I have posted a good deal on Dawn's Early Light regarding the US goal of containing China and building strong relationships with Asian countries. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick recently returned from a 6-nation tour of Asia. Evelyn Goh of the Asia Times has this fascinating article that praises Mr. Zoellick's efforts.
"For those who have been wondering what the second George W. Bush administration has in store for Southeast Asia, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick's recent eight-day visit to the region was encouraging. Above all, it was a significant display of the kind of diplomacy that too many have ceased to expect from the United States after Bush's first term. Following Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visits to Northeast and South Asia in March, the deputy secretary's visit reassured Southeast Asia that it remains on Washington's radar screen. Symbolically, Zoellick observed the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in the Asian theater, at Corrigedor in the Philippines.
In terms of style, Zoellick was impressive. At various stops, he stated his interest in 'consulting with our [Southeast Asian] partners, sharing some ideas and listening to their thoughts about the direction for the next four years'. The emphasis on consultation and listening regarding issues of common concern was accompanied by material aid in the form of a substantial post-tsunami reconstruction package for Indonesia and promises of help with economic liberalization in Vietnam. When he publicly discussed thorny issues, such as Myanmar's upcoming chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) [See DEL prior comments here and here] and religious freedom in Vietnam, Zoellick was diplomatic: he appeared firm but not overbearing or hectoring. More important, in terms of substance, the deputy secretary made all the right noises about issues most important to the region while taking a broader and more consultative approach to the key issue for the US - terrorism."
The article requires little commentary yet I would like to highlight several key goals attained by the US with various countries in the region. Mr. Zoellick is an impressive representative of US foreign policy because of his background.
"The emphasis on economic issues during Zoellick's trip was particularly appreciated in a region that has labored under the US foreign-policy banner of the "second front" in the war against terrorism since 2002. As a former US trade representative (2001-2005) responsible for negotiating a wide range of trade agreements, including the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement and the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, Zoellick is familiar with the economic and developmental imperative in Southeast Asia."
Here are the highlights by country, according to Ms. Goh, of his recent trip:
- Mr. Zoellick spoke of working out a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the two countries and contrasted the opportunity against Chinese efforts: "he was also careful to explain that US FTAs take a longer time to negotiate as they are more comprehensive than agreements offered by other countries such as China."
- The US has invited the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Washington DC within the next two months. This invitation was also extended to Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and Indonesia's leader, Yudhoyono (See Marvin's piece here)
- Mr. Zoellick made efforts to establishing an FTA.
- He expanded cultural ties to Malaysia in a sensitive way: "He spent time in Malaysia talking to Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi about Islam hadhari, or 'civilizational Islam', and consulting with scholars and members of religious parties and human-rights groups, suggesting that the country held lessons for Iraq and Palestine."
- Not reported in the article, but nevertheless extremely important, was the agreement to allow the US navy to patrol the oil sensitive Malacca Strait.
- Mr. Zoellick attempted to build upon America's goodwill generated after the devastating December 2004 Tsunami. America's efforts stand in contrast to China's as noted: "He duly traveled to Aceh, where he signed an agreement to build a US$245 million road along the devastated province's western coast. The deputy secretary also pledged a broader economic development assistance package for Indonesia, committing $73.7 million over the next five years. This offer by the US comes on the heels of China's recent pledge of $5 million in assistance and $300 million in low-interest loans for reconstruction in Indonesia's disaster zones."
- He pressed for Indonesia to revive its lead role in ASEAN, especially given the possibility that Myanmar (formerly Burma) is set to take the rotating lead role, which is an issue to the US given their horrific human rights abuses. As Ms. Goh states: "This is because of the confluence of three factors conducive to American interests: the desire to support democratically elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono; the recognized importance of Indonesia as the world's largest, and relatively moderate, Muslim country; and Jakarta's support for an open, inclusive Asian regionalism that will not exclude the US."
- The door for a possible resumption of US-Indonesian military ties were likely discussed though no agreements were announced.
- Mr. Zoellick lent credibility and stature to Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Sihinawatra's efforts to play a positive mediator role in the US-ASEAN concerns regarding Myanmar.
- Mr. Zoellick made efforts to establishing an FTA.
The United States, through its use of deft soft-power politics, a readily world-apparent view of its hard power on display internationally, and the able efforts of Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, has made good progress in expanding on relations in an extremely important region. Ms. Goh's final comments explain the opportunities and success the US has in Southeast Asia and what it translates to regarding China.
"By demonstrating that Washington recognizes the economic imperative of the region, that it would rather peacefully compete with Chinese economic influence in Southeast Asia, and that it can address more sensitively top US strategic priorities that are shared by these nations but subject to domestic constraints and sensitivities, Zoellick has performed a significant service in boosting US relations with the region.
Certainly, Southeast Asia will keep a sharp eye out for concrete results, especially regarding the progress of FTA negotiations with Thailand and Malaysia and the resumption of military ties between the US and Indonesia. For now, however, if the renewed diplomacy demonstrated by Zoellick reflects the Bush administration's attitude toward the region, we may be looking forward to fruitful US-ASEAN relations for the next four years."
While the Mainstream Media focuses on the Koran and the NYT editorializes about the failed US policy towards China, real diplomacy is producing results and laying the important groundwork for the US to retain its central role in promoting personal and economic freedoms in an important part of the world.