SECRETARY of State Hillary Clinton did well to make her first trip abroad last week to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, and China - nations vital to global security and prosperity. But Clinton made disturbing remarks about human rights in China, Tibet, and Burma.
She gave the impression that the Obama administration is preparing to downgrade human rights and freedom of expression in American foreign policy. She also made it seem she is unaware of the delicate balance the nation's top diplomat needs to strike between idealism and Realpolitik.
Clinton's most obvious misstep was to muse in public about a failure of both sanctions and engagement to modify the dictatorial behavior of the junta that rules Burma. The analysis may be accurate. Yet Clinton's job demands an acute awareness of the implications of her public words. She seemed oblivious to the European Union's commitment to a sanctions policy and unaware that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is sensitive about having Burma's pariah regime in its midst. She also seemed forgetful of President Obama's comparison of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to Nelson Mandela.
Clinton made another kind of gaffe when she said pressing China on human rights "can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." Even if these were her priorities in talks behind closed doors with Chinese officials, her comment sent the wrong message to those officials, to Tibetans and Chinese democrats, and to human rights defenders in China.
Worse yet, Clinton justified her intent to soft-pedal human rights by saying, "We know what they're going to say, because I've had those conversations for more than a decade with Chinese leaders." This remark betrays two stunning assumptions: that American protests about human rights abuses have no effect on Chinese authorities, and that US-Chinese cooperation is possible only if the United States kowtows to Beijing's insistence on what it calls non-interference in its domestic affairs.
This year, China confronts two telling anniversaries - of the 1959 invasion of Tibet by the People's Liberation Army and of the murderous suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement. Communist Party bosses are all the more anxious about those memories because they coincide with protests at factory closings and revolts against corruption.
In short, Chinese leaders are more vulnerable than ever to an argument that free speech and a free press are the safest remedies for the ills that beset China's autocratic system. The US secretary of state must never downplay those human rights.