Welcome, China?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S central message to the Chinese government and people during his first visit there as president has been a remarkably positive one. Acknowledging and occasionally marveling at the country's rapid ascent toward superpower status, Mr. Obama has been saying that not only does the United States "not seek to contain China's rise," but "we welcome China as a strong and prosperous and successful member of the community of nations."

This rhetoric in part reflects simple realism on the president's part. China's growing strength means, as Mr. Obama put it in his meeting with students in Shanghai Monday, that "there are very few global challenges that can be solved unless the United States and China agree." If his administration is to make progress on a new model for global growth, or limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, or halting the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, Mr. Obama will need to find common ground with Beijing's Communist rulers.

But is "welcome" really the appropriate word? Mr. Obama's description of the new superpower, after all, did not contain the word "democratic." And throughout its history the United States has found it difficult, at best, to cooperate with non-democratic powers; the brief collaboration with Stalin's Russia against Hitler's Germany is the extraordinary exception that proves the rule.

China's behavior around the world during the past decade has often departed dramatically from that of the world's democracies. It has unblushingly backed dictators, including Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and the genocidal regime of Sudan; it has crudely sought to lock up sources of natural resources in Africa and Latin America; it has repeatedly threatened Taiwan with war; and it has systematically taken advantage of the West's attempts to pressure rogue regimes -- vastly increasing its trade with Iran, for example.

Mr. Obama didn't shrink from discussing democracy and human rights. He said "America will always speak out" for its "core principles," and nudged his Chinese audience to consider the advantages of free expression. But the president cast this fundamental difference between the United States and China as that one can be overcome by "cultivating spheres of cooperation." The notion that China would need to embrace democratic values in order to become a true American partner was missing from Mr. Obama's pitch. "My hope is that the United States and China together can help to create international norms that reduce conflict around the world," he said.

It's necessary and right that Mr. Obama pragmatically seek Chinese cooperation. But it's also important to remember that its government, which continues to suppress, sometimes brutally, freedom of expression, religious practice and minority rights, will never be much help in confronting other undemocratic regimes. Nor is it likely -- or even desirable -- that the United States and China will agree on new "international norms," since Beijing will not support any that flow from democratic principles. The United States has no choice but to recognize China's rise as a great power, and Mr. Obama may be right that a policy of containment would be counterproductive. But "welcome" a dictatorship to global influence? It's hard to see why that is a necessary or sensible stance for the U.S. president.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company