Signs of Washington's waning influence in Asia


Washington might trumpet its recent performance in Geneva as a great victory for the human rights community and its own policy on Sri Lanka. But behind the public façade of moral triumph there must surely be some soul-searching at the State Department and Washington's foreign policy establishment.
Robert Blake, the architect of recent Sri Lankan policy, might stand even taller in his six-foot odd frame in the afterglow of the Geneva vote. However much his public persona would present the look of a job well done, an opposite point of view posits that he failed to deliver the votes from the south and central Asian parish that he oversees.

The sponsors of the anti-Sri Lanka resolution and those who have egged it on from the wings see in the arithmetic of Geneva the remake of an old morality play with the triumph of "good over evil."

But in this part of the world, senior diplomats from the Asian region and hardened journalists see a different picture. The Geneva outcome is being seen here in Bangkok, a great listening post for shifting geo-political nuances and also the biggest regional arm of the UN system, as representing something more significant than that displayed by a simple vote count.

Since my return to Bangkok from Colombo exactly one week ago I have attended three big diplomatic receptions and a dinner by the host country and other diplomatic missions based here.

Robert O’ Blake

What is of significance is that they were all hosted by Asian countries some of which were very much involved in the voting in Geneva and at which senior diplomats and officials from the Asia and the other continents were present.

As the anti-Sri Lanka resolution was US-led with support mainly of Europe and since US pressure on Asian members of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had been quite intense, the conversation often turned to the just completed Geneva Sessions of the HRC.

Some of the views were shared by Bangkok-based journalists and others who have been awhile in this region. Asian diplomats were keen to point to the Asian voting pattern as a sign of changing political fortunes in Asia. The only south-southeast Asia nation in the UNHRC to vote for the resolution was India.
Those who voted against it were Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, the Maldives, the Philippines and Thailand.

Malaysia abstained from voting.

Right from the start China had condemned the US move to chastise Sri Lanka. Pakistan which had no vote, spoke strongly against the resolution and Japan had no truck with it either. It seemed that Washington was clearly isolated in Asia on the resolution despite the pressure that the US and other western co-sponsors brought to bear on some of the voting-members of Asia as I learned from diplomats here.

One should look again at the picture of Southeast Asia. Three of the countries that voted against the resolution- Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand- are founder members of Asean. Malaysia that abstained from voting is also a founder member of the same organization.

The fact that they chose to resist Washington speaks volumes for the changing geo-political scenario of Asia. Asean founded in 1967 was the successor to other regional organizations that had emerged fearing Chinese communist infiltration of the region and the stability of their own often pro-US or pro- western governments.

With the dismantling of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (Seato) and US policy makers trying to 'mesmerise' regional states with the fear of creeping communism by enunciating the "domino theory" Southeast nations were virtually driven to forge an organization that would provide strength in numbers and collective cover against attempts at destabilization.

While ASEAN was show-cased as an economic grouping, there were legitimate suspicions that it was a pro-American organization aimed at containing growing Chinese influence in the region and the spread of communism.

It was this suspicion that held Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, from joining ASEAN when invited to do so by Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, as Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake told me at the time.

Remember that at this time the US was deeply involved in the Vietnam war and was providing political and military support to several of the rightwing governments in power in Southeast Asia. The founding fathers of ASEAN were very much dependent on US support and military hardware to sustain them.
But the rise of China in the last three decades or more has compelled these Southeast Asian nations to rethink their policies and political alignments. If at one time Washington was their patron, today that is no longer true.

True good relations still prevail. The US is a dialogue partner of ASEAN and is a member of APEC. But the new realities are that the more self-confident Southeast Asian are not only distancing themselves from their former patron saint but find that they can live with political systems that are different from theirs and even with ideologies they were once taught to fear.

The presence of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar as members of Asean is proof of the greater political flexibility and understanding the original members of Asean have come to expect and accept. This banding together of several of Asia leading economies as a broad-based organization with increasing clout on the international stage has allowed these nations to cut the umbilical cord that once bound them to Washington and were often coerced into toeing the Washington line on political/diplomatic issues.

What of the rather abrasive Robert Blake? Of the 13 Asian countries on the Council none supported the US-engineered resolution save India. In Blake's own patch Bangladesh, the Maldives and Kyrgystan did not support the resolution and only India did, which does not speak too highly of his persuasive powers or the moral standpoint the US and its co-sponsors appeared to press.

Even in the case of India its decision seems to have been driven more by domestic imperatives rather than a convincing US argument. Take the African continent which also had 13 votes. Just 5 African states voted for the resolution. One of Africa's heavy weights, South Africa, one of the BRICS countries though not on the council made a devastating attack on the council and the double standards adopted by western nations and condemning the council. It might be noted that Commissioner Navi Pillay and one of the three on the Secretary-General's Experts Panel come from South Africa.

Ultimately the US had to rely on the Caucasian European members and sections of Latin America to push the resolution through. That again is not surprising seeing that some of the Europeans are members of the US-led NATO and others have managed to enter the European Union and need to 'behave' themselves.

The fact that after all the collective efforts of the lone super-power, the INGO human rights cabal, the western media led by Channel 4 and the anti-Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, they could muster only half the membership of the Human Rights Council.

It sure does not speak much for the highly-publicised moral cause this collective was supposedly urging. How could it when the sponsor and its co-sponsors had many questions to answer for their own commitment to human rights and international laws which they have blatantly violated over the years, as diplomats we briefed on the Sri Lanka developments before the Geneva meeting, were quick to tell us.

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Signs of Washington's waning influence in Asia


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