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International relations

Asian strongmen await Joe Biden with China card in hand

Prayuth, Duterte and Hun Sen faced little pressure from Trump on human rights

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, sanctioned by the Obama administration for seizing power via a military coup, has enjoyed Trump's hands-off approach. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense) 

MANILA/BANGKOK/HANOI -- On the evening of Nov. 25, Thai youths held a mass rally in front of the Bangkok headquarters of Siam Commercial Bank, of which King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the largest single shareholder.

Sulak Sivaraksa, Thailand's most prominent social critic, criticized Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha for trying to dust off the lese-majeste law to quell the protests.

"Let us respectfully kick him out of the office," Sulak said of the 66-year-old prime minister, noting that the king himself had instructed the attorney general and the Supreme Court not to use the law, lest it tarnish the royal institution's reputation. This alone, Sulak said, should disqualify Prayuth from remaining in his current position.

Hours earlier, Prayuth was conducting business as usual. He went to the Foreign Ministry to meet with U.S. Ambassador Michael DeSombre and a delegation of the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council to discuss investment opportunities in Thailand.

In front of 39 leading American companies, including Apple, General Electric, Google and Pfizer, Prayuth said his new cabinet is focused on ensuring that Thailand continues to be the premier destination for foreign direct investment in ASEAN.

DeSombre, a lawyer-turned ambassador appointed by President Donald Trump, commended the country for its successful COVID-19 response and said, "It is our hope that the U.S. private sector continues to prevail as a trusted partner and resource to the kingdom as it continues to promote investment."

Prayuth, however, may have been keenly listening for something else: to see if the American side would question him on his handling of the Thai protests.

In Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia, Southeast Asia is dotted with strongman governments. Under Trump, who is perhaps not as vocal on human rights as his predecessors, autocrats had a rare window to rule without constant pressure from the U.S.

That may change.

Ambassador DeSombre has been diplomatic since arriving in January. At a panel discussion held by the Indo-Pacific Business Forum in late October, the ambassador hailed Thailand's response to the pandemic as "one of the world's success stories."

He said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has its largest office outside of the U.S. in Bangkok and that it has been working closely with the Ministry of Public Health and other Thai officials on pandemic response.

But for Prayuth, there is no guarantee that a Joe Biden administration will be just as business-focused. In 2014, the administration of President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president, temporarily froze military support for Thailand after then Gen. Prayuth staged a coup and assumed power.

Around the same time Prayuth was using DeSombre as a weather vane, Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security adviser, was in the Philippines.

Teodoro Locsin Jr., Duterte's secretary of foreign affairs, and Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security adviser, bump elbows in Pasay City, Metro Manila, the Philippines, on Nov. 23.   © Reuters

Meeting Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr., Trump's envoy assured the Philippines that they can count on U.S. support in their territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

"We've got your back," O'Brien said, "and we're not leaving."

Speaking to Asia-based reporters after the meeting via conference call, O'Brien said, "We have a long Pacific coastline, like many, many of the countries from where folks on this call hail from. We are also a major Pacific power and we have long-term commitments here. And we've had those commitments whether we've been led by a Democrat or a Republican president."

That last part is of concern to the Philippine government.

Is there truly a "bipartisan consensus" in America to stand up to China, like O'Brien promised?

At this point, the Philippine government's eyes look set on Biden, not O'Brien.

One situation on the archipelago looks ripe for frictions to develop with Biden: President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war, where the strongman is unafraid to curtail human rights.

Duterte has hedged his bets. Just before O'Brien arrived, Manila suspended the decision to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which facilitates the entry of American troops into the Philippines for annual military drills, for another six months.

The president announced in February that he was terminating the agreement after the U.S. Congress moved to impose sanctions on top Philippine officials accused of human rights abuses. In June he kicked that decision back and temporarily reinstated the agreement over fears of Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

But this is not the final deal, and O'Brien expressed hope for a permanent arrangement to reporters.

"We were grateful to hear again the extension of the suspension of the Visiting Forces Agreement," he said. "And we look forward to that being turned into a longer-term agreement."

During the next six months, Duterte will no doubt be weighing his options.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi greets Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. China is giving Southeast Asia's strongmen a new way to resist American pressure on human rights.   © Reuters

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen, in office since December 1984, is also likely keeping a close eye on Biden.

On Nov. 16, Democratic lawmakers, including former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and veteran Sen. Dianne Feinstein, sent a harshly worded letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging economic sanctions on Hun Sen's administration.

"We are writing to urge you to address the alarming deterioration in human rights protection and democratic rule in Cambodia," the lawmakers wrote.

Hun Sen, they continued, has "a long record of using violence, intimidation, censorship, and corruption to maintain his rule. The U.S. government must respond in concert with its allies to send a strong message to Hun Sen that his crackdown on opposition and freedom of speech is unacceptable. We urge you and the State Department to convey this message in both your private and public communications with the Cambodian Government without delay."

But Cambodia is conveying its own message to Biden: Perfect your balancing act.

In October, not long after the European Union slapped sanctions on the country over human rights violations, Hun Sen's government signed a free trade agreement, its first ever, with China.

Shifting closer to China has emerged as an option for Southeast Asia's strongmen should they feel the need to flick away pressure from Washington.

Under its noninterference policy, China does not talk about other country's human rights issues and is often willing to extend economic benefits to deepen friendships.

The Cambodian response to EU sanctions will be a cautionary case for Biden and his Asia policy "czar" that the Financial Times reported he would appoint.

It is not only authoritarians that will be watching.

"Malaysia will need to understand the new administration as quickly as possible," Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, the country's foreign minister said in November.

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