Obama Makes Some Authoritarian Friends in Asia

Given the thumping that President Obama knew the Democrats would take at home this week, you can hardly blame him for deciding to hit the road with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and get as far from Washington, D.C. as physically possible.

No surprise, then, that Obama picked this Friday to set sail for a long-delayed four-nation tour of Asia--or that Clinton is already there. Of course, escapism isn't their only objective; it just happens that a few important meetings, like the G20 and ASEAN summits, are being thrown while they're in the neighborhood.

But while fleeing the Tea Party may help with the heartburn, Obama and Clinton can't expect a smooth reception in all ports. As if to underscore the point, this week Vietnam--one of the United States newest friends in Asia and the showcase of Washington's recent campaign to build a hedge against China by cultivating its nervous neighbors--decided to launch a highly visible crackdown of internal dissent shortly before Clinton arrives. Within a few days, the Vietnamese state arrested a number of activist bloggers and convicted six Catholics for protesting a government attempt to seize their cemetery and turn it into a tourist resort.

The arrests, and the administration's tepid response (Clinton raised the subject with the Vietnamese, but didn't suggest their thuggish tactics would affect the budding U.S.-Vietnam relationship) highlight what has become an increasingly problematic aspect of Obama's foreign policy. Even as the administration has made impressive efforts to reset ties with old foes like Russia, strengthen bonds with China, and simultaneously take advantage of the agitation China causes in its near abroad by solicitously courting China's neighbors, the administration is too often overlooking human rights in the process.

The issue has been a persistent theme since Obama took office--perhaps not surprisingly, given his professed realist leanings and declared admiration for foreign policy thinkers like Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush. But it has nonetheless disappointed many of Obama's allies on the left and his admirers abroad, who had expected his administration to make a clean break from the policies of its predecessor. Indeed, after several months of sustained attack from pundits and human rights organizations earlier in the year, the Obama team did shift its rhetoric, and start raising the subject of human rights more frequently. Clinton herself walked back what was probably her most notorious statement on the subject, a declaration in early 2009 that the United States shouldn't let human rights concerns "interfere" with its cooperation with China. But while the language has changed for the better (for example, after dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Obama praised the decision and called on China to free him), too little has moved on substance. The administration continues to cozy up to unsavory regimes and rarely takes its human rights concerns beyond the rhetorical level--by making them a condition of foreign aid, for example, or requiring that they be addressed before other forms of cooperation are extended.

The most glaring recent example of this trend is Vietnam. It may be depressing (depending on your viewpoint) but it shouldn't be a shocker that Obama has failed to press Russia or China very hard on rights, given how little leverage Washington has with these powers--and how such pressure has backfired in the past.

But Vietnam is small and weak. True, it is an attractive new partner for the United States, both economically and strategically. Its GDP grew by seven percent last quarter, making it one of hottest markets in Asia. It also offers U.S. manufacturers a low--indeed lower--cost  alternative to Chinese labor, which is rapidly growing more expensive.

But despite Hanoi's economic reforms, it also remains a pretty nasty authoritarian regime--indeed, Human Rights Watch has called it "one of the most repressive in Asia." In the last two years, the government has launched a widespread crackdown, hauling in and imprisoning farmers protesting land grabs in the Mekong Delta, Catholic parishioners opposing the government confiscation of church properties, and Montagnard activists fighting government control of their churches--as well as hundreds of peaceful political activists.

That all makes the Obama administration's close, seemingly unconditional embrace--this will be Clinton's second trip this year, and the two countries staged joint naval exercises in August--somewhat dismaying. Granted, foreign policymaking is all about tough trade-offs, and there are times when Washington will decide not to take a stand on a human rights question because other, more pressing national priorities must predominate.

But Vietnam is an easy call. The United States can afford to push it much harder on basic liberties--for example, by making further cooperation contingent on the government lightening its grip--for the simple reason that Vietnam needs the United States far more than Washington needs Hanoi.

For one thing, while Vietnam's economy is hot and growing, it's still tiny (about $256 billion, less than a half the size of Thailand's). For another, Vietnam is the one that's especially spooked by China's more aggressive recent behavior, especially its claims to disputed territory in the South China Sea. That means that it's Vietnam that's particularly keen to make new friends at the moment, and might well be willing to swallow some tough conditions if given no other choice.

Even if Hanoi refused--and this is the third thing to keep in mind--Washington has plenty of other potential partners in that part of the world. Yes, as the New York Times and others have reported, the Obama administration is quite keen to cultivate alliances throughout Asia at the moment to balance against a Beijing that seems more and more willing to throw its weight around. But a glance at Obama's itinerary starting this weekend--India, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea--reminds one that the U.S. has plenty of other options. Bigger, more powerful--and democratic--options.

So Clinton should deliver a blunt message when she hits Hanoi on Friday: You want to be friends? Great. We're happy to have you. But being friends with the United States means obeying a few basic rules. The first is that you stop abusing your own citizens.