Obama’s hidden Asean agenda

California’s Rancho Mirage forms the backdrop to the large obstacles being discussed by Asean. Source: Wikimedia

Sunnylands in California today hosts the 10 Asean leaders for an unprecedented summit with US President Barack Obama.

Although not invited, the Chinese will be watching the event with interest and the firm hand of Beijing will presumably provide the context for America’s agenda.

Dominating the two-day event will be the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is in part an attempt by the US to redress China’s growing economic suzerainty over Asean, and the South China Sea dispute.

An attempt to form a unified stance over China’s almost bottomless ambitions in the resource-rich sea, that sees an estimated US$5 trillion in trade sail through its waters every year, is focusing minds in Washington, Manila and Hanoi.

Obama will be hoping that Asean’s largest country and economy, Indonesia, can increase its role, as it has no overlapping claim with China in the contentious waters.

Meanwhile, pro-Chinese nations like Cambodia have blocked attempts to adopt a unified approach.

In July 2012, Cambodia sided with China over the South China Sea at a previous Asean summit, arguing that disputes should be dealt with bilaterally rather than through the 10-member bloc.

On the agenda should be a window to ask Asean’s leaders about their human rights records but this is unlikely.

Washington has found to its cost how fast China’s progress in Africa has been partly because it refuses to attach strings to investment and has a no-questions-asked approach to the continent’s many dictators.

A dressing down over human rights is probably the last thing on Obama’s mind but Asean provides a shocking range of examples of where he could start.

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said: “President Obama knows that human rights are under assault in Southeast Asia; the question is whether he’s going to say or do something about it. The risk is that the Sunnylands summit will empower and embolden Asean leaders who have been responsible for jailing journalists, cracking down on peaceful protesters, and dismantling democratic institutions after coups.”

The NGO’s report “Human Rights in Asean” calls on Washington to place an emphasis on rights, including political prisoners in Vietnam, political repression in Cambodia and Thai censorship.

HRW also wanted civil society organisations to participate at today’s summit.

“President Obama should ensure that abusive Asean leaders do not gain undeserved legitimacy from attending Sunnylands,” Sifton said.

Thailand’s Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha, who has crushed freedom of speech and arrested numerous protesters since his May 2014 coup, is probably the most glaring example. After threatening critics with violence and declaring that his decisions are unchallengeable, he continues to delay a return to civilian, democratic rule.

Quite how the nation that gave us Hiroshima, the drone, Guantanamo, My Lai, carpet bombing and the Iraq invasion acquired the right to lecture every other nation on its rights record is a separate point.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam and President Choummaly Sayasone of Laos rule oppressive, one-party states that deny basic freedoms and use censorship, threats and torture to maintain power. The sultan of Brunei, Hassal Bolkiah, one of the world’s few hereditary leaders with executive powers, has imposed a near complete ban on freedoms of expression, association, assembly and even Christmas, as part of his strict interpretation of Sharia law.

Prime Minister Hun Sen in neighbouring Cambodia has ruled for more than 30 years, using violence, intimidation and politically motivated arrests and prosecutions against any opponent, while turning a blind eye to high-level corruption and cronyism. HRW says he is implicated in mass murder from the 1970s in eastern Cambodia when he was a Khmer Rouge leader. He refused to step down after losing the 1993 election and carried out a coup in 1997.

Observers described the 2013 general election as “fundamentally flawed” and opposition leader Sam Rainsy is in exile to avoid arrest in politically motivated cases. Hun Sen has not been officially invited to visit the US because of his rights record but an exception has clearly been made this week.

The lack of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights in several countries could also be mentioned.

“The US government’s diplomatic ‘rebalance’ to Asia could indeed bring positive changes if human rights and democracy are raised to the same level as other US priorities in the region,” Sifton said. “But only if Obama is prepared to tell Asean leaders who dismantle democracies or systematically repress their own people that they are harming their countries, both now and for the future.”

But as ever, it’ll be “the economy, stupid”.

The recently concluded Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) signed by four Asean members – Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam – is clearly part of the US rebalancing strategy to counter China’s economic dominance. Beijing’s engagement with Asean through its Asean-China Free Trade Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership points to the public side of its regional dominance, argues Mari Pangestu of the University of Indonesia.

The TPP is also seen as the US counter to the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB), which China launched with US$100 billion capital, Pangestu says. The AIIB promises significant infrastructure projects that could boost Asean and East Asian integration.

But the Sunnylands summit’s agenda is deeply vague, with analysts suggesting this is a deliberate attempt not to scare pro-Beijing members from attending.

The US states in its programme: “Participants may raise any issue of importance to them.”

This relaxed format might confuse Asean’s leaders who are conditioned to a more rigid agenda but the US approach might be a means to open up discussions on the South China Sea.

An unnamed Malaysian official said: “It is obvious this US-Asean summit is about that. It is true that the US-Asean relationship has been elevated to a strategic partnership to cover other areas of cooperation. But Washington can’t have that sole agenda of South China Sea and face the possibility of China persuading several Beijing-friendly countries within Asean from attending the summit.

“So throw in other issues like the economy; after all, Asean just launched its Asean Economic Community,” said the official.

Another Malaysian delegate was quoted saying: “It is to update Malaysia on Chinese movements and US operations in that area. It is information sharing with Kuala Lumpur. Will this free-flow format work in getting Asean leaders to be frank at this summit? We think the Americans expect our prime minister [Najib Razak] to say something as Kuala Lumpur has been seen as quite balanced in its views. It will be interesting also to see non-claimant countries and pro-Beijing Asean members like Cambodia state their stand at this summit.”

Those waiting for Obama to take the lead on human rights will probably be left unsatisfied while it is highly unlikely anyone, including the USA, will find a unified way of opposing China’s inexorable advance into the South China Sea.