By Roberto Tofani
Impressive economic growth, democratic opening in Myanmar and prolonged financial crises in the ZIOCONNED and utterly criminal West have renewed United States and European Union (EU) interest in Southeast Asia after a decade of relative neglect. But will Washington and Brussels sacrifice their long-standing advocacy of democracy and human rights on the altar of new economic and strategic interests?
The increasing geopolitical relevance of the South China Sea, where China has competing and contentious territorial claims with Southeast Asian neighbors, has helped to drive the US's declared strategic "pivot" towards Asia. Many analysts view that strategic shift as an attempt to counterbalance China's rising regional influence by courting and defending its Southeast Asian neighbors.
The US has avoided taking overt sides in the recent stand-off between China and the Philippines over the contested Scarborough Shoal, but has stated its interest in freedom of navigation in the contested waters. Recent joint US-Philippine naval exercises underscored this interest while raising hackles in Beijing. Its engagement with Myanmar is also seen as an attempt to undercut Chinese influence in the resource-rich, strategically-situated country.
Americans and Europeans have historically sanctioned or strongly criticized countries like Myanmar and Vietnam over their abysmal human-rights records and lack of respect for basic civil liberties. Both have applied a dual approach to encourage economic and political change. While international financial institutions have provided help to stimulate market-driven growth, Western governments have dangled humanitarian and development assistance in return for promised democratic reforms.
That approach has only partially worked. Southeast Asian countries have shown scant interest in improving basic rights and concentrated instead on strengthening their economies through trade and investment relations with the West. More recently, China has helped many regional countries diversify their economies, without demands for reform. As that economic balance shifts, the US and the EU have seemingly softened their calls for universal rights and intensified their pursuit of new markets.
To be sure, the rhetoric is still in place. Take, for instance, Vietnam. In February, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell told his Vietnamese hosts that moving their improved bilateral relationship to the next level "will require some significant steps on the part of Vietnam to address both individual cases of concerns, human rights concerns, but also more systemic challenges associated with freedom of expression, freedom of organization".
In the meantime, US and Vietnamese authorities are working towards a new Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) - a multilateral free trade agreement that aims to further liberalize trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region. A 2001 bilateral trade agreement was a significant milestone towards normalizing US-Vietnam relations and helped to boost bilateral trade from US$3 billion in 2002 to $18.6 billion in 2010, making the US Vietnam's second-largest trading partner after China.
While the US State Department still considers Vietnam "an authoritarian state", seen most visibly in its ongoing crackdown on activists and bloggers, trade relations have been unaffected. Washington has moved cautiously only on the issue of sophisticated arms sales, partially due to rights concerns, but more likely to avoid a direct conflict with China.
The EU is Vietnam's third-largest trading partner and one of its largest foreign investors. Last year, European investors committed some $1.8 billion worth of foreign direct investment (FDI) outlays, representing more than 12% of Vietnam's total committed FDI, according to Vietnamese sources.
More than the promotion of human rights, the EU's current stated aim is "the signature of the new EU-Vietnam Partnership and Cooperation Agreement in the near future", Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/vice president of the commission, stated at the end of April.
Since joining the World Trade Organization in 2007, and with a rising critical mass of Western investments, Vietnam is no longer considered in Washington or Brussels a country of particular concern, despite its ongoing and persistent rights abuses.
There are concerns that strategic and economic interests are dictating the course of relations with Myanmar, a country where both the US and EU maintain but have recently suspended economic sanctions imposed against abusive military rule. The EU and US now seem to be coupled in an investment race to catch up with Asian countries, including China, India and Thailand, that maintained normal relations through decades of military rule.
Myanmar President Thein Sein's political reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, the loosening of media restrictions and allowances for the Aung San Suu Kyi-led opposition to join parliament, have been rapidly rewarded by Washington and Brussels. The US and EU have respectively eased and suspended their sanctions and both are planning to ramp up development aid within the country.
"We say to American businesses, invest in Burma [Myanmar] and do it responsibly," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after announcing the rollback of sanctions after talks with Myanmar Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin in Washington this month.
Myanmar exiles, former political prisoners and international rights groups championed the sanctions and have long opposed their removal without demonstrable progress on the country's rights situation. Despite recent releases, hundreds of political prisoners are still behind bars, they note.
Meanwhile, there are credible reports of ongoing and widespread military abuses against civilians in the government's conflict with Kachin rebels in the country's northern region. And the local press is still censored against reporting critically on the previous or current regime.
The US and EU have decided to look past these abuses and have concentrated instead on economic matters. Echoing Clinton's call on US corporations to invest in Myanmar, the British Embassy in Yangon recently published its "Burma business guide" to assist potential investors in the country.
Ironically, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) will hold its next meeting in Yangon in early June. With Myanmar's restrictions on civil society organizations and continued black listing of activists and journalists, few expect progress towards an ASEAN Human Rights Declaration, a proposed roadmap for regional rights developments in the region. Myanmar will chair the 10-member ASEAN for the first time beginning in 2014.
In the past, the US and EU balked at Myanmar's membership in the regional grouping and through their sanctions would have boycotted any meetings held in the country. Now, with the recent shift in diplomatic priorities, Washington and Brussels seem increasingly willing to subjugate rights and democracy concerns in pursuit of commercial and geostrategic interests.
While the gambit may aim to counter China's influence, by looking the other way on rights abuses and lauding token democratic reforms, the US and EU are effectively endorsing Beijing's approach.
Roberto Tofani is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Southeast Asia. He is also the co-founder of PlanetNext (www.planetnext.net), an association of journalists committed to the concept of "information for change".