HUNTINGTON BEACH, CALIFORNIA – Donald Trump will assume the American presidency during a pivotal time in U.S.-Asian relations. Rising tensions with China; uncertainties over the extent of Washington’s commitment to the security of Japan and South Korea; a nuclear armed North Korea; differences with the Philippines over previously unquestioned values; and anxieties relating to impending U.S. demands for changes to trade agreements are some of the pressing matters that will quickly find their way to the new president’s desk. As these issues rightly deserve the new administration’s focus, human rights must not fall through the cracks among America’s efforts in the region.
Tragically, the human condition in Asia has deteriorated in recent years while the elite and protected of many countries have enjoyed the benefits from the region’s economic rise and elevated geopolitical status. The following are a few examples of some of the worst ongoing human rights abuses in the region:
North Korea: New satellite images show that North Korea may be expanding its gulags where political prisoners are routinely raped, tortured, starved and subject to forced labor and executions. To make matters worse, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, this year roughly 4 out of 10 North Koreans are not getting enough food due to mismanaged policies and food aid that is squandered by the military. Dictator Kim Jong Un, whose personal weight is estimated to have reached 135 kg, recently suggested through state media that his nation may face a widespread starvation similar to the 1990s famine in which 3.5 million people were believed to have died.
Myanmar: Since 2012, over 120,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forcibly removed from their native Rakhine state into camps guarded by Myanmar security forces where their freedoms are denied. In recent months nationalist Buddhist organizations have incited attacks against the Rohingya and security forces have detained, raped, tortured, conducted forced labor and executed community members.
China: By many measures, human rights in China have worsened under President Xi Jinping. Freedom of expression and religion have been increasingly curtailed, the detention of political dissidents and human rights activists have expanded, and ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs have faced heightened levels of repression and curbs on fundamental human rights.
Philippines: President Rodrigo Duterte has supported and praised the extrajudicial killings of thousands suspected of being involved in the drug trade, commenting in a recent interview that he did not “give a s—-” if the new drug war violated human rights.
Thailand: Since the May 2014 military coup, severe restrictions have been placed on freedom of expression, public gatherings and political activities.
Indonesia: It is not uncommon for Islamic extremists to harass and engage in violence against religious minorities, and Islamic ordinances — such as Indonesia’s blasphemy law, Article 156a — persecute non-Muslims. At present, Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ashok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, is fighting a highly publicized blasphemy legal case against him relating to his quote of a Quranic verse while campaigning in elections for the Jakarta governorship.
Maintaining focus on human rights: The pressing matters of our time in the Asia-Pacific region — economic growth, international security, human development, geopolitics — do not always lend themselves to discussions of human rights. At times overarching objectives demand that Washington do business with actors who do not share its values, and we must acknowledge that not every meeting between Asia and America’s leaders will address the human condition, nor would it be appropriate to do so. Yet, with resolve, a sense of purpose and an understanding of his counterparts, Trump can position himself to be an effective human rights proponent in these key ways:
Utilizing leverage: As the world saw recently with the fall of Aleppo, diplomacy without leverage is a fool’s errand — it can leave even superpowers like the U.S. without the means to effect desired outcomes. Yet, unlike in Syria, the U.S. enjoys considerable leverage in Asia in the military, economic and geopolitical realms. Going forward, the U.S. must use its leverage to exact human rights concessions.
Need access to American markets and foreign aid? Cut down on arbitrary detentions, stop the extrajudicial killings and recommit to the rule of law.
Interested in U.S. naval capabilities to protect your maritime claims? Ease up on enforcing religious bylaws that persecute religious minorities.
Eager for closer military relations with Washington to deter a larger neighbor who threatens to throw his weight around? Stop the ethnic cleansing within your borders.
And so forth.
Abandoning public lecturing of partners, allies, others: Public lecturing of regional states on human rights concerns have dealt setbacks and failure to past administrations. Human rights concerns should be conveyed respectfully and privately, away from public view. Governments seldom respond well to open accusations and loss of face.
Learning the concerns of counterparts: Effective negotiations require an understanding of the other party. Washington needs to devote efforts toward learning the concerns, interests, strengths and weaknesses of its Asian counterparts, and what keeps them up at night — their fears, their burdens, their aspirations their desires. This will require outreach, listening to the players, learning relevant philosophies and histories, and a commitment to new strategic thinking. A failure of imagination by Washington will put it at a disadvantage with the ethical and practical concerns in human rights talks.
As Asia’s dynamism brings with it challenges and opportunities, there is arguably no better time for Trump to use the bargaining chips of American power, prestige and wealth to employ his self-touted deal making skills to work for improvements to the human condition in Asia. Making good on America’s responsibility in this domain is a worthy endeavor for the new administration, and it would help Washington engage this region where it will continue to have vital interests for generations.
Ted Gover teaches political science at Central Texas College, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California.