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Asian Countries Quicken Economic Ties by Playing down Human Rights

  • Ralph Jennings

Leaders from left to right, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar's State Councellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, U.S. President Donald Trump, Philip

Asian nations are overlooking human rights issues to focus instead on trade and investment, challenging rights-concerned Western countries to catch up in the deal-making process.

Countries in the region of 4.5 billon people, home to the world’s fastest-growing economies, normally observe a tacit ban on criticizing one another’s internal affairs, Asian analysts say, including a deadly campaign against illegal drugs in the Philippines and strife between the government of Myanmar and its ethnic Rohingya minority.

When the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) held summits last week in Manila with eight outside governments, including the U.S. and China, single-country domestic struggles seldom came up despite pressure from overseas rights groups.

“By and large I think Asian countries don’t entangle or don’t enmesh economic projects with domestic affairs, with human rights,” said Daniel Chua, deputy head of graduate studies with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Squeamish domestic issues

That non-interference lets governments from Indonesia to Japan focus on practical gains from economic ties without the distrust that might follow a sideline discussion about one side’s human rights crisis, labor issues or environmental matters – issues that Western leaders may bring up under political pressure at home.

When U.S. President Donald Trump met Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte on the sidelines of the summits, he avoided raising reports that police have killed some 7,000 people in Manila’s campaign against illegal drugs, a spokesperson for Duterte said.

U.S. President Donald Trump toasts with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during the gala dinner marking ASEAN's 50th anniversary in Manila, Nov. 12, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump toasts with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte during the gala dinner marking ASEAN's 50th anniversary in Manila, Nov. 12, 2017.

Duterte slammed Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama last year and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week for his raising the same issue. He spared Trump, who has said he's keen to work on bilateral trade deals in Asia.

Leaders at the summits also knew about suspicion that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took money from a state company and calls from abroad for Myanmar to transparently investigate alleged atrocities against the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Newly independent countries on the move

Legal independence from the United States or European counties over just the past 60 to 70 years makes Southeast Asian nations keen to protect their sovereignty from outside influence, Chua said.

“Being fairly new, the protection of sovereignty and sense of independence is one of the few things Asian societies, Southeast Asian countries, hold very dearly, so Southeast Asian countries would tend to be very cautious when other countries may come in and comment or suggestions on their domestic policies,” he said.

“It’s seen sometimes as being insidious or subversive,” he said.

Cross-border integration is a relatively new trend in Asia as well compared to the degree of unity in Europe, Asian Development Bank lead economist Jayant Menon said. For the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, “regionalism is means, not an end,” he said, meaning member countries act together to bring in outside investment and trade.

FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands for photo with fellow Southeast Asian leaders at the 31st ASEAN Summit, in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 13, 2017.
FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stands for photo with fellow Southeast Asian leaders at the 31st ASEAN Summit, in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 13, 2017.

Asian countries do not need “deep” free-trade agreements (FTAs) that would cover items such as fair labor and pollution controls, Menon added.

“It’s true that Asian FTAs in general are a bit more shallow than other FTAs,” he said, citing a World Trade Organization study. “They don’t need (deeper FTAs) and they don’t want it because they are not as big as Europe or North America. To sustain themselves, they need to look outside their borders for most of their trade and investment.”

Focus on trade this month

When talking to one another on trade or economic cooperation, such as investment in infrastructure projects, Asian countries often shun the pro-labor and environmental clauses that Western governments often require.

The United States had required such elements in the Trans Pacific Partnership before letting four Asian countries join the roster of an eventual 12. Trump pulled the United States out of that pact in January, but the other countries are trying to keep it alive.

Last week’s summits in Manila produced a joint statement on the contents of an eventual ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a trade liberalization pact that would bind 16 countries and half the world’s population. The three-page statement sticks to trade and economic matters without mentions of labor, environment or human rights.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, front center, links arms with heads of state and government participating in the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 13, 2017.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, front center, links arms with heads of state and government participating in the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 13, 2017.

The ASEAN-led deal that’s expected to be signed in late 2018 has been described as an antidote to the Trans Pacific Partnership for lack of non-trade conditions – and with China and India as members.

Tacit agreement to put “politics aside” helps ASEAN countries focus more intently on the trade per se, said Song Seng Wun, economist with the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore.

“I suppose trade in goods becomes easier if you just focus on line by line on tariffs,” Song said. “On the practical level, ‘let’s see how we can move forward on helping each other itself,’” he said in describing the regional trade ethic.

ASEAN, which represents 630 million people as well as four national economies forecast to grow more than 6 percent this year, has trade liberalization agreements with Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

In Manila, the association and the United States said they would step up cooperation. During his swing through Asia this month, Trump railed against trade deficits and told Asian leaders he wanted to pursue bilateral trade deals that are “fair and reciprocal.”

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