Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrapped up her first diplomatic mission to Asia yesterday with climate change experts praising her for putting global warming at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Human rights activists, on the other hand, expressed bitter disappointment.
Accompanied by her top climate change envoy, Todd Stern, Clinton raised the issue at every point in her tour of Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and China. During her final stop in Beijing she toured a cogeneration plant built with high-efficiency gas turbine technology from General Electric Co. and urged China not to make the "same mistakes" as the United States in producing rampant emissions of greenhouse gases.
"We were industrializing and growing. We didn't know any better. Neither did Europe," Clinton said during her visit to the Taiyang Gong plant. "Now we are smart enough to figure out how to have the right kind of growth, sustainable growth, and clean energy-driven growth."
Clinton said the Obama administration wants to see economic growth continue in China. But she also noted that the two nations produce 40 percent of the world's heat-trapping gas emissions.
'We hope you won't make the same mistakes'
"What we hope is that you won't make the same mistakes we made, because I don't think either China or the world can afford that," she said.
Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of a new blueprint on how to bring China and the United States into cooperation on climate change, said he thinks Clinton sent a powerful signal that was "fundamentally different" from the one sent by the Bush administration over the past eight years.
He noted that Clinton chose Stern as her travel companion -- and not a Treasury Department official, a nonproliferation expert or an envoy on any number of other top-tier foreign policy issues.
"Climate change is one of these existential threats that the U.S. and other countries face, and we do not have the luxury of procrastinating anymore. I think that's the message that Hillary Clinton brought to China," Lieberthal said.
"She's saying, 'We have changed the U.S. approach to this in a huge way. We want you to know that, and we want you to know the door is wide open for serious communication,'" he said.
But Clinton also faced stern rebukes from Amnesty International and others who accused her of sidelining human rights issues during her trip.
In an interview with reporters, according to a State Department transcript, Clinton noted that successive administrations have been grappling with human rights abuses in China.
But, she said, "our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis. We have to have a dialogue that leads to an understanding and cooperation on each of those."
Human rights group sees 'wrong message' sent
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying Clinton's remarks sent the "wrong message" to the Chinese government.
"Secretary Clinton's remarks point to a diplomatic strategy that has worked well for the Chinese government -- segregating human rights issues into a dead-end 'dialogue of the deaf,'" said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.
Jake Schmidt, international climate change policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said he doesn't believe the United States under President Obama will push human rights issues with China into the background. But he also noted that global warming "puts the life of the planet and life of humans on the brink."
"It's obviously crucial that the U.S. and China come together on global warming," he said.
Lieberthal also cast climate change as itself a human rights issue that, if allowed to proceed at the current pace, will diminish or destroy the quality of life of millions of people around the globe. "Civil rights is not the only dimension of this," he said.
Wanted: A plan for the future
The United States and China will meet again in April when Obama and China's president, Hu Jintao, gather for the Group of 20 nations summit in the United Kingdom. By that time, Schmidt and Lieberthal said, the State Department will need to have a much clearer game plan on emissions.
"Very quickly, we need to have a work plan," Schmidt said. "These new players will need to talk about the challenging issues in the international negotiations." U.N. leaders are crafting a new global agreement to reduce emissions, which they hope to finalize in Copenhagen in December.
At the moment, though, it remains unclear exactly what the Obama administration wants from China: a binding agreement to take targets for reducing emissions? A set of obligations that does not include emissions caps?
Lieberthal acknowledged that the White House will need to "declare its intentions" for China soon. But for now, he said, the administration has opened an important door to communication and cooperation on issues like energy efficiency and technology.
"This marks a new stage in the relationship," he said.