The Obama administration’s thinking (echoed by the foreign policy establishment and the media) on the fate of dissident Chen Guangcheng was summed up Sunday by White House counterterrorism advisor John O. Brennan, who opined that a “balance” had to be struck between Chen’s fate and positive relations with China. As the Wall Street Journal put it: “Sheltering Mr. Chen would present the U.S. with a dilemma. Keeping Mr. Chen at a U.S. facility could strain relations with China. Turning over Mr. Chen to Chinese authorities might subject him to harsh punishment, which could be politically damaging to the Obama administration.”

In other words, human rights and defense of our ally Taiwan “complicate” our relationship with China. If only we could just push aside our national interests, things would go swimmingly with the Chinese rulers. It is not China’s problem, you see, but ours when we are confronted with a human rights situation. The “dilemma” is how to ignore China’s unacceptable behavior, I suppose.

This is terribly misguided and highlights the central flaw at the heart of Obama’s China policy, and indeed, his entire foreign policy. Both are based on the notion that we can “get along” with tyrannical regimes by downplaying conflict, keeping mum on human rights, and not provoking the ire of aggressive leaders.

We should be framing the Chen situation this way: If China wants to have positive relations with the United States, it must not retaliate against Chen, his family and other dissidents; doing so risks negative consequences for the Chinese.

Instead, we are wringing our hands trying to figure out how not to annoy the Chinese, off-load Chen and get back to “better relations” (i.e., appeasement of the Chinese dictatorship.)

The notion that we will lose China’s “cooperation” on other matters is farcical. The Chinese have blocked action to pressure Bashar al-Assad. The Chinese have done nothing to restrain the North Koreans, who shoot off rockets (however incompetently) without fear of retribution. On Iran, Reuters reports: “China is considering sovereign guarantees for its ships to enable the world’s second-biggest oil consumer to continue importing Iranian crude after new EU sanctions come into effect in July, the head of China’s shipowners’ association said.”

In sum, the administration has the perspective that “good” relations with Russia and China require subordination of U.S. interests and of our traditional defense of human rights. So we praise Vladi­mir Putin after the stolen presidential election. The administration opposes sanctions denying visas to Russian human rights abuses. And Chen is a “problem” — for us.

This cowering foreign policy is not only morally indefensible, but strategically foolhardy. We sacrifice our interests, encouraging more bad behavior by despotic regimes, which, in turn, means we must ignore further affronts to our interests and values. The downward spiral continues, as we sacrifice our moral standing without furthering any strategic interests. In fact, as we ignore human rights abuses, we set back our strategic goals, signaling to the Chinese that we will tolerate anti-American behavior (cyberterrorism, naval aggression in Asia, support for Iran) so long as we can void “conflict.”

Mitt Romney issued a statement over the weekend on behalf of Chen. This is good. But what is missing is a comprehensive and coherent critique of Obama’s China policy and, more generally, his stance toward dictatorial regimes.

Last year, Romney gave a forceful foreign policy speech and released a white paper, which included this on China: “If the United States fails to support dissidents out of fear of offending the Chinese government, we will merely embolden China’s leaders. We certainly should not have relegated the future of freedom to second or third place, as Secretary of State Clinton did in 2009 when she publicly declared that the Obama administration would not let U.S. concerns about China’s human rights record interfere with cooperation ‘on the global economic crisis [and] the global climate change crisis.’ ”

Since then, Romney’s foreign policy pronouncements have been sporadic, defensive and incomplete. It is not for lack of brilliant and competent foreign policy experts. What is lacking is the will and determination to communicate on a sustained basis Romney’s foreign policy views and highlight the contrasts between him and the president. It’s high time the campaign went on offense and stopped merely deflecting Obama’s attacks. In short, the Romney team needs to “man up” on national security.