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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dangerous fallout from China’s Chen affair

John Bolton
U.S. signals weakness to the world’s growing ranks of predators

The past two weeks of turmoil and drama in Sino-American affairs may well be the new normal, not an exception to an otherwise placid bilateral relationship. While Friday brought news of a possible deal allowing dissident Chen Guangcheng to leave China to study in America, that deal is no more certain than the earlier, failed deal, announced just days before, under which he was to remain in China. Many basic facts remain unknown, but the historical tides sweeping across the Pacific will not wait until we have perfect information, if we ever do.

Mr. Chen’s individual odyssey symbolizes large, indeed tectonic, political and social forces grinding away beneath the smooth appearance Beijing strains to convey. One person’s fate can be symbolic of larger forces, as in the 18th-century War of Jenkins‘ Ear. A Spanish officer sliced off British Capt. Robert Jenkins‘ ear for alleged piracy, proclaiming “were the King of England here doing the same, I would do the same to him,” precipitating hostilities. In fact, the conflict was just one episode in a much broader contest for European predominance, with Britain playing its historic role as offshore balancer.

Washington-Beijing relations are hardly so strained and hopefully will not end so badly. Nonetheless, the skirmish over Mr. Chen reflects poorly on the United States. Our halting, confused and so far inconclusive diplomacy has increased China’s determination to exploit our perceived weaknesses across the broader relationship. Beijing’s conclusion is that America is unwilling or unable to stand firm on its core values and interests. Consider the following specifics:

First, Mr. Chen did not simply show up on the doorstep of our embassy in Beijing. Instead, we sent an official vehicle to bring him into the embassy compound, thus evading Chinese security guards who likely would have barred his entry and arrested him. Our intervention was correct and consistent with prior U.S. practice in difficult refugee cases. Incomprehensibly, however, the State Department apparently failed to realize we were dramatically escalating the Chen matter, raising the political stakes by directly confronting China and also significantly increasing the risks to Mr. Chen, his family and dissident colleagues not under American protection.

Second, Mr. Chen’s departure, ostensibly to a hospital for medical treatment, effectively put him under Chinese police control. This demonstrated appalling U.S. naivete, considering how Beijing already had reacted to Mr. Chen’s daring escape from house arrest, his flight to Beijing and procurement of U.S. protection. Whether Mr. Chen truly decided to leave the embassy voluntarily, whether American officials provided him enough information to make a fully informed decision, whether Chinese officials were beating Mr. Chen’s wife and arresting the colleagues who had helped him escape, and whether the whole process was sped up because of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s impending arrival in Beijing all warrant further investigation.

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