Editor’s note: In an interview with Diane Rehm, Kenneth Lieberthal discusses the visit of China’s expected next president, Xi Jinping, to the United States and what the impending leadership change in China could mean for the future of Sino-U.S. relations.
REHM: And, Ken Lieberthal, what kinds of important issues have been raised, will be raised?
KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: Our relationship with China is one where, when the top leaders get together, they actually take up the toughest issues across the board. This is isn’t something where they sit in the same room and avoid raising difficult questions. So while the White House read-out on his meetings at the White House yesterday emphasized that it was not going to get into point by point, the reality is they discussed Syria, they discussed Iran, they touched on North Korea. U.S.-China bilateral economic and trade relations were a major part of the discussion.
Later on, Xi Jinping went over to the Pentagon where he met Secretary Panetta — actually quite unusual for someone in Xi’s position to do — and I’m sure that they have a — had a vigorous exchange about military to military relations and overall military postures in the region.
REHM: What about human rights abuses?
LIEBERTHAL: Unquestioningly came up. In fact, I was at the lunch yesterday at the state department for Xi Jinping, and Vice President Biden gave a remarkably detailed, candid and critical set of comments, very much including the human rights agenda.
REHM: Was there any acknowledgement on Xi’s part that, in fact, human rights abuses had taken place?
LIEBERTHAL: Xi’s position there and elsewhere is the standard Chinese position, which is China is a developing country. It is in the midst of massive transition. It obviously has a ways to go on human rights. But it has been making substantial progress, and we should recognize that. And this is a matter that the Chinese care about a great deal. They often — Xi did not yesterday. But they often add that, and, by the way, it isn’t that you guys are the paragons of virtue on human rights. You have your own history and your own problems, too, so let’s not get too preachy about this.
[Trump has] given Iran the moral high ground and that is an exceptionally difficult thing to do given the history and reality of Iran's misdeeds at home and in the region. It's just malpractice on the part of an American president.
The way the Trump administration is moving forward [with its Iran policy] is just so hostile to all aspects of Iran that it’s unlikely to produce any traction with the Iranian people or to encourage divisions within the system.