US moves to counter China in Southeast Asia

Monday, June 15, 2009

Updated June 15, 2009 13:18:04

The United States has removed Laos and Cambodia from a trade black list, opening the way for American companies to do business with both countries.

US President Barak Obama said on Friday, that both nations were no longer Marxist-Leninist countries. The White House says the policy change is in response to the commitment of both countries to open up their markets.

Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Arthur Waldron is vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Centre in Washington

WALDRON: Well, in market terms, we have about 2.5 Billion dollars of trade with Laos and about 60 million dollars of trade with Cambodia. You compare that Thailand at 30 Billion or Vietnam at 15 Biillion. I see this as a kind of tidying up operation and also an attempt to get the United States more involved in a part of the world where we should be more involved.

LAM: So it is in a way the White House's recognition of the importance of Cambodia and Laos in the region in strategic terms?

WALDRON: Well, and I would say more generally of South East Asia.

LAM: Yes, well what do you make of the view that China's interest in the region might be driving the policy change?

WALDRON: Well certainly China is very, very active seeking, they're very deeply involved, particularly in Burma, Myanmar, and seeking naval facilities there and so forth and this is a major concern. But I think there is also just a basic inconsistency in American policy. I mean we re-established relations with Vietnam in 1996, after fighting a war with them and losing, yet we have no ambassador in Burma at the moment. This is simply an inconsistent picture and this is too important a part of the world to treat in that way. But I do think that what you say about the unexpectedly large Chinese presence has got something to do with it. These countries after all deserve an alternative to dealing with China.

LAM: Well, you mention the fact that the US has no diplomats in or ambassador in Burma, but I mean are you suggesting then that America recognises the military regime in Burma, despite the way they are treating their own people?

WALDRON: Well, the way I look at it is this. There are a number of unsavoury regimes that we recognise all over the world. The largest of these by far, is China. China certainly treats the Tibetans badly, it treats the Uighers badly, it treats the Chinese badly, yet we have a robust relationship with China and I think on balance it's a good thing. And I think that is also the approach we should also take for smaller countries. In all the cases we're talking about, we're talking about unattractive and repressive regime.

LAM: Mmm. Well, what about, returning to Cambodia and Laos, what about the issues of corruption and human rights? How will this decision sit with Congress, given that both countries are a little bit backward on those issues?

WALDRON: Well, I think we have strong constituencies in Congress, particularly in connection with Hmong people who fought so valiantly in attempting to stop Communism in South East Asia and are now being persecuted from all we can tell, being expelled from Thailand and so forth and so on. They will speak up, the congressmen will speak up. But I don't see how the United States not being there and not having our people on the spot, so that their people can talk to them and how not having American business there as an alternative to say doing business with China. I don't see how that improves things in any way. Certainly this long history of sanctions against Burma or for that matter a long history of sanctions against Cuba has proven to be a failure.

LAM: But do you think this new commercial engagement with Cambodia and Laos, that in a way it might help if the US uses diplomatic persuasion behind the scenes, certainly, for instance, on Vientiane, where the hmong issue is concerned?

WALDRON: Well, I certainly am strongly in favour of that. I'm a strong believer that we should make our positions clear. We don't need to hector these regimes, but our ambassadors should have good access and they should be perfectly unambiguous about this. But we also have to be sure that we are consistent and that we treat these things consistently with respect from one country, another country and a third country so that China does not get a free ride, while Burma is being hammered. But yes, you're quite right, diplomacy should definitely be a tool here.


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