By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010; A10
The Obama administration's announcement Thursday that it will resume relations with Indonesia's special forces, despite the unit's history of alleged atrocities and assassinations, is the most significant move yet by the United States to strengthen ties in East Asia as a hedge against China's rise.
The push comes at the same time that the administration's tone with China has turned tougher, especially on the nettlesome issue of human rights. In recent speeches and interactions with Chinese authorities, the administration has abandoned an earlier approach of patience and quiet engagement.
The decision to resume relations with Kopassus, the elite special forces of the Indonesian military, prompted strong criticism from advocates for human rights.
"In the Bush administration, we saw them seek military allies regardless of human rights abuses in pursuit of the war on terror," said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. This administration, she said, "will seek military alliances regardless of human rights abuses -- in response to China."
Other analysts said that given Indonesia's transition toward democratic governance, it makes sense to reengage with powerful elements of its military, in part to build up counterweights to China's increasing power in the region. China's rise is also a significant factor in the Obama administration's moves to strengthen ties with traditional allies, such as South Korea and Japan, as well as with Malaysia and Laos and even with Vietnam, a former foe. It also was a factor in the recent opening to Burma.
"Indonesia is the anchor country of ASEAN," said Ernie Bower, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, on the 10 countries that make up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. "And there's a recognition that you need to have a strong foundation in ASEAN to deal with China over time."
In some cases, China's diplomatic missteps have helped the administration improve ties with Asian nations. China's decision not to criticize North Korea directly for allegedly sinking a South Korean warship and killing 46 South Korean sailors on March 26 is believed to have contributed to a significant warming of relations between Washington and Seoul. China's continued opposition to planned U.S.-South Korean military exercises has only further helped bolster U.S. strategic ties with Seoul.
The buzzing of two Japanese warships by Chinese military helicopters in April was used by Japanese officials as political cover to support more fully Tokyo's alliance with the United States. That event, coupled with the sinking of the South Korean warship, dampened talk, at least for the time being, within the ruling Democratic Party of Japan about refashioning the alliance with the United States and forging better relations with China.
But as Thursday's move with Indonesia illustrates, it is not just traditional allies that have felt the Obama administration's embrace.
Relations with Malaysia, for instance, have improved significantly despite concerns about the upcoming trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is facing sodomy charges that many Malaysians and Western observe believe were trumped up to damage him politically.
In April, Malaysia's prime minister, Najib Razak, met with President Obama on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. The country earlier had passed an export control act that U.S. officials hope will make Malaysia less of a transshipment point for military-related technology to Iran. On Thursday, Malaysia deployed its first military unit to Afghanistan, to provide medical and dental services to Afghans.
Laos, considered by some in Washington to be all but a client state of Beijing, dispatched this month its highest-level delegation to the United States since 1975 with the visit of Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith.
The Obama administration also ended eight years of Bush administration policy on Burma, also known as Myanmar, by reaching out to that nation -- in part because of a concern that it was becoming a vassal to China. So far, that policy has yielded few gains, and the administration is considering whether to slap tougher sanctions on Burma and whether to back a U.N. war- crimes or genocide investigation against that country's leaders.
Analysts noted that as the Obama administration has moved to strengthen its ties to the rest of Asia, it has adopted a tougher tone with China on human rights.
The administration entered office with a new approach on China over human rights.
It postponed a meeting with the Dalai Lama in an attempt to set a good tone with Beijing in the run-up to a summit between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in November. And it signaled that it would deal with human rights issues with Beijing generally behind closed doors because the United States needs China's help on so many other issues, such as nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, dealing with the global financial crisis and climate change.
But starting in January, with a strong speech on Internet freedom by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during which she criticized China five times, the administration has changed tactics. China has helped drive that change by handing out long sentences to dissidents whose cases were directly raised by Obama in his meeting with Hu and by sentencing an American, Xue Feng, to eight years in prison on apparently bogus charges of espionage. Clinton continued her criticism of China in a speech in Krakow on civil society on July 3.
"The President and Secretary Clinton have articulated a notion of principled engagement with China and around the world," said Michael H. Posner, assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy and labor, "and our task now is to continue putting meat on the bones."