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US – Asia Relations: A Flurry of Activities

Updated On: Jun 08, 2007

The United States is trying to improve its image in Southeast Asiaas well as reassert its global leadership role in Asiain a series of moves and comments that appear at times contradictory. 

This perhaps reflect the complexities and intricacies of US relations with a region that is in itself diverse and heterogeneous.    

As part of the plan to place human rights and democracy on its top agenda, the US is shuffling its envoys in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia as it tries to repair its tarnished image in the aftermath of US-led invasion of Iraqin 2003.

“Far too few Malaysians hold positive views of the United States,” according to Mr. James Keith, the ambassador-designate to Malaysia. However, despite the sentiments on the ground, Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi and Indonesian President Yudhoyono have worked behind the scenes to improve ties with a free trade pact underway between the US and Malaysia and the restoration of defence cooperation with Indonesia.

Besides Malaysia and Indonesia, US ambassadors to ThailandVietnamLaos and East Timor are also to be replaced.  In Thailand, this would mean a greater focus on the Muslim insurgency in the country’s restive south which is causing much concern in Washington.

However, following the reshuffling of its envoys aimed at improving bilateral relations in Southeast Asia, lawmakers in US are now considering restricting the amount of aid to the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), a move with the potential to dampen bilateral relations.

“If restrictions are tagged on to a new congressional Bill, then the US is sending the wrong signals to Indonesia…We have been working well with the US for the last two years and then they throw a spanner in the works. Many will ask what is wrong with these Americans,” a senior Indonesian Foreign Ministry official commented in the face of ongoing reforms undertaken by Indonesia’s military as part of its democratic reforms.

This is the result of the renewed emphasis on human rights by the Congress and they have complained of the lack of progress in prosecuting senior TNI officers such as former military chief General Wiranto for his involvement in the violence following East Timor’s independence in 1999. This was further heightened when an independent government watchdog in Jakartadiscovered that Indonesian marines fired directly at protestors in clashes last week leaving four people dead.

US emphasis on human rights have also seen mounting concerns in Washington over Vietnam’s recent crackdown on dissidents. But despite the criticism of human rights record, the relationship between the two nations has grown closer in recent years, which will culminate in an official visit to the US by Vietnam’s President Nguyen Minh Triet on June 22, marking the first-ever visit by a Vietnamese head of state to the US since the end of the Vietnam War.  Vietnamese leadership has taken steps to improve relations such as releasing some political dissidents ahead of the visit in the hope that this maiden trip with be a success.

Mr. Triet will be accompanied by 200 businessmen during his visit and will sign several major business deals that will cement booming economic ties between the two former enemies. A US-Vietnam Trade and Investment Framework Agreement will also be signed at the White House.

Vietnam’s tiny neighbour Laos has also stepped into the US limelight when the US police arrested nine people charged with plotting to overthrow the communist government in Laoson June 5.

Laos welcomed US action against high-profile Hmong leader Vang Pao and eight other Hmong. “We praise the US government as this group committed wrongdoing against the Lao government, which has good relations with the US,” according to Laos Foreign Ministry spokesman.

The prevention of this latest alleged scheme is surprising for many in Laos and Thailand as they believed that Washington has turned a blind eye to such activities in the last 30 years since Vietnam War or even encouraged efforts to destabilize the Laotian communist regime and its socialist leaders. Vang Pao had led CIA-backed Hmong forces in Laos in the 1960s and 70s while the scattered groups of Hmong inLaosare remnants and descendants of ex-fighters of a CIA-funded “secret army”. This secret army fought on the side of the US against Lao forces when the war spilled over from Vietnamin the 1960s.

Apart from the series of activities in Southeast Asia, the US is also concerned about developments in other parts of Asia particularly China.  President Bush chided China for ‘derailed’ reforms ahead of the G8 meeting. He said certain values were universal to all democracies and rapped several countries for not embracing them, with China in the list.

China’s leaders believe that they can continue to open the nation’s economy without also opening its political system,” Bush commented. He also mentioned that North Korea is one of the “worst dictatorships” countries.

Besides Bush comment which came a day ago, US Treasury Henry Paulson had also commented on Tuesday that China should step up market-opening and currency reforms to help avert a “protectionist tide” in the US. Mr. Paulson in his speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington  reiterated that Beijing is moving too slowly in their economic reforms, frustrating the US public and lawmakers.

A day earlier, on the security front, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace also called for China to be transparent in its military spending during his security briefing in Malaysia. “We in the United Statesare anxious for them to be as transparent as possible so we can understand what they intend to do, so we can understand the amount of money they are spending on modernizing,” he said.

China on the other hand has voiced their opposition on Tuesday, ahead of G8 meeting to Washington’s controversial plan to deploy a missile defense system in some East European countries saying that it could shift the strategic balance of power.  (7 June 2007)

Sources:

All change for US line-up of diplomats in South-east Asia(Today, 6 June 2007)

US shuffles diplomats in Southeast Asia(AFP, 5 June 2007)

US aid to Indonesian military under threat (Straits Times, 7 June 2007)

Booming US-Vietnam ties set to accelerate (Straits Times, 6 June 2007)

Vietnamese president expected to visit US on June 22 (International Herald Tribune, 5 June 2007)

Vietnamto release dissident ahead of President’s UStrip (Straits Times, 4 June 2007)

Coup plot against Laosfoiled in US (Today, 6 June 2007)

LaosLaoswelcomes USmove against Hmong plot leaders (Thai News Service, 6 June 2007)

Laos: News of coup attempt against Laosgovernment hardly surprising (Thai News Service, 6 June 2007)

Bush chides RussiaChinafor ‘derailed’ reforms (China Post, 6 June 2007)

Chinafaces greater risk by slow market opening: Paulson (Channel News Asia, 6 June 2007)

Chinavoices opposition to USmissile shield (Reuters, 5 June 2007)

China’s military must be more transparent: Pace (AFP, 4 June 2007)