02 Dec For the Biden Presidency, Promoting Human Rights in Asia Aligns Well with US Strategic Interests
[Gregory S. Gordon is a Professor of Law at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Faculty of Law.]
From a foreign policy perspective, many see the passing of the US executive mantle from Donald J. Trump to Joseph R. Biden as a chance to revive America’s badly tarnished brand on the international stage. In seemingly ego-driven fits and starts, and almost as frequently as he churlishly cycled through cabinet officials and advisers, Trump frayed long-term strategic alliances, called into question and/or abandoned military pledges, berated longtime democratic friends and fawned over traditionally anti-democratic foes. Thanks to his “America First” doctrine, the US has become more isolated and less influential across the planet.
So, in taking over the presidency, Joe Biden’s work is cut out for him. He must get down to the basics and repair tattered relationships, reassert strategic interests and revivify hard and soft power. It is tempting to think that the enormity of the challenge would exclude focusing on an issue that is often marginalized as peripheral: human rights. But such a narrow approach to fixing American foreign policy would be problematic. Nowhere is this more evidently true than in the strategic hub of Asia.
The far-flung continent was a priority of President Barack Obama, whose famous “pivot to Asia” included “six key lines of action”: strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening our working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights. Clearly, promoting human rights was considered integral to a broader, and interconnected, nucleus of US strategic interests in the region and it can be again.
So how, in more specific terms, can promotion of human rights in a Biden presidency align with broader US objectives in Asia? In order to answer this question, I believe it is important that human rights not be considered monolithically, but rather in terms of the “three generations” framework: First Generation rights (or negative rights, i.e. those that constrain governments from inflicting harm on their citizens and traditionally include liberties such as freedom from torture and extrajudicial killing); Second Generation rights (or positive rights, i.e., those that require governments to provide certain social and economic benefits to their citizens, such as healthcare and good working conditions; and Third Generation rights (or solidarity rights, i.e., those that require governments to respect the rights of people collectively, such as the right to a clean environment, peace or self-determination).
In Asia, President-elect Biden will be able to promote human rights and US interests with respect to each of these “generations.” In some instances, they will overlap. Thus, consider the case of North Korea and its dictator Kim Jong Un. Trump’s policy has been to cozy up to the Hermit Kingdom’s leader, even going so far as to say that the two “fell in love.”. In the meantime, Kim’s promises to dismantle his nuclear weapons program have been the equivalent of “whispering sweet nothings” into Trump’s ear – the program’s development continues, albeit more clandestinely.
In the meantime, Human Rights Watch reports that North Korea remains “one of the [world’s] most repressive” states, where the government commits “crimes against humanity, including extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence, and forced abortion.” Rather than coddling him, taking a tougher stance with Kim Jong Un, which could include a new sanctions regime, might help advance both First Generation rights (in terms of demanding greater respect for civil/political liberties) as well as Third Generation rights (the collective right to peace via nuclear disarmament). This would be to the advantage of the Biden administration because, per the McCain Institute, “how a regime treats its own people is often indicative of how it will behave in foreign policy, thus getting a government to respect universal values . . . advances US interests . . .”. And the benefit of properly incentivizing the rogue Kim regime to curb the development of its nuclear arsenal, which promotes the Third Generation human right to peace, is self-explanatory.
Working to strengthen Second Generation rights in Asia would also be beneficial to President-elect Biden’s foreign policy agenda. In particular, by way of example, the right to health has been under siege in South Asia as a result of Covid-19. With Trump at the helm, always downplaying the pandemic and working at cross-purposes to slow its spread, the United States has failed to take a leadership role in managing the crisis at home, let alone on the global stage. Joe Biden, who made combatting this viral scourge his signature campaign promise, would be a natural for vaulting the US into a position of leadership in stopping its spread overseas. This would help governments in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka protect their citizens from the virus and promote the Second Generation right to health and the First Generation right to life. (And this is true in other parts of Asia where the novel coronavirus is killing people en masse, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Malaysia.)
Strengthening bonds with such countries via, for instance, America’s spearheading the development and distribution of a vaccine, would go a long way toward advancing US objectives in the region. Apart from the security value of strengthening governmental ties in a region that has been a hotbed for terrorism, it could further other US objectives, such as brokering peace between nuclear powers India and Pakistan and India and China, where intense border skirmishes have recently taken place and threaten to spark large-scale armed conflict. Thus, bolstering American soft power could lead to greater influence with respect to managing these conflicts and thereby help reinforce the Third Generation right to peace.
President-elect Biden can similarly promote Second Generation rights, which also dovetail with First Generation ones, via reviving America’s moribund participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Another of President Obama’s signature initiatives, this proposed trade agreement among Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States was signed on February 4, 2016. On assuming the US presidency, though, Donald Trump withdrew the US signature and embarked on trade wars across the globe. Having served as Obama’s Vice President, it is not unreasonable to imagine Biden having the US rejoin the TPP. If he were to do so, he would strengthen the pact’s important protections of Second Generation Rights (i.e., combining economic growth opportunities with strong labor protections to help improve the lives of workers across the region) and First Generation Rights (e.g., prohibiting exploitative child labor and forced labor, giving workers a voice by protecting freedom of association and collective bargaining, prohibiting employment discrimination and combatting trade in goods made by forced labor in countries both inside and outside of the TPP).
This is not to say that more traditional notions of promoting human rights (primarily First Generation in nature) might not also align with American strategic interests on the continent. Hence, more generally, rejoining the UN Human Rights Council (after Trump’s unilateral 2018 withdrawal) and supporting the International Criminal Court (rather than sanctioning it) would burnish America’s reputation in a region where those institutions are pursuing salutary objectives. More specifically, working to thwart Filipino strongman Rodrigo Duterte’s extrajudicial killings via “death squads” in his abusive “war against drugs” or stop Burmese ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslim population could also be beneficial. In particular, such initiatives would help the US assert a leadership role in the region that could rein in authoritarian China’s bellicose rhetoric as well as its attendant efforts to establish a hegemonic stranglehold over the continent. In turn, this could go a long way toward easing tensions in the South China Sea and resolving ambiguities with respect to the Taiwan Strait.
To the extent experts might urge Biden to temper his Asian human rights ambitions in light of his relatively narrow Electoral College victory over Trump, he might turn to the example of President John F. Kennedy. Having eked out a general election win over Richard Nixon in 1960, JFK focused on promoting soft power, economic growth and human rights in the region of Latin America via his Alliance for Progress program. In the face of a growing threat of Communist incursions in the region, JFK took a holistic approach that built both economic and human capital as a bulwark to protect freedom south of America’s borders. By focusing on health, arms control, and trade policy as authoritarian influence spreads in Asia, Joe Biden has a similar opportunity in the east. Indeed, ironically, in terms of promoting human rights and strategic interests on the continent, it is a golden opportunity to “Make American Great Again.” Let us hope he acts boldly and takes advantage of it.