Reasonable people can disagree, I think, on the value of the White House’s decision, announced this week, to restore U.S. ties with Kopassus, the Indonesian Special Forces who have been linked to a range of past abuses, including massacres in East Timor. Boosting the U.S.-Indonesia partnership to a higher level is a critical objective of Obama’s Asia policy, and given that the president has canceled trips repeatedly to Jakarta, this is a sign he can offer to the Indonesian government of his seriousness about the relationship. Of course, as groups like Human Rights Watch note, it is unclear whether Kopassus has really reformed itself, and sending this signal could be questionable at a time when many other nations in Southeast Asia are actually heading backward on democracy. I see the merits to both arguments.
However, one element of the Kopassus debate is extremely worrisome. The US must recognize Kopassus, many argue, because otherwise China will muscle in on the Indonesia relationship, and of course, China has no worries about partnering with alleged human rights abusers. This is a similar argument to why the US needed to re-engage with the Burmese junta and foster closer ties to the regime in Laos, which last time I looked, had held one fewer election in the past two decades than Burma has.
All of these decisions could be justified for other reasons; it is not a bad idea to try to re-engage with the Burmese junta, if simply because a decade of sanctions proved fruitless and there are good reasons to work with the Lao government, not least to help empower it to protect crucial parts of the Mekong River. But to develop a policy based on outmuscling China – especially if that policy depends on a race to the bottom with human rights abusers – is a flawed tactic. For one, you can never "out-China" China; as India learned in dealing with Burma, where it reversed years of advocacy for the democratic opposition and threw in with the government, it will always be easier for Beijing to make deals with oppressive regimes, since there is no real legislature or activist movement to question the Chinese government. Like India, the United States shouldn’t try: Will we invest in Sudan because China does? Will we build ties to Uzbekistan because China does? Obviously, it is a slippery slope.
What’s more, part of the United States’ advantage, in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, is that its “brand” can be popular not only with regimes but also with average people, provided that it actually sticks to the brand, a brand that includes standing up for human rights. And if Southeast Asia is to return to the democratic path, with opposition parties eventually winning elections in places like Malaysia, Thailand and, yes, even Burma, that U.S. brand will be valued over China’s.