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Top U.S. Officials Pivoting in Asia, But What About Human Rights?

The Obama Administration continued a full diplomatic offensive this week in Asia.

Just days after the election, nearly all of America’s top foreign policy officials are visiting countries in the Asia-Pacific region in an unprecedented display of commitment. Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Defense Panetta have both been in Australia this week and are expected to travel to other countries in the region including Cambodia and Thailand. Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs Martin Dempsey is visiting both South Korea and Australia. President Obama himself is travelling to Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia.

The FT has the report:

At a briefing at US think-tank CSIS on Thursday, Tom Donilon, the US national security adviser, said the US was pursuing “a stable and constructive relationship with China”. There were “elements of both co-operation and competition”, he noted, “but getting the US-China relationship right is a long-term effort. We will continue to make this a priority in President Obama’s second term and as China’s new leadership takes the reins.”

The US rebalancing towards Asia-Pacific was also a “long-term undertaking”, he said, noting: “The president will make clear once again over coming days, the region will continue to be a foreign policy priority for years to come.”

The Administration is signalling that it is all-in when it comes to Asia and the timing of the visits, just days after the U.S. presidential election and amid China’s power transition, underlines the message.

Obama’s itinerary should not be overlooked either. No sitting U.S. President has ever visited Cambodia or Myanmar. Not so long ago Myanmar was firmly in China’s orbit. Today Cambodia might be called one of China’s few remaining close friends in the region.

There is a fly in the pho, however: human rights. The Obama administration appears to be shifting from the realist and Jeffersonian perspective of its early period to a more activist and Wilsonian policy as time goes on. That causes problems in Southeast Asia where the imperatives of realist thinking lead toward engagement of regimes like Vietnam and an imperfect Myanmar while a more Wilsonian approach would be more aloof. It’s likely that some of the administration’s ugliest internal fights in the second term will be over the relationship of the two components of the pivot, and at this early stage it is hard to predict which approach will win out.

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