The Australian

By Tom Switzer and Owen Harries

AS US President Barack Obama's meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Washington serve to remind us, the issue of human rights continues to figure prominently in Sino-American relations.

Australia tends to play down these differences in high-level negotiations with Beijing. But for many Americans, liberal and conservative, it is an article of faith that it is their nation's right and duty - indeed its destiny - to promote democracy and human rights in the world. Indeed, most presidents since Woodrow Wilson have given voice to that sense of duty.

It is a noble and powerful impulse, one not casually to be ridiculed or dismissed. But acting on it - if one is concerned to be effective and not merely to feel virtuous - is more complicated than most human rights activists are prepared to recognise.

Individuals and special-interest groups are free to give human rights absolute and unqualified priority, but governments are not. For the activist, human rights are a cause.

But when they are incorporated into a government's foreign policy they become an interest, one among many. Their claims have to be balanced against other interests, many of which have a compelling practical as well as moral importance (for example, peace, security, order, prosperity). The place human rights will occupy in the hierarchy of interests will necessarily vary as circumstances vary.

The other factor that complicates human rights policy - what makes it not a simple matter of consistency but a complicated one of judgment and discrimination - is the variability and particularity of circumstance.

Consider some of the historical and economic circumstances that are relevant in the case of China.

In the past century, China has experienced the collapse of a traditional regime, warlordism, civil war, invasion, a famine that killed millions and mass terror in the form of the "Cultural Revolution".

A country with such a history is likely to put an unusually high premium on maintaining order and stability. It may also, as former Office of National Assessments director-general Peter Varghese has suggested, be "more likely to become self-absorbed than to act aggressively".

Since Deng Xiaoping's reform agenda three decades ago, China has experienced probably the fastest rate of economic growth and transformation in human history. The effects of this extraordinary progress are complex.

On the one hand, the rapid growth has delivered order, peace and unprecedented prosperity for a clear majority of Chinese people. On the other hand, it has created serious strains and problems, among them pervasive corruption and environmental devastation.

For the ruling elite, these and other problems raise serious uncertainty about control and stability - especially in a nation with more people than North America, Europe and Russia combined.

Fear of things getting completely out of hand - and a return to the chaos and mass violence of the recent past - must be real.

In these circumstances, urgent domestic pressures and opportunities will govern the behaviour of Chinese leaders for the foreseeable future, not outside influences.

Given all this, it seems to us that despite consistent rumblings from Democrats and Republicans about China's recalcitrance on anything from Tibet, Taiwan and human rights to currency, climate change and intellectual property, Washington has struck the right balance in dealings with Beijing.

None of this is to deny China's success in converting economic opportunities into regional political influence.

Nor is it to play down the level of injustice in certain parts of Chinese society. Beijing's leaders continue to intimidate some intellectuals, Christians and ethnic minorities.

Even Mr Hu acknowledged yesterday that "a lot still needs to be done in China in terms of human rights". But that concession alone marks a shift for a government that has imprisoned a Nobel laureate.

In pondering the best options for the US in its dealing with China, it is not necessary to rely entirely on abstract speculation. We have 60 years of dealing with this regime to draw on.

That experience falls into two very distinct periods: from the Communist Revolution of 1949 to Richard Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972, during which the US strove to isolate and contain Beijing; and the past four decades, during which Washington developed extensive political, economic and strategic relations with it.

The first period was disastrous. A ruthless tyranny prevailed, millions of Chinese were killed by the regime or died because of its insane policies, obscurantism ruled, the economy was reduced to a shambles.

The second period has brought a change in the political system in China from a genuinely totalitarian one to something much more moderate.

Indeed, in recent decades, US engagement has facilitated an enormous improvement in living standards and, yes, human rights for ordinary Chinese. This, of course, does not establish a direct causal relationship between engagement and improvement. But the two are surely not entirely unrelated. Obama was right in claiming as much yesterday.

Owen Harries was awarded a Doctorate of Letters at the University of Sydney last year. Tom Switzer is a research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney