Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, on July 22 to participate in Asia’s largest security conference. This past week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF) and the 43rd ASEAN Plus Three Foreign Ministers Meeting was filled with diplomatic discussions on how to create a safer and more economically efficient East Asian community.
At the ASEAN Plus and ARF dialogues, Clinton participated in several discussions, including ones on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, their recent attack on a South Korean Naval Ship, Burma’s upcoming political elections and human rights violations, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. An Asian diplomat referred to the multilateral discussions as “a game of diplomatic brinkmanship,” referring to the politically controversial nature of the topics.
ASEAN—founded by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand—has effectively maintained regional peace among its members and neighbors since its founding. However, the absence of war does not mean the absence of dispute and political tension. Although executive leaders may say in their speeches that they want to cooperate with their colleagues, it is often their own government that is the main obstacle to obtaining regional security and stability.
Half of the governments of ASEAN member states are either constitutional monarchies or communist regimes. Only a few members operate under a democratic system. Due to the shortage of democratic regimes in the ASEAN community, controversial policies such as improving human rights standards and holding fair political elections are very difficult to promote.
ASEAN’s ultimate political goal is to “strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Freely participating in elections and liberal checks on power are things often taken for granted in the U.S. But the people of Burma, who are oppressed by a military dictatorship, and the people of Vietnam, who are ruled by a communist regime—and others in the region—do not enjoy these institutions so essential to ensuring life, liberty, and property.
During the conference, ASEAN called for the Burmese government to conduct their upcoming election in a “free, fair, and inclusive manner with the participation of all political parities,” and to approve the participation of “observers” from ASEAN to assist in their election process. Clinton also addressed the issue of the upcoming Burmese elections in her remarks with Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Gia Khiem. She stated that Burma’s internal issues have an effect “not only on the people of that country but on their neighbors, as the outflow of refugees continues.” Clinton also voiced the concerns of the ASEAN community on the legitimacy of the elections, since the Burmese government has yet to set a date for the event. For the past 48 years, Burma’s military junta has oppressed any opposition party, which has made establishing a democracy impossible.
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, has lived 17 of the last 20 years in detention. Her loyal political colleagues were given the choice by new election rules to abandon her in order to participate in the elections or sit out the elections. They rightly decided to boycott the elections. The general public’s fear, an absence of elections for the past 20 years, and the proven lack of will on the part of ASEAN leaders to press its member countries on such issues has made the international community highly skeptical that this year’s elections will be “free, fair, and inclusive.”
In the ASEAN–U.S. Post-Ministerial Conference, Clinton reiterated the bold diplomatic promise she had made to Asia a year ago: “If you may recall my message last year, I said that the US is back, and now here I am to confirm that we are back and we are here to stay!” The oblique reference to the Bush years—years that were actually full of diplomatic activity, albeit with spotty top-level commitment—is misplaced. Two years of a new Administration is enough of a track record to be evaluated without reference to the Bush Administration. Still, that the U.S. is in Asia to stay is a positive message, as is the Administration’s grudging focus on democracy. But let’s face it: Unless ASEAN is willing to do what’s necessary to live up to the aspirations of its charter, it is all simply rhetoric.
Tasha Haug is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm