Turning a blind eye to the records of Washington's new partners is the wrong move.
Mr. President, as you start your second term, you have made clear that you will continue the "pivot" to Asia, which includes moving military assets to the Asian theater, bolstering relations with Asian partners, and generally re-establishing the United States as the major Pacific presence. Your new secretary of state, John Kerry, is a longtime advocate of closer ties with mainland Southeast Asia. Within the State Department and Pacific Command, support for the "pivot" is strong as well.
In many ways, the pivot makes sense. Moving more U.S. military assets to Asia, and building closer ties with democratic partners like Australia, India, and South Korea, could help Asian nations feel more secure without necessarily sparking an arms race with China. The White House itself is not necessarily driving the pivot; Worried about China's behavior, many Asian nations have looked to the United States as a balancer in the region.
But, Mr. President, as the past two months have shown, the excitement in Washington over the "pivot" has overshadowed some serious human rights concerns among many of the United States' new friends. Your second administration needs to do a better job of continuing the pivot while demonstrating that Washington will make closer ties with autocratic Southeast Asian regimes contingent on rights improvements. I will list just a few examples here. I recently returned from Myanmar, a country which this past year you, for the first time, invited to join the U.S. and Thai-led multinational military exercise Kobra Gold. Some U.S. diplomats believe that military-military cooperation with Myanmar will grow so exponentially that by 2015 you will sign a comprehensive partnership with Naypyidaw. And indeed, Myanmar has changed significantly since the transfer of power from the military in 2010. Yet I saw, in Rakhine State, how a combination of local vigilantes and prodding from some in the security forces has led to wanton destruction of the Muslim Rohingya community, with tens of thousands driven out of their homes and large regions burned to the ground. Although the Rohingya disaster has been covered in some media, on the ground the situation actually is worse than described in most media reports, and the Rohingya are turning into Asia's new "boat people," fleeing en masse in rickety boats in hopes of getting to Malaysia. The Myanmar government also has upped its war against insurgents in northern Kachin State, allegedly bombing them with imprecise air strikes, and it remains highly unclear, from my conversations with diplomats and regional officers, whether President Thein Sein has control of his army commanders in the field.