November 16, 2012

PRESIDENT OBAMA’S first foreign policy initiative following his reelection is a reinforcement of his “pivot” of U.S. attention and resources toward Asia. The president on Saturday begins a trip that will take him to an Asian summit meeting in Cambodia, as well as to Burma and Thailand. The strategy, which is aimed in part at bolstering Southeast Asian nations that fear the growing power of China, is a sensible one — though it seems likely that the greatest challenges of Mr. Obama’s second term will come from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Iran.

At the same time, the timing and itinerary of Mr. Obama’s tour raise some critical questions about his Asia strategy. One of the nations he will visit, Cambodia, is an autocracy whose strongman, Hun Sen, has been in power for 27 years. Another, Burma, is a military dictatorship that recently undertook a political liberalization but has far to go to meet basic human rights standards. The president’s tour consequently will bring to the forefront the issue of what role human rights and democracy promotion will play in the Asia pivot.

In the interest of balancing China, will the United States be willing to tolerate autocracy and human rights abuses by its Asian allies — as it did the crimes of dictators during the Cold War? The administration says no: In fact, it claims credit for helping to bring about the political opening in Burma, which has seen opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi go from house arrest to membership in parliament in a matter of months.

Human rights activists, nevertheless, argue that Mr. Obama has been too quick to bestow the honor of a presidential visit on Burma and that he should not have agreed to meet Hun Sen. Burma’s political transition will not be complete until at least 2015, when the next national election will be held, and ethnic violence in the country has been growing worse. U.S. efforts to obtain the release of hundreds of remaining political prisoners in advance of Mr. Obama’s visit have so far produced no result.

The Cambodian leader, for his part, followed up on a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in July by arresting the owner of the country’s leading independent radio station; he was later sentenced to 20 years in prison on trumped-up charges. Hun Sen is setting the stage for a one-sided election next year. The worry is that he will take his meeting with the U.S. president as sanction to entrench himself and his family in what would amount to a new Cambodian dynasty, while Burmese President Thein Sein will freeze the reform process.

Administration officials say they retain the leverage to roll back recent economic concessions to Burma if there is political backsliding and that the president is planning to make a major speech about the political process. But Mr. Obama should not limit himself to Burma or to words. He should make it clear that a key aim of the new Asia strategy will be consolidating democratic government in the region — and that regimes that move in the wrong direction, like that of Hun Sen, will be frozen out.