Before last year's terror attacks on New York and Washington, security issues, trade interests and concerns over human rights all figured prominently in American dealings with the countries of East and Southeast Asia. The war on terrorism is now a top priority, and human rights have taken a back seat.
Analysts agree that 9-11 has changed U.S. priorities. Thomas Reckford is president of the World Affairs Council of Washington DC. "It's not that human rights has been completely thrown out the window - obviously not," he insists. "It's a fundamental part of U.S. policy and is constantly mentioned by U.S. officials. But instead of being at the very top of the list, maybe it's a little bit further down the list. "
In particular, Mr. Reckford points to Malaysia, which has arrested more than 60 people suspected of links to international terrorism. "What used to concern us a lot in Malaysia we now recognize as something of a help - the Internal Security Act that permits the government to round up people whenever it feels it should," said Thomas Reckford.
Before September 11, U.S. relations with Malaysia were hampered because of the arrest and incarceration of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was openly critical of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Sheldon Simon is a Southeast Asia security specialist at Arizona State University. "The Clinton administration took that as a major case in Malaysian politics of the egregious misuse of the judicial system by the prime minister," he said. "Post 9-11, I have not seen that issue discussed in U.S. foreign policy at all." Professor Charles Hirschman, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of Washington, says U.S. officials are probably raising concerns over the Anwar Ibrahim case and other human rights cases in private talks with Malaysian officials. "Secretary of State Colin Powell was just there and apparently he both reiterated his concern about some of the domestic political problems and Malaysia's sort of high handed treatment of the opposition, political persons, but that is sort of considered more moderate, more private conversations rather than something that would be the major headline coming out of it," he said. "I think, generally it [the headline] is that we're agreeing on the fight against our common enemies, people who are threatening civil peace in Southeast Asia or in North America."
Not long after September 11, China offered its help in tracking down suspected terrorists. China has its own problems with Muslim separatists, which it considers terrorists, in its western region of Xinjiang. When Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was in Beijing recently, he praised China's cooperation in the war on terrorism. "All in all, I think the counter-terrorism cooperation is a pretty good picture of the U.S. and China," said Richard Armitage.
Mr. Armitage announced the United States has decided to officially designate as "terrorist" one Chinese Muslim group - a relatively unknown ethnic Uighur organization called the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, or ETIM. "The Chinese side noticed with satisfaction the U.S. determination to put the ETIM on the foreign terrorist list, something we've had discussions with China about over the past several months," he said. "So I think we've certainly noted with satisfaction the cooperation we've had in Washington, where with China's assistance, we put together U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373 which covered the matter of terrorist financing."
China wants Washington to recognize that its anti-terrorism activities in Xinjiang are part of the global campaign against terrorism. Again, Professor Sheldon Simon. "China has attempted to enlist the United States in condemning Uighur separatist movements as terrorist in nature," said Sheldon Simon. "To do that, the Chinese have claimed that Uighur separatists were training in Afghanistan with the Taleban. And there is a small amount of evidence that a very small number of Uighurs may in fact have trained there. On the other hand, the U.S. is still pressing China not to confuse anti-terrorism with dealing harshly with dissidents."
Deputy Secretary Armitage says he spoke with Chinese officials about the need to respect the rights of minorities, such as the Uighurs. But Thomas Reckford of the World Affairs Council says by designating ETIM as a terrorist group, the United States may be helping China in its crackdown on all political dissent in Xinjiang.