Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Principles of U.S. Engagement in the Asia-Pacific

Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Subcommittee on East Asian & Pacific Affairs, January 21, 2010

A policy of pragmatic engagement with the Burmese authorities holds the best hope for advancing our goals. Under this approach, U.S. sanctions will remain in place until Burmese authorities demonstrate that they are prepared to make meaningful progress on U.S. core concerns. The leaders of Burma’s democratic opposition have confirmed to us their support for this approach. The policy review also confirmed that we need additional tools to augment those that we have been using in pursuit of our objectives.

Full testimony here.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell


Let me turn to another area of renewed engagement: Burma. Mr. Chairman, your leadership on this issue has been instrumental in changing our policy and initiating steps to engage the Burmese junta. As you are well aware, the Administration’s formal review of U.S. policy towards Burma reaffirmed our fundamental goals: a democratic Burma at peace with its neighbors and that respects the rights of its people. A policy of pragmatic engagement with the Burmese authorities holds the best hope for advancing our goals. Under this approach, U.S. sanctions will remain in place until Burmese authorities demonstrate that they are prepared to make meaningful progress on U.S. core concerns. The leaders of Burma’s democratic opposition have confirmed to us their support for this approach. The policy review also confirmed that we need additional tools to augment those that we have been using in pursuit of our objectives. A central element of this approach is a direct, senior-level dialogue with representatives of the Burmese leadership. Since I testified before you on the subject late last September, I visited Burma November 3 and 4 for meetings with Burmese officials, including Prime Minister Thein Sein, leaders of the democracy movement, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and representatives of the largest ethnic minorities. In my meetings, I stressed the importance of all stakeholders engaging in a dialogue on reform and emphasized that the release of political prisoners is essential if the elections planned for 2010 are to have any credibility. [...]


Robert Sutter, Visiting Professor of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University


For much of its history, the United States exerted influence in Asia much more through business, religious, educational and other interchange than through channels dependent on government leadership and support. Active American non-government interaction with Asia continues today, putting the United States in a unique position where the American non-government sector has such a strong and usually positive impact on the influence the United States exerts in the region...

Though a lot is written about the so-called Beijing consensus and the attractiveness of the Chinese “model” to Asian and other governments, the fact remains that the Chinese leadership continues to emphasize a narrow scope of national interests and assures that its policies and practices serve those interests. Thus, China tends to avoid the types of risks, costs, and commitments in security and economic areas that undergird the US leadership position in Asia.

By and large, Asian government officials understand this reality. China continues to run a substantial trade surplus and to accumulate large foreign exchange reserves supported by currency policies widely seen to disadvantage trading competitors in Asia and elsewhere. Despite its economic progress, China annually receives billions of dollars of foreign assistance loans and lesser grants from international organizations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and from foreign government and non-government donors that presumably would otherwise be available for other deserving clients in Asia and the world. It carefully adheres to UN budget formulas that keep Chinese dues and other payments remarkably low for a country with Chinese international prominence and development. It tends to assure that China’s contributions to the broader good of the international order (e.g. extensive use of Chinese personnel in UN peacekeeping operations) are paid for by others. At bottom, the “win-win” principle that undergirds recent Chinese foreign policy means that Chinese officials make sure that Chinese policies and practices provide a “win” for generally narrowly defined national interests of China. They eschew the kinds of risky and costly commitments for the broader regional and global common good that Asian leaders have come to look to US leadership to provide.

Policy Options

In sum, the main question for US policy makers is how to use the leverage and influence that comes from US leadership in Asia in order to promote American values without major negative side effects.

At one end of available options is an overly cautious approach by the US government seeking to avoid raising issues of values in a pragmatic effort to build better ties with Asian governments that oppose American values. US policy toward China often has seen US policymakers strongly identified with human rights promotion (e.g. Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush) appear to pull their punches in seeking better relations with Chinese leaders. This policy approach has proven unsustainable over the long term in an American political context, even though it may provide some expedient benefit for the US government in dealing with China over the short term.

At the other end of the spectrum of policy options is an assertive and unilateral US posture on salient issues of human rights questions and other value- laden subjects. As shown above, US values are not among the most salient aspects of US strength among the generally pragmatic decision making of officials in Asia focused on nation building and national legitimacy. American values in support of transparent decision making, open markets and good governance do indirectly or directly reinforce the salient US strengths. However, the strong US insistence on its values in this policy option would probably result in serious and disruptive changes in the prevailing Asian order; Asian governments challenged by the US insistence on its values, even Asian states that relied on the security and economic support provided by the United States, would feel compelled to seek their interests in a more uncertain environment of less reliance on and more distance from or even opposition to the United States.

Between these extremes, there is much the United States can do to promote American values in Asia. US care and attentiveness in dealing with security and economic responsibilities in the region highlight the positive example of the United States for Asian elites and popular opinion. Good American stewardship protecting the common goods important to all redounds to the benefit of US officials pursuing policies promoting American values; it also benefits the wide array on non-government American organizations and entities that interact with counterparts throughout the region, frequently explicitly and more often implicitly, promoting American values. As Asian officials, elites and public opinion see their success in nation building tied to the effective and responsible policies and practices of the United States, they likely will be inclined to emulate American policies and practices at the root of US leadership and strength. These include those values supported by the United States.

Improving on US stewardship in Asia, the Obama government has adjusted US policy in order to build on the strengths inherited from the Bush administration while correcting some weaknesses. The new US government stresses consultative engagement and greater attention to the interests and concerns of Asian leaders. US leaders should continue to use US power and leadership in close consultations with Asian governments in order to establish behaviors and institutions in line with longstanding US interests and values. Listening to and accommodating whenever possible the concerns of Asian governments helps to insure that decisions reached have ample support in the region. The Obama government has gone far to change the US image in Asia from a self absorbed unilateralist to a thoughtful consensus builder.

How the United States should seek to promote American values like human rights while dealing in a consultative way with Asian government leaders seemed on display when President Obama spoke to the annual Sino-American leadership dialogue meeting in Washington in July 2009. He advised his Chinese colleagues that the American government did not seek to force China to conform to its view of human rights but it would nonetheless continue to press China and others to conform to the values of human rights that are so important to the United States. He said:

“Support for human rights and human dignity is ingrained in America. Our nation is made up of immigrants from every part of the world. We have protected our unity and struggled to perfect our union by extending basic rights to all our people. And those rights include the freedom to speak your mind, to worship your God, and to choose your leaders. They are not things that we seek to impose—this is who we are. It guides our openness to one another and the world.”

Remembering and being “who we are” as American officials and non-government US representatives supporting human rights and other American values in interactions with Chinese or other Asian government officials opposed to or challenged by those values should continue strongly in my judgment. By and large, these governments want to improve relations with the United States, the Asian regional leader on whom they depend. They know who we are and obviously should not and do not expect us to change in order to favor their political interests. In general, I believe they will live with and hopefully gradually adjust to a regional and world order heavily influenced by the United States through example, responsible stewardship of common goods, and persistent but respectful advocacy.


Printer-friendly version