In recent years, China and the US have agreed very little with each other. That competition can be seen from material interests to ideology, from the Middle East to the Pacific. The core competition of these two states is over hegemony, and some critics said China cannot be a leader because of its bad reputation on human rights, and it is the reason why the US can be the benign hegemon. As a benign hegemon, the US uses its power to spread human rights values and democracy, and builds a regime that can maintain its status. “Human rights” and “diplomacy” these two words sound like different concepts, but when combined, the concept of “human rights diplomacy” can be a pursued value or a tool to maintain hegemony.   

Human rights values are a part of national interests. The US always sees itself as a benign hegemon, so other countries who break the based-rules order are crossing the redline of its national interest. Recently, the US has criticized the approval of the Hong Kong national security law, saying it showed China did not care about the common value of human rights. Therefore, the US has the obligation to protect its values. In another case, after the Taliban took back Afghanistan in 2021, The US kept the economic sanctions because the Taliban violated women’s rights, and the US diplomats usually urge the Taliban to improve its internal affairs regarding this topic. 

Human rights can also be a tool to maintain hegemony. The value, no matter what it is for one country, is also a part of national interests. Constructivism, an international relations theory, explains that international relations work through sharing the same knowledge and values, and it can be seen in the following example. At the end of 2021, Joe Biden, the US president, held the Summit for Democracy against authoritarianism and improved human rights. The US takes China as a systemic competitor because they have different ideologies, and the US does not believe China can engage in the regime that America has set. Therefore, President Biden held this summit through diplomatic channels to assemble like-minded countries to maintain its power and imply who the enemy of the world is.

Admittedly, material interests are still the main part of national interests for most countries, but values cannot be ignored. They are too important nowadays. Countries may take human rights as part of their national interest to protect it in a diplomatic way, or use human rights diplomacy to appeal to like-minded allies.

Written by Eddie C.

Edited by Ari B.