Chen Guangcheng And the Coming Crisis of US-China Diplomacy

At the Atlantic, Max Fisher offers a good frame to understand the dilemma faced by the Obama administration over Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng’s apparent refuge inside the US Embassy in Beijing:

How Obama deals with Chen Guangcheng may say more about his foreign policy and what it values than maybe any other such crisis he has faced during his presidency. That’s not because Chen is so important; he is important, but not anywhere near the scale of Iran or North Korea or the Arab Spring. It’s because his dilemma forces Obama to choose between two starkly different visions of American foreign policy.

In one sense, freeing this one dissident would risk daunting costs to Obama’s agenda abroad; in another, to bring Chen to freedom would seem the very embodiment of American power at its brightest. A blind man of humble origins, Chen got his start fighting for disabled rights in a country that barely recognized them, and ended up taking on some of his government’s cruelest abuses and most powerful interests. The U.S. State Department has previously called for his release. And, if he’s seeking refugee status, the U.S. is probably obligated under international law to grant it.

Yet, Chen’s release would infuriate the Chinese government, which the Obama administration has spent years assiduously courting. China’s help is essential for addressing nearly every major foreign policy issue Obama faces, from the conflicts in Syria and Sudan, to containing Iran and North Korea, to curbing global warming, to determining how the next century of Pacific power will play out. There’s also, of course, the U.S.-Chinese economic relationship, which is crucial for U.S. economic growth, which will be necessary for Obama’s reelection.

I think this is about right. I also don’t think that there is any question that the Obama administration will grant Chen some sort of amnesty or refugee status and spirit him to the USA.  This is precisely the kind of issue that unites the liberal leaning human rights community and neo-conservatives who prefer agressive confrontations with would-be rivals to American power, like China.  Old school realists, who tend to discount human rights as a principal on which the USA should base its foreign policy decisions, have been pretty much sidelined.

There is no question that there will be fallout.  It could be obstructing American goals at the UN, like Syria, Sudan, or Iran. Or, it could be more agressive cyber-subterfuge, or potentially overt actions intended to punish certain sectors of the American economy in some way.

There will be a reaction by the Chinese. Containing the fallout from this decision will be a huge test of the Obama administration.