It didn't surprise many in the Western commentsphere that Hillary Clinton chose Asia for her first destination as Secretary of State. A young Chinese friend here in Beijing, however, was surprised that it wasn't Obama's treasury secretary who was the first to cross the pond (the Pacific is the new pond). But there's nothing like a crisis to rewrite a job description: Clinton's focus in China last week was all economic, encouraging them to keep buying US bonds.
Amidst the hubbub that Clinton was zipping up on human rights issues like Tibet to cosey up to the economy which could help hers out of its mess, I can't help but think she's got it right. As she put it, "we pretty much know what they're going to say" on those points. And on another occassion: "how do you get tough on your banker?" Both true, though it must still be a sting to Americans to hear China's English language party-mouthpiece paper China Daily call Clinton's trip "a relief".
The point isn't that pressure from politicians on China's human rights abuses isn't important. It is. Not least in the wake of Charter 08, a call from Chinese citizens to its government to clean its act on human rights, modelled on former Czechoslovakia's Charter 77. The point is that there is no reasonable prospect of China rethinking policy after a diplomatic visit like this. There is a right time to press these buttons (which the US did, incidentally, in the annual report on human rights Clinton delivered soon after she returned), and a right time to not press them.
In this instance, keeping silent was the best way to start a more meaningful conversation. It's the right foot for Obama's administration to get off on with a government which has not only a track record of giving the cold shoulder to countries which pipe up on issues it considers no one else's business (how will you free Tibet if you're talking to a shoulder?), but which holds more and more of the cards. Not to mention those bonds.