A defining element of US policy will be missing in Trump's Asia tour

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump isn't expected to raise human rights during his Asia tour
  • Unlike his predecessors, the U.S. president doesn't emphasize the promotion of democracy as integral to American foreign policy
  • Avoiding discussion of rights violations in Beijing, Hanoi and Manila could embolden autocrats in the region and hurt Washington's long-term interests, experts say

The pursuit of democracy is considered a foundational pillar of U.S. foreign policy, but it has taken a backseat under President Donald Trump's "America First" philosophy. Many believe that approach could heighten authoritarianism in the developing world and eventually backfire on Washington.

Trump isn't expected to criticize Beijing's political detentions, Hanoi's freedom of speech crackdown or Manila's deadly drug war when he visits China, Vietnam and the Philippines. Instead, bilateral talks are expected to focus on unifying topics such as trade, investment and North Korea's nuclear threat.

A masked demonstrator in Washington, June 25, 2017.
Jim Bourg | Reuters

"The absence of strong U.S. language endorsing democratic values and processes will be glaringly evident on Trump's Asia trip," said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent report.

Under of Trump's "America First" strategy, the White House does not believe it should interfere with countries' social issues in order to preserve economic and commercial ties. The approach stands in contrast to recent U.S. administrations — former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton saw the promotion of democracy as instrumental to U.S. security interests.

"So far, Trump and his team have explicitly disowned values and human rights as a part of U.S. statecraft," researchers at the Centre of American Progress said in a recent note.

In previous talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc earlier this year, Trump made no mention of human rights abuses and instead, praised Duterte's anti-narcotics campaign. In comparison, Obama voiced concerns about basic freedoms with all three leaders.

"Trump must make clear on his trip that the United States will prioritize democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Asia," the Centre of American Progress continued. He can do that by making clear public statements, raising issues in state visits and meeting members of civil society to hear their voices, it added.

Asia stability at risk

Trump's silence on Manila's deteriorating rule of law or the silencing of critics in Hanoi and Beijing could exacerbate the spread of undemocratic policies.

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Trump's "comfort in the company of strongmen" gives Asian leaders the impression that "further moves against democracy and human rights will not incur a price in relationships with the United States," Aaron Connelly, research fellow at the Lowy Institute's East Asia program, said in a note. That's a damaging message, he added.

"The Trump administration's America First policies, which will be on display during the president's trip to Asia, have only emboldened autocrats in Southeast Asia and in other parts of the world," echoed Kurlantzick.

While U.S. diplomats still push for greater freedoms throughout the region, Washington's stance clearly signals reduced American engagement on the matter.

Trump's "explicit" disregard of human rights as a part of U.S. statecraft "will damage long term interests by alienating beleaguered Asian democrats, who look on as the United States unilaterally cedes its soft power," the Centre of American Progress said.

A risky gamble for Washington

Relationships with oppressive governments could also hurt Washington in the long run.

"Autocratic or semi-democratic regimes tend to be more brittle, making them less valuable strategic partners," stated Kurlantzick.

Strongmen can be volatile, he continued, noting that Duterte "could easily turn against Washington" if Trump's visit to the Philippine capital next week doesn't go well.

"The United States works most effectively with countries on major strategic and economic challenges when they share similar, relatively open political cultures," said Kurlantzick.