- - Monday, May 7, 2012

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.

But the real issue is why responsible U.S. authorities had any reason to believe the Chinese government, which had imprisoned Mr. Chen and kept him under house arrest the past seven years, would cheerfully assent to freeing him to attend law school in China, thereby inevitably maturing into an even greater threat to Communist Party supremacy. Chinese human rights advocates did not believe Beijing’s assurances; why did our State Department?

Third, even assuming Mr. Chen and his immediate family do leave China to study in America, which is still uncertain, Mr. Chen almost certainly will never be allowed to return. Even as Mrs. Clinton’s plane was wheels-up from Beijing, official Chinese media were condemning Mr. Chen as a U.S. “tool,” an agent of our sinister efforts to undermine Chinese authority. This propaganda campaign is a precursor either to subjecting him to continued scrutiny and repression in China or to expelling him as a foreign subversive. Either way, Mr. Chen’s fate would be a vivid warning to other dissidents that they could face the same unhappy future.

Fourth, China’s underlying instability will only continue to grow. Mr. Chen’s campaign against forced sterilization and abortion, and thus against the infamous one-child-per-family policy, reflected deeply felt opposition to this brutal Chinese government interference in fundamental human freedoms and issues of conscience.

And opposition to the “one child” policy is itself only part of broader turmoil. The apparent purge of Communist Party leader Bo Xilai proves, that all is not well within the party leadership. Taken together with other evidence of instability in China, it is no wonder the Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army are at near-trigger-happy levels of concern.

That is why Washington’s confused handling of the Chen affair is so disturbing. At a time of potentially enormous upheaval within China, America’s current foreign-policy leaders had no strategy to advance our interests and support those of like mind inside China. Instead, we find ourselves more vulnerable to China and other present and potential adversaries exploiting our weaknesses and inattention.

U.S. vulnerability and failure are comforting signs to autocrats and dictators worldwide. The Chen affair should warn us that a continued uncertain trumpet by the United States means only greater dangers to America in the coming decades.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).

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