Fresh off a three-day tour of India, Hillary Clinton arrived on Bali Thursday to attend a regional forum hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Since her first visit in 2009, the United States has taken an increasingly active role in regional politics, signing treaties, strengthening ties and speaking out on regional disputes. In Bali, she’ll be laying the groundwork for President Obama’s visit this autumn. Here are three things to watch for during her trip:
1. Anxiety About China.
Early in her tenure, Clinton stood at a podium at an Asean summit and declared: “We’re back.” After years of neglect, she promised, the United States was once again interested in Southeast Asia. It was also a warning. While the United States was busy waging its Quixotic War on Terror, an ascendent China was making nice with its neighbors, investing heavily in the likes of Laos, Vietnam and Burma. Their spending spree continues. When tiny, Communist-controlled Laos won the right to host the Southeast Asian Games, China built them an aquatics complex and a soccer stadium. In return, they won the right to build a Chinese-run industrial complex on the outskirts of the Laotian capital, Vientiane.
America’s unease about China’s regional influence is all-too evident in the latest batch of Wikileaks cables. The dispatches, written by U.S. officials in Cambodia, include a cable about China’s plans to celebrate 50 years of Sino-Cambodian relations. It said China was set to achieve a “new apogee” in relations with Cambodia and the region. “Cambodia’s ‘Year of China’ looks to become its ‘Century of China,’” it reads. Last year, the U.S. embassy sent a cable asking that Clinton attend its 60-year celebration in order to prove “that our commitment to Cambodia is not eclipsed by the growing influence of China.” Clearly, America is feeling a little anxious. That’s why they’re sending the Secretary of State.
2. A Focus on Maritime Security
Clinton will step off the plane and into a messy regional dispute over some small slivers of maritme real estate with enormous strategic and symbolic value. Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim all or part of the South China Sea. Although it’s a long-standing conflict, there’s been an upsurge in saber-rattling, as well as handful of squimishes, over the last few months. This week, a group of Filipino lawmakers visited the Spratlys in an audaciously-timed effort to bolster their country’s claim.
Enter Clinton. The Secretary of State said last year that the United States has a “national interest” in the South China Sea. Of course, China disagrees. Vice Foreign minister Cui Tiankai warned the Americans not to get involved. “I believe the individual countries are actually playing with fire, and I hope the fire will not be drawn to the United States,” he said last month. Given the United States’ strategic interests and its long-standing ties to Philippines, it’s unlikely Clinton will stay mum.
3. A Word for Human Rights?
There are calls for Clinton to speak out on her host country’s human rights record. Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation with a population that exceeds 245 million, is, for the most part, a peaceful, pluralistic place. But recent incidents raise questions about the government’s willingness to reign-in the military and protect its people from abuse at the hands of extremists. Last year, the United States lifted a 12-year suspension of relations with Kopassus, an Indonesian special forces unit accused of widespread abuse. Critics say the’ve yet to be brought to justice and that military violence continues, particularly in West Papua.
Rights groups also hope Clinton will urge the government to do more to protect religious minorities. In February, a mob beat three Ahmadi Muslims to death in plain view of the police. Only twelve men have been charged and, if convicted, they face just 5-7 months in jail. Human Rights Watch is urging Clinton to condemn the killings. With much on her agenda, it will be interesting to see if she heeds the call.