. "Foreigners generally get much further when they do it in quiet rather than in public, when it is framed in a nonconfrontational way, and explained in terms of being in China's best interests."

He added: "Honesty is as good in diplomacy as in life -- it's just a question of when and how one frames their candor."

Former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton, who was known for his bluntness, said he thinks "our diplomacy should be more candid, with less doublespeak, so if she really meant to say what she said, I don't mind at all. When the Democrats endorse candor in diplomacy, I'll be a happy man."

But he added: "The issue with whatever she says, candid or not, is whether it has an objective in mind, or whether she is just running at the mouth. This is the difference between an executive branch official and a senator, academic, think-tanker, reporter, whatever. Executive branch officials, by definition, are not just bloviating, but executing policies."

Others think Clinton is making needless trouble for herself.

"She is correct in the sense that no U.S. president since Nixon has let human rights stop necessary cooperation with China on critical strategic issues. On the other hand, the Obama administration's China policy is going to run into a buzz saw on Capitol Hill if people think that human rights are now being de-emphasized," said Michael J. Green, the top White House adviser on Asia under President George W. Bush. "The administration has to clarify quickly that it intends to build a cooperative relationship with China and continue pressing hard for improvements in human rights and on issues like Tibet."

James Mann, a Johns Hopkins University scholar who wrote a history of U.S.-China relations, viewed Clinton's remarks as part of a further downgrading of the importance of human rights in American policy toward China over the years.

"I agree that, to some extent, she's being honest, in the sense that merely including something in the talking points for diplomacy doesn't necessary lead to change and is sometimes designed more to mislead the public back home than to influence the interlocutors," said Mann, a former Los Angeles Times reporter.

But he wondered whether this honesty was now a general principle in the administration's approach to the world. "Is Hillary Clinton going to not mention women's rights to the Saudis because they already know what we think?" he said.

Mann, in particular, was struck by the contrast with her husband, who as president a decade ago gave strong speeches on behalf of political freedom in China.

"Bill Clinton told the leader of China he was on 'the wrong side of history,' " Mann noted. "Now, Hillary seems to be giving them the reverse message: that China is on the right side of history."

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