Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as a sitting administration official, does not have any role at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte. But she seems to gone out of her way to avoid the festivities, as she is traveling this week and next to the Cook Islands, Indonesia, China, Timor-Leste, Brunei, and Russia.
"The Cook Islands this year are the hosts of one of the most important institutions of the Pacific called the Pacific Island Forum," a senior State Department official said Thursday. "It's a group that meets yearly with a number of working groups. It's been in existence almost half a century; it's very significant."
It's not Charlotte, but it is a big gathering. Last year, the administration sent 50 officials to the forum, representing 17 different federal agencies. Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides led the delegation in 2011. The official said this trip was part of the administration's rebalancing toward Asia, with a special focus on the smaller countries around the region's periphery.
"Sometimes when we talk about the Asia Pacific, the A is the capital and P is small. And our attempt here is to underscore that we have very strong, enduring, strategic, moral, political, humanitarian interests across the region. It's an area in which we invested substantially historically -- blood and treasure," the official said.
"I just returned about two weeks ago from my own trip around the Pacific," the State Department official said. (Your humble Cable guy did did not attend the briefing, so we have no direct knowledge of the identity of the briefer, but the State Department publicly announced the foreign travel of Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell earlier this month.)
Clinton will meet in the Cook Islands with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and will be joined by Pacific Command head Adm. Sam Locklear, the anonymous State Department official said.
In Indonesia, Clinton will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. Expect her to press Indonesia to work better with other ASEAN countries to come to a consensus position on how to confront China over the South China Sea. ASEAN failed to come to a consensus position at the ASEAN Regional Forum in July, despite Washington's urgings.
Next, Clinton is off to Beijing to meet with President Hu Jintao, Vice President Xi Jinping, and State Councilor Dai Bingguo. She will also have "intense meetings" with Foreign Minister Yang Jiachi, the official said. Topics on the agenda include the South China Sea, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan.
"I think the secretary intends very clearly to underscore our continuing interest in maintaining a strong, positive relationship between our two countries," the official said. "We recognize how critically important that is, and one of the challenges before us is to demonstrate how we deal with areas in which we have differing perceptions and where we face challenging issues on the ground, or in this case in the water."
After Beijing, Clinton will go to Timor-Leste and visit a coffee plantation. Next is Brunei, which will host the East Asia Summit in 2013, probably after Clinton leaves office. Then, she will go to an island off the shore of Vladivostok for the APEC summit, where she'll lead a large U.S. delegation and will likely hold a series of high-level bilateral meetings.
Pressed to explain exactly how the administration plans to advance U.S. and allied interests related to the South China Sea dispute on the trip, the official offered few specifics.
"I would say that the United States has sought to articulate a very clear set of principles that animate our strategic approach to the Asia Pacific region, and particularly to the South China Sea. Those will continue," the official said.
"We have had very intense consultations with every key player in the Asia Pacific region. I think one of the messages that we seek to carry on this trip is that it is absolutely essential that cooler heads prevail in every capital, and that great care be taken on these issues, and that, in fact, all of these complex territorial matters have existed for decades. They have been managed generally effectively for decades, and during this period we've seen some of the most manifest Asian prosperity. We need that to continue. This is the cockpit of the global economy, and so care must be taken across the board."
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Two leading congressmen are calling on the Obama administration to use its leverage in international financial institutions to press for greater fiscal transparency in Burma, formally known as Myanmar, and ensure progress in the human rights situation in the Southeast Asian country as it emerges from decades of isolation.
The two leaders of the House Committee on Financial Services, Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-AL), and ranking Democrat Barney Frank (D-MA) wrote a letter Aug. 22, obtained by The Cable, to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner asking him to safeguard the fragile reform process in Burma and ensure that Burma's opening to the world is done according to international financial management standards and with respect to the welfare of the Burmese people. Today Burmese President Thein Sein reshuffled his cabinet, replacing key ministers with reform minded appointees.
The lawmakers specifically called out the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which saw sanctions relief from the U.S. government despite suspected corruption and ties the Burmese military. Obama lifted the ban on U.S. companies doing business with MOGE in July, over the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, now a member of the circumscribed Burmese legislature.
"We are cautiously optimistic that Burma will continue to implement necessary reforms, but we believe vigilance on questions of government transparency and human rights remain critical," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge the administration to use its leadership at the IFIs [international financial institutions] to emphasize fiscal transparency, systems of accountability and respect for human rights and to insist that the institutions pay close attention to the urgent social needs of the Burmese people."
They want the IMF's Code of Good Practice on Fiscal Transparency enforced on all branches of the Burmese government, including the military and MOGE. The code would require the government and its state enterprises (including MOGE), in essence, to publish their revenues and expenditures and subject them to public and parliamentary oversight, as well as an independent auditing process.
"Such transparency is necessary is necessary not only to allow the IFIs to properly supervise the use of multilateral aid but also to help end corruption and the off budget funding of the Burmese military," the letter states.
Burma is a resource-rich county that could provide for its people but remains mired in corruption and mismanagement, Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, told The Cable.
He said that IFI lending for big infrastructure projects, absent fiscal transparency reforms, could reinforce those bad habits, making the promotion of fiscal transparency central to the IFIs' mission. The IFIs hold good leverage over the Burmese government because infrastructure development is one of the regime's key goals.
"The key question in Burma's reform process is whether elected civilians will wrest full control over the country from the military establishment, including control of revenues from Burma's lucrative oil and gas and mineral exports. It's not just Aung San Suu Kyi who wants this - Burma's reformist president and its new parliament also have a huge stake in figuring out where the money is and asserting their authority to oversee how it's spent," Malinowski said. "It would help them if the IFI's prioritized fiscal transparency - providing technical assistance to help the Burmese get there, and holding up lending for big infrastructure projects until they do."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in South Sudan and Uganda on Friday with Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills. Clinton met with President Salva Kir and Foreign Minister Nhial Deng in Juba, South Sudan, before meeting with President Yoweri Museveni in Kampala, Uganda.
The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that includes a provision reauthorizing the U.S. ban on imports from Burma by a unanimous vote.
The bill reauthorizes the ban on U.S. imports from Burma for three years, with a caveat whereby the president or his delegee, the secretary of state, could decide to wave that prohibition for one year.
Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats, who was in favor of the legislation, said on Tuesday during a speech in Washington that he expected the bill to pass and that it would provide an incentive to the Burmese government to continue with its democratic reforms.
"What we have said all long is that it's action for action," Hormats said about the process of easing sanctions on Burma, which began when President Barack Obama lifted the ban on investing in the country.
"I would find it very surprising if Aung San Suu Kyi and the other reformers thought this was a good idea and Congress got much support for repealing [the lifting of sanctions]," said Hormats.
Senate leaders such as John McCain (R-AZ) are concerned that the state-run Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which controls all of Burma's oil and gas assets, is notoriously opaque and is known to funnel money to a select few people. In order to increase transparency and reduce corruption, Hormats noted that Burma has agreed to join the Extraction Industries Transparency Initiative, which monitors industry practices and revenue flow. Suu Kyi has frequently cautioned the United States against cooperating with MOGE.
If the Burmese government wants more sanctions lifted, it will have to resolve issues related to the treatment of cultural minorities and release more political prisoners, said Hormats.
"They've released 500," Hormats said. "But there are more."
The undersecretary, who returned from a trip to Burma just over a week ago, emphasized that he saw much cause for optimism about the country's democratic transition.
"The members of the junta who previously ran Burma in a very authoritarian way are now for the most part the vanguard of the reform effort," he explained. "This time, the old guard is the new guard."
Still, there are no guarantees. Escalating tensions and recent violence between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists in Burma's Rakhine state has displaced about 80,000 people and killed 78.
"As the president and secretary have said, this is still fragile -- there's no guarantee it's going to continue, but ... we got quite a good feeling that they are committed to doing this," Hormats said about Burma's transition process.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa through August 10. She is accompanied by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling to Senegal, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Malawi, and South Africa through August 10. Wednesday, the Secretary met with Senegal President Macky Sall in Dakar. She is accompanied by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Assistnat Secretary for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, and Counselor and Chief of Staff Cheryl Mills.
Governments worldwide restricted religious freedom in 2011 through the implementation of blasphemy laws and legislation that favored state-sanctioned groups, while religious minorities who experienced political and demographic transitions tended to suffer the most, stated the 2011 State Department International Religious Freedom Report, which was released Monday.
"Members of faith communities that have long been under pressure report that pressure is rising," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a speech Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "When it comes to this human right ... the world is sliding backwards."
The report highlighted the deteriorating situation in China, whose government continued to increase restrictions on religious practice for Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan areas. This repression resulted in "at least 12 self-immolations by Tibetans" last year, a trend that Tibetan prime minister Lobsang Sangay emphasized in a recent interview with The Cable. The Chinese government also cracked down on Muslims living in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region and religious groups unaffiliated with China's official state-sanctioned "patriotic religious associations," particularly Christian house churches.
Other designated "Countries of Particular Concern" included Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, and Burma, also known as Myanmar. According to the report, Burma eased some restrictions on religious freedom, though it continued to "monitor the meetings and activities of all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public events." The Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, which the Burmese government refuses to recognize as citizens, were especially targeted.
In Egypt, where the population democratically elected an Islamist government, the country's post-Mubarak transition remains tenuous, as Coptic Christians still face persecution. On October 9, for example, hundreds of demonstrators -- mostly Copts -- were attacked by Egyptian security forces in the Maspiro area of Cairo.
"Now, I am concerned that respect for religious freedom is quite tenuous, and I don't know if that's going to quickly be resolved, but since 2011 and the fall of the Mubarak regime, sectarian violence has increased," Clinton said. "We don't think that there's been a consistent commitment to investigate and apply the laws."
Regarding recently elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Suzan Johnson Cook said during a briefing Monday that the U.S. government expects him follow through on his commitment to religious freedom and diversity.
"President Morsi has said publicly that in his new government, he will include Coptic Christians, secular citizens, and a woman," she said. "So we are looking for him to follow through on what his promise was."
The new government in Libya, which stopped enforcing Ghaddafi-era laws that restricted religious freedom and institutionalized the free practice of religion in its interim constitution, was cited as a case of tangible success.
"They [the Libyan government] have come to believe that the best way to deal with offensive speech is not to ban it, but to counter it with speech that reveals the lies," the Secretary said.
Another trend on the rise in 2011 was global anti-Semitism, fueled by anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt, Holocaust denial in Iran, the desecration of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries and France, and the openly anti-Semitic and nationalistic Jobbik party in Hungary.
Now that China has announced it intends to build a military garrison on disputed islands in the South China Sea, raising fears about the outbreak of conflict in the contested maritime region, several top U.S. senators are urging China and Southeast Asian countries to return to the negotiating table and solve their disputes peacefully.
Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Richard Lugar (R-IN), John McCain (R-AZ), Jim Webb (D-VA), James Inhofe (R-OK), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), introduced a resolution this week to urge China and ASEAN to complete work on a code of conduct for settling disputes in the South China Sea and other maritime domains before tensions rise any further.
The resolution "strongly urges that, pending adoption of a code of conduct, all parties, consistent with commitments under the declaration of conduct, ‘exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and stability, including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.'"
The Obama administration has been working quietly but in a determined fashion to press Southeast Asian countries to settle their internal disputes and come up with a unified negotiating position for how to complete a code of conduct for settling maritime disputes, as all of the countries of the region agreed to do in 2002.
"We have seen worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fisherman. So we look to ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a code of conduct for the South China Sea that is based on international law and agreements," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said July 12 in Cambodia when attending the ASEAN Regional Forum. "As I told my colleagues, this will take leadership, and ASEAN is at its best when it meets its own goals and standards and is able to speak with one voice on issues facing the region."
The senators' resolution supports that process but also reaffirms the U.S. commitment to assist ASEAN countries in remaining strong and independent and pledges to deepen the U.S. partnership with ASEAN nations. The resolution also "supports enhanced operations by the United States armed forces in the Western Pacific, including in the South China Sea, including in partnership with the armed forces of others countries in the region, in support of freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, including the peaceful resolution of issues of sovereignty, and unimpeded lawful commerce."
In a statement given to The Cable, Kerry said that ASEAN's failure to agree on a joint statement regarding the code of conduct at the Cambodia summit added to the rising tensions between China and its neighbors over the issues and convinced senators it was time to weigh in.
"These disputes are real and they're getting more serious. I'd think the least the Senate can do is to go on the record clearly and unequivocally in favor of ASEAN efforts to develop a code of conduct in the South China Sea," Kerry said.
"There should be no doubt that the United States is committed to an enduring presence and deepening partnerships in the region. We have a clear interest in safe and lawful behavior by everyone operating in Asia's maritime commons. We have a huge interest also in the peaceful resolution of all the issues in the South China Sea, consistent with international law and through a multilateral diplomatic process," Kerry continued. "We've got big worries about freedom of navigation and free commerce. Those are principles all states in the region should be able to support, and this resolution makes clear that the Senate's watching and we're focused appropriately."
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday he is lifting the investment ban on Burma, allowing U.S. companies to enter Burma's lucrative energy sector, above the objections of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
"Today, the United States is easing restrictions to allow U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma," Obama said in a Wednesday statement. "President Thein Sein, Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma continue to make significant progress along the path to democracy, and the government has continued to make important economic and political reforms. Easing sanctions is a strong signal of our support for reform, and will provide immediate incentives for reformers and significant benefits to the people of Burma."
Obama said that that entities owned by the Burmese armed forces and the ministry of defense will not be covered by the general licenses to invest in Burma that the administration is issuing to U.S. companies today.
"Burma's political and economic reforms remain unfinished. The United States Government remains deeply concerned about the lack of transparency in Burma's investment environment and the military's role in the economy," he said.
He also noted that U.S. companies will be required to report on their new activities in Burma and adhere to international corporate governance standards. The president signed a new executive order expanding sanctions against human rights violators in Burma at the same time it repealed the investment ban, which has been in place since the Clinton administration.
Wednesday's announcement comes after an intense internal debate over whether to include Burma's energy and natural resource sectors in the new general licenses. Industry groups such as the U.S.-ASEAN business council, working with oil companies like Chevron, lobbied hard and successfully for a full repeal of the investment ban. They were supported by some lawmakers, such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Jim Webb (D-VA).
Human rights groups and other lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), cautioned the administration to go slow and issue only a partial repeal of the investment ban. They especially wanted the administration to retain bans on U.S. companies working with the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) the state controlled entity through which all energy sector business flows, which they say is still heavily influenced by the Burmese military.
"We share Aung San Suu Kyi's concerns that MOGE's operations lack transparency, that it remains overly influenced by the Burmese military, and that the large amounts of foreign investment flowing into MOGE are not sufficiently accountable to the Burmese people or its parliament," the senators wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a July 3 letter.
"We are not opposed in principle to U.S. investment in Burma's oil and gas industry. However, it is critical that foreign investment in Burma be carefully structured to benefit the Burmese people and strengthen the political and economic reforms that are at last underway there."
Suu Kyi, who was elected to Burma's parliament in April after more than two decades of house arrest, last month specifically asked foreign governments not to allow their companies to partner with MOGE at this time.
"The Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE) ... with which all foreign participation in the energy sector takes place through joint venture arrangements, lacks both transparency and accountability at present," she said June 14 in a speech in Geneva. "The [Myanmar] government needs to apply internationally recognized standards such as the IMF code of good practices on fiscal transparency. Other countries could help by not allowing their own companies to partner [with] MOGE unless it was signed up to such codes."
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it would follow Suu Kyi's lead while cautiously opening up to closer ties with the Burmese regime. The new U.S. ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell arrived there today.
But in this case, supporters of a more cautious path of easing Burma sanctions inside the administration lost out. They included the State Department Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), let by Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner, and those in the National Security Staff focused on human rights, such as Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power, according to sources familiar with the internal discussions.
Following a Deputies Committee meeting last week, the side that advocated for a broader repeal of the investment ban won out. That side included the State Department's East Asian and Pacific affairs bureau (EAP), led by Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, the economics office at State led by Undersecretary Robert Hormats, and the Treasury and Commerce departments. Hormats is set to travel to Burma next week with a contingent of business leaders in tow.
Human rights experts saw today's move as a change from the administraion's original promise to pursue targeted easing of the investment ban. Administration officials promised a sector-by-sector approach whereby the administration would have begun by focusing on sectors of the economy most likely to help the Burmese people, rather than the country's military.
The idea was to encourage development of tourism, banking, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors, while maintaining investment bans on industries such as natural gas, mineral extracting, and timber, which are mostly controlled by the military.
"The pro-industry lobby convinced the administration to back off from the sector-by-sector approach and issue the general license which allows companies to go into any sector, including oil and gas," said Human Rights Watch Washington director Tom Malinowski.
He said that U.S. companies understandably don't want to lose out on market share due to the influx of European corporations now set to do business with Burma's energy and mining sectors, but opening up MOGE to vast new sources of financing could have a negative effect on Burmese political reform.
"All the money the Burmese military uses to finance their wars in the ethnic areas and their procurement of illicit materials from North Korea comes from MOGE. If the military wants to hold on to power and resist civilian oversight, this is what would finance their ability to do that. It represents the bulk of the regime's hard earnings," Malinowski said.
Once corporations make long-term investments in Burma's energy sector, it will be almost impossible to get those countries to abrogate those agreements if the tide turns in Burma and the U.S. government decides it wants to reinstate the investment ban. Chevron's stake in Burma was grandfathered in when the investment ban was originally instituted.
Overall, the concern in the human rights community is that the U.S. government is now making diplomatic decisions about Burma policy based on economic considerations, and not national security or the desire to see the Burmese people live a better life.
"For the last 20 years or so, U.S. policy on Burma was focused on promoting a democratic transition and nonproliferation. The desire of U.S. based companies to get contracts was never on the table until the last couple of months. The fact that is now being balanced against longstanding U.S. interests in Burma really does represent a shift in priorities," Malinowski said.
"The bottom line here is that you have Aung San Suu Kyi asking the administration to hold up on allowing unfettered investment in Burma, and the administration went with Chevron over Aung San Suu Kyi."
NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable that the administration shares concerns about MOGE and views MOGE as meriting closer oversight than other firms in Burma. U.S. investors must alert the U.S. government within 60 days of entering into any contract with MOGE, he said
"We are working very hard with MOGE and the wider Government of Burma to quickly improve its operations. We have been pleased with MOGE's and the Government's commitments in this regard, which include engagement with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)," Vietor said. "While we share these concerns we believe that there will be benefits both to the people of Burma and to U.S. investors in allowing U.S. companies, in a careful, calibrated and responsible manner, to engage with MOGE."
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable today that Obama's action has freed the Burmese regime and military from any fear of being substantively sanctioned going forward.
"I am sure Obama will be appreciated by the Burmese generals, cronies and U.S. corporations, but not by the people of Burma," he said.
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On Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong in Hanoi, and discussed issues including Agent Orange, soldiers missing in action, and deepening cultural and economic bilateral ties with Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. "The United States greatly appreciates Vietnam's contributions to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and a reduction of tensions in the South China Sea," said the secretary, who is accompanied by Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Robert Hormats, Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan. Tomorrow Clinton will arrive in Vientiane, Laos, for meetings with Prime Minister Thonsing Thammavong and other senior government officials, making her the first secretary of state to visit the country in 57 years.
In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Monday with President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, Prime Minister Sukhbaatar Batbold, spoke at the Community of Democracies Governing Council and the International Women's Leadership Forum, and participated in the Leaders Engaged in New Democracies Network launch. Clinton praised post-Soviet Mongolia as a democratic model for Asia, calling it "an inspiration and a model" that stands "in stark contrast to those governments that continue to resist reforms" -- a none-too-subtle dig at neighboring China. Although Mongolia held parliamentary elections on June 28, the results are still being disputed as no major party was able to form a government.
Secretary Clinton, who is accompanied by Chief of Protocol Ambassador Capricia Penavic Marshall, Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, Ambassador-At-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, will travel next to Hanoi, Vietnam, to meet with senior Vietnamese leaders.
U.S. senators grilled Derek Mitchell, nominated by President Barack Obama on May 17 as the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in two decades, in a confirmation hearing Wednesday, but they used the session primarily to urge the administration to allow American investment in the country's oil and gas sectors.
Mitchell has served as special coordinator for Burma policy since last year, but democratic reforms and the election of opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament have prompted the Obama administration to step up its diplomatic engagement with the Burmese government.
Although the State Department has proposed a "sector by sector" plan to renewing private sector relations, the White House has not decided if it will lift sanctions on Burma's notoriously opaque and abusive energy industry.
"There's nothing I can say here definitively on this, because it is an ongoing internal, interagency discussion," Mitchell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "But ... we are not looking to exclude any sectors from this."
Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), addressing "rumors" that the administration plans to "exclude oil firms from new rules allowing U.S. investment in the country," argued that such a policy would be detrimental to U.S. companies as foreign firms continue to sign oil and gas exploration agreements with Burma.
"This or any other ‘carve-out strategy' would be a strategic mistake," he said. "I believe that U.S. companies including the oil and gas companies can play a positive role in the effort by demonstrating high standards or responsibility, responsible business conduct, and transparency -- including respect for human rights in Burma."
Suu Kyi, on the other hand, is not as optimistic, and cautioned foreign firms against partnering with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise earlier this month during a speech in Geneva.
In January, Burma's Energy Ministry estimated its natural gas reserves at 22.5 trillion cubic feet, and the international bidding process for 25 offshore oil and gas blocks is scheduled to take place within two to three months.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the U.N.'s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, where she will participate in the U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative launch and hold meetings with Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, and Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic. Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones, Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs Reta Jo Lewis, and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan are also at the conference.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan will depart for Rio de Janiero, Brazil, this afternoon to attend the Rio+20 sustainability summit. Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs Kerri-Ann Jones, also in Rio de Janeiro for the conference, is slated to participate in a USAID panel about women and natural resources. Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs Reta Jo Lewis is scheduled to meet with the deputy mayor of Jerusalem Naomi Tsur and attend the Rio+20 plenary session.
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer are still in Moscow after P5+1 talks with Iran failed to make substantive progress. The parties managed to stave off a total breakdown, but the two days of negotiations resulted only in a commitment on all sides to "continue negotiations at a technical level."
Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer are in Moscow for the final day of P5+1 talks with Iran. The talks "broke no new ground" as of Monday evening, the New York Times reported, and sanctions imposed on Iranian oil by the United States and the European Union are set to begin in July. One Iranian diplomat described Monday's atmosphere as "not positive at all," and many consider the talks deadlocked, but Tehran is reportedly willing to discuss the production of high-grade uranium, which the six powers want to negotiate down to a lower level of purity.
Singapore - When Defense Secretary Leon Panetta speaks Saturday morning at the 2012 Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the crowd will be hoping he puts some more meat on the bone in explaining the U.S. military rebalancing toward Asia.
Speaking to reporters on his plane after leaving Hawaii, Panetta previewed his remarks in Singapore and explained the purpose of his cross-Asia journey, which will also include stops in Vietnam and India. But he stopped short of making or promising any news on how the U.S. shift to Asia will be implemented and whether or not there is concrete action to match the flowery rhetoric.
"Look, obviously, the purpose of this trip is to define the new defense strategy for the region and particularly the emphasis on the rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region," Panetta said. "In Singapore I'm going to be talking to the Shangri-La Security Dialogue and there I'll again define the Asia-Pacific rebalance and our new strategy. And I'll also engage in a number of bilateral and multilateral meetings to listen to them, to listen to their thoughts, but also to define for them what our new strategy is all about."
Here on the ground in Singapore, there's already a lot of anticipation over what new information, if any, Panetta will divulge. In an article Wednesday for Foreign Policy, former NSC Asia official Mike Green wrote that the Shangri-la attendees will be disappointed if Panetta just repeats the same commitments to increase America's presence in Asia without explaining exactly what that will look like and whether the U.S. is willing to pay for it.
"It has become a cliché for U.S. defense secretaries to proclaim emphatically at Shangri-La that the United States is a Pacific power, as if the McKinley administration hadn't established that fact over a hundred years ago. What our friends and allies really want to know is whether this administration is prepared to resource its Asia strategy," wrote Green.
On the plane, Panetta reiterated the four basic principles that underpin the U.S. engagement strategy, namely to promote a rules-based regional order, to build stronger regional partnerships, including with China, to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Asia, and to strengthen U.S. power projection in the region. But the details of each pillar were sketchy.
For example, with regard to strengthening the U.S. presence in Asia, Panetta said, "We want to do that through a key element of our new strategy which is developing these innovative rotational exchanges and deployments that we've already begun to do in Australia, that we're working on in the Philippines, and that we're working on elsewhere as well. And also to obviously build on our key alliances and partnerships in the region. "
The Australia deployments were actually announced at last year's Shangri-la dialogue by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and no concrete plan for new deployments is expected this weekend. One reporter tried to get Panetta to name any other country where rotational deployments might be used, but Panetta declined to specify.
Regarding U.S. power projection, Panetta said, "We're going to be having a higher proportion of our forces that will be located in the Asia-Pacific." Of course, the U.S. is withdrawing troops from Europe and the Middle East, so a "higher proportion" doesn't actually mean any new U.S. forces for the Asia-Pacific region.
"We want to develop some new platforms for the kind of operations that I talked about in that region as well," Panetta continued. "And we want to obviously continue to invest in new technologies that will help us build a stronger power projection in the region as well."
One reporter asked Panetta directly if he will announce any details on increased military cooperation with Asia allies. Panetta responded by saying he will be in a listening mode.
"One of the things I hope to do in this process is not just to talk to them, but to listen to their needs as well. And, you know, I think we have a number of capabilities that we can bring to bear here. We can obviously provide advice. We can provide assistance. We can provide technological help. We can provide weaponry that is necessary. So I'm going to be listening to all of these countries and listen to what kind of assistance makes sense in developing that partnership relationship," he said.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaking to American Forces Press Service on his own plane ride to Singapore, said he is also planning on doing a lot of "listening" at the conference and during his many bilateral meetings.
"What I already know is that we've been very clear about the need for cooperation in the maritime domain [involving] freedom of navigation," he said. "I think that's exactly the right position to place ourselves. But beyond that, I want to hear what these 27 nations [at the Shangri-La Dialogue] have to say, both to us and to each other -- because it will clearly be one of the most prominent issues."
There's a lot of writing in the Chinese media this week that the Shangri-la dialogue will be a forum to gang up on China, especially when it comes to China's aggressive actions in the South China Sea. The People's Daily had a front page commentary this week that railed against U.S. interceding in that dispute.
"Issues that arise from the South China Sea need to be solved through negotiations by China with the claimants," states the commentary said. "Intervention by external sources will only make existing contradictions more complicated and sharpen conflicts further, especially when a force of hegemony intervenes."
But if China is left out of the discussions on regional security this weekend, that is at least partially due to the fact that they have significantly downgraded their representation at the conference. Defense Minister Liang Guanglie decided not to return this year, perhaps to avoid another set of tough questions from your humble Cable guy.
"Liang Guanglie is a no-show in Singapore this year. The Defence Minister preferred to talk to his ASEAN counterparts in Cambodia, where he could express China's displeasure at recent events in the South China Sea in bilateral meetings - especially in the two-way with the Philippines," reads a commentary on the Interpreter, a blog of Australia's Lowy Institute.
"Shangri-La shouldn't discomfort Beijing too much. Ministers don't have to announce anything nor issue a formal concluding statement. This is the summit that makes a virtue out of not having official achievements."
Singapore - Security in the South China Sea, tensions in North Korea, and the changing nature of Asian security will top the agenda this weekend at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the largest annual gathering of Asian and Pacific defense officials and experts in the world.
Your humble Cable guy is already on the ground as the top delegations from 28 countries, including 16 defense ministers, convene on the island city-state this weekend for the 12th annual iteration of the conference, run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) out of London. Last year's event was packed with news, as when then Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a new U.S. plan to increase the U.S. military commitment to Southeast Asia.
Gates met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at last year's event and Liang fought off verbal attacks from several regional powers on China's aggressive activities in the maritime domain. He even answered several questions posed by The Cable. Although the United States and China tried to portray an image of improving U.S.-China military ties, last year's event highlighted the deep disparity between the two country's visions for the region.
This year, the United States is sending a large, high-level delegation led by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert.
There will also be a hefty U.S. congressional delegation here in Singapore, including Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Panetta, who is also traveling to Vietnam and India on the trip, will focus his speech in Singapore on the U.S. military shift toward Asia. He previewed those remarks in a May 29 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.
"America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots," Panetta said. "America's future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific."
Panetta will travel to China for the first time as Defense Secretary later this year. For Washington, the conference is a chance to drive home its commitment to Asian security, said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of IISS. For China, the conference is an opportunity to defend its actions and intentions toward its neighbors.
"This year the U.S. will reaffirm its rebalancing to Asia, what they earlier called the ‘pivot' to Asia that they are now calling ‘the rebalancing,'" Chipman said. "China has had a challenging year with the region, which is simultaneously attracted and intimidated by Chinese power."
In a change from last year, China won't be sending an official at the defense-minister level. Sources familiar with the discussions said that due to the sensitive nature of China's impending leadership transition, the Chinese government is being unusually cautious about its public interactions.
That will shift some of the attention to the other regional powers, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and Malaysia. For example, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will give the opening keynote address. Thai defense minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat will attend for the first time, as will the defense minister of Myanmar, Lt. Gen. Hla Min. Indian defense minister A K Antony will deliver another one of the keynote speeches.
"We know what the U.S. and China think. It will be interesting to see how the medium powers seek to frame the discussion," Chipman said. "Indonesia sees itself now not just as a leading country in Southeast Asia but as a G-20 power. It wants to play a larger role in defining the security agenda in the region."
As with many of these conferences, much of the real action will take place on the sidelines -- in a series of bilateral, small group, and off the record meetings that will occur alongside the official festivities. This year there will be an off-the-record session on tensions in the South China Sea in which Chinese and Filipino officials will participate.
Other special sessions will cover the role of armed forces in international emergencies, the evolution of submarine warfare, cyberwarfare, and the emergence of new military systems such as unmanned vehicles.
The United States, Japan, and South Korea will use the opportunity of the conference to hold a trilateral side meeting, where the North Korea nuclear issue is expected to be discussed. Indonesia, Australia, and India will hold another small multilateral meeting, possibly including Japan.
There will be more than 200 bilateral meetings in Singapore as well, in addition to the dozen or so small multilateral gatherings. That's the whole idea of bringing these officials to Singapore for three days, Chipman said.
"Almost all the defense ministers refer to it as ‘the indispensable forum' for defense discussions," he said. "It really allows for a larger variety of discussions that no other forum in Asia -- official or unofficial -- permits."
We'll be blogging and tweeting (@joshrogin) the entire time. Watch this space.
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
Senators from both parties are now urging the Obama administration to drastically scale back U.S. sanctions on Burma in light of that country's moves toward reform and democratization.
Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), who has traveled to Burma twice in the past year, announced Monday morning that he now support the "suspension" of a host of sanctions against Burma and the ruling regime.
"Another major test for U.S. diplomacy is Burma," McCain said in a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I have traveled to Burma twice over the past year. And to be sure, they still have a long way to go, especially in stopping the violence and pursuing genuine reconciliation with the country's ethnic minority communities. But the Burmese President and his allies in the government I believe are sincere about reform, and they are making real progress."
McCain praised the April elections that brought Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and many members of the National League for Democracy into power, despite some irregularities, and said they warranted U.S. temporary lifting of all economic sanctions except for the arms embargo against the Burmese military and targeted sanctions against individuals who have undermined human rights and the rule of law there.
"This would not be a lifting of sanctions, just a suspension. And this step, as well as any additional easing of sanctions, would depend on continued progress and reform in Burma," McCain cautioned.
He said the United States also must set up a regime for ensuring corporate responsibility in Burma as its economy opens and argued that U.S. businesses should still be barred from interacting with Burmese state-owned enterprises due to the risk of enriching hard-liners inside the Burmese system who are resisting reforms.
"U.S. businesses will never win a race to the bottom with some of their Asian, or even European, competitors. And they should not try," McCain said. "Rather, they should align themselves with Aung San Suu Kyi and the Burmese people -- who want the kinds of responsible investment, high labor and environmental standards, and support for human rights and national sovereignty that define American business at its best."
McCain joins Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, who came out May 4 for lifting all economic sanctions against Burma in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that was also signed by his subcommittee counterpart Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). Webb made his third trip to Burma in April.
"At this critical moment, it is imperative that our policy toward Burma be forward thinking, providing incentives for further reforms and building the capacity of reformers in the government to push for additional change," Webb and Inhofe wrote. "We urge the Administration to take action under its own authority, and seize this opportunity to support the Burmese people in their efforts to form an open, democratic government that respects and protects the rights of all."
The administration has made several small concessions to the Burmese following Clinton's trip there last December, such as nominating Derek Mitchell to become the first U.S. ambassador to Burma in more than 20 years and restarting U.S.-Burmese cooperation on some development and counternarcotics programs.
In testimony before Webb's subcommittee on April 26, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Joe Yun detailed the administration's actions to date, noting ongoing concern about the Burmese regime's failings in the areas of human rights, and said the administration would take a slow but steady approach to easing sanctions further.
"We continue to emphasize that much work remains to be done in Burma and that easing sanctions will remain a step-by-step process. We have pursued a carefully calibrated posture, retaining as much flexibility as possible should reforms slow or reverse, while pressing the Burmese government for further progress in key areas," Yun said.
"We have serious and continuing concerns with respect to human rights, democracy, and nonproliferation, and our policy continues to blend both pressure and engagement to encourage progress in all areas."
Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James Miller announced to his staff last Friday that Vikram Singh is the new deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia (SSEA).
"Vikram will be responsible for overseeing the development of policy for South and Southeast Asia, to include key relationships with Allies such as Australia, Thailand, Philippines and strategic partners such as India and Singapore," Miller wrote in the note, obtained by The Cable. "Vikram will play a critical role in leading defense engagement with multilateral institutions in the Asia-Pacific region."
Singh is already hitting the ground running. This week he is leading the U.S. delegation to the ASEAN defense senior officials meeting (ADSOM+) in Cambodia.
Since October 2011, Singh served in the Pentagon policy shop as a senior advisor for Asian and Pacific security affairs, where he led an internal review on the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Prior to that, he had been detailed from the Pentagon to the State Department as a deputy special representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, serving under ambassadors Richard Holbrooke and Marc Grossman. Brig. Gen. Rich Simcock, who had been the acting DASD for SSEA since Bob Scher moved over to be DASD for Plans, will return to his role as principal director for SSEA, now under Singh.
Before joining the Obama administration in 2009, Singh was a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, the think tank founded by former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy and Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell. His other jobs have included a stint managing a Ford Foundation project on South Asian minority rights at International Center for Ethnic Studies in Colombo and as a reporter in Sri Lanka and South Africa for Voice of America.
The Singh appointment fills one of the many vacancies atop the Pentagon's Asia policy shop. The office is still led by Peter Lavoy, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense (PDAS) for Asian and Pacific affairs, while the confirmation of Mark Lippert to be assistant secretary remains held up by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) over the issue of F-16 sales to Taiwan. We're told by Hill sources that the White House has finally reached out to Cornyn to negotiate over the hold, but that the administration's initial offer of sending a mid-level Air Force official to Taiwan for a short visit fell far short of what Cornyn wanted.
There's also still no DASD for East Asia, following Michael Schiffer's move to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Principal Director Dave Helvey is the acting in that capacity.
"I am very pleased to have Vikram on the policy team as the deputy assistant secretary for South and Southeast Asia. He brings a wealth of Asia policy experience -- both in and out of government -- to this position," Miller said in a statement to The Cable.
The State Department's special coordinator for Burma policy, Derek Mitchell, has been chosen to be the first U.S. ambassador to Burma, formally known as Myanmar, since 1990.
Mitchell, a well-regarded Asia hand who was a foreign-policy advisor to the Obama campaign, was formerly the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs. He was appointed to the new job of Burma envoy last April to lead the implementation of the administration's engagement policy with the Burmese regime. Mitchell also worked previously at the Center for Strategic and International Studies with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, the State Department's lead Asia official and a key architect of the new Burma policy.
Responding to incremental reforms in Burma, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January became the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Burma in 50 years and announced that the United States intended to send an ambassador there in the coming months.
On Wednesday, following limited parliamentary elections that swung heavily in favor of the party of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, Clinton announced that the U.S. administration would partially ease some of the sanctions on Burma, easing travel bans on some Burmese officials, recalibrating a ban on investments, and pledging to open up parts of Burma's banking sector to foreign banking services, such as international credit cards.
"We are very close to being able to name formally an ambassador," a senior administration official said in a Wednesday conference call. "We are in the process now of what is called seeking agrement with the authorities in Nay Pyi Taw. That is the formal process whereby their government agrees to our nominee."
Two people familiar with the administration's deliberations confirmed Thursday that Mitchell is that choice.
Initial reaction to the news of Mitchell's pending nomination was overwhelmingly positive, and Burma experts said he had handled the sensitive job of special coordinator with skill and tact.
"He's done a fantastic job and his appointment to be the ambassador would signal that center of action is shifting from Washington to Nay Pyi Taw," the Burmese capital, said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "He's been a great policy coordinator and I'm sure he will be an excellent ambassador."
Mitchell has a good relationship with Suu Kyi, strong support on Capitol Hill, and the confidence of the human rights community, Malinowski said. He added that the administration's incremental response to incremental reforms in Burma was properly calculated.
"The devil is in the details, but in principle, what they announced yesterday is right on the money," he said. "The administration is being quite proactive now and this decision deepens their stake in the outcome. But the progress is reversible and it's really important they continue to approach this not as a success now, but potentially a great success three years from now. It's not a success yet."
Michael J. Green, a former top Asia official in the Bush White House and one-time nominee for the Burma envoy job, also praised the Mitchell selection.
"I think Derek has done very well in his job. He has been surefooted and he has the confidence of all the stakeholders in this Burma policy debate," Green said.
The choice of a political appointee, as opposed to a Foreign Service officer such as current chargé d'affairs Michael Thurston, sends a strong message to the Burmese, Green said.
"I think the administration's policy is calibrated about right," Green said. But Burma is still in need of much greater reforms and President Thein Sein has limited control, he noted.
"There are still campaigns against the ethnics, there are still campaigns about the minorities, there are still unresolved [issues] with Burma's relationship with North Korea, and Burma still has a constitution that is fundamentally undemocratic," Green said. "They [the administration] know that this progress is reversible. They want to show some support for Thein Sein, and appointing Mitchell is the right move."
Soe Than WIN/AFP/Getty Image
Over the winter break, several senators from both parties went to Myanmar. They all came back cautiously optimistic about reforms there, and ready to consider lifting some of the sanctions on the country.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) visited Myanmar earlier this month as part of their whirlwind tour around Southeast Asia, which included stops in the Philippines, Thailand, and the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam, the POW camp where McCain was held during the Vietnam War. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) also visited Myanmar over the winter break on separate trips.
The Cable caught up with McCain and Ayotte in the hallways of the Capitol building this week to get their take on developments in Myanmar. Both said they were genuinely impressed by what they saw as the progress toward reform made by President Thein Sein and his administration.
"There's been significant progress, particularly in the release of political prisoners. There are still some more political prisoners but that was a huge step forward," said McCain, comparing his latest visit favorably to his trip to the country last May.
McCain also noted the increasingly positive and constructive relationship between Myanmar's president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who will take part of the parliamentary elections in April.
"I'm guardedly optimistic that we are seeing a significant change there," McCain said.
In his statement to the press upon returning to Washington, McCain said the U.S. Congress was committed to begin easing and lifting U.S. sanctions as conditions warrant.
"If you had asked me during my last visit here whether I could envision the Congress lifting all sanctions against this country, I would have said that such a scenario seemed faint and distant. Today, however, it appears increasingly possible," he said. "It is our hope that, with further concrete steps toward democratic and economic reform by the government and people of this great country, our nations will be able to open an entirely new and promising chapter in our relationship."
This was Ayotte's first trip to Myanmar, part of her increasing involvement in foreign policy matters as one of the newest members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"I'm increasingly encouraged by the recent progress that they've made," Ayotte told The Cable. The delegation met with Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi.
"What we talked about was a roadmap looking forward, if they continue to make progress, of both the Congress and the administration making a roadmap of when we would lift sanctions," she said.
The elections in April need to free and fair, preferably with international monitors, and there needs to be more legislation that institutionalizes the changes in Myanmar, particularly laws that ensure the freedom of assembly, Ayotte said. Also, she said, the rest of the political prisoners need to be released.
Ayotte said Congress must consult with the State Department to coordinate whether lifting congressionally mandated sanctions or executive branch-driven sanctions should be considered first. She also said the new capital city of Naypyidaw was huge and empty.
"When you go up to the new capital, it's surreal, because you've got two ten-lane highways both ways and we were the only car on the highway," she said.
She also said that parliamentary committees in Myanmar have a lot nicer digs than the congressional committees in Washington.
"Every committee would have its own huge building just for the committee. So they've built capacity in the capital that doesn't quite match where they are right now, so that was interesting," she said.
"We're a counterbalance to China," she added. "That's what we heard from the leaders in these countries."
McConnell also praised the progress in Burma in a floor speech this week
""It appears that Burma has made more progress toward democracy in the past six months than it has in decades," he said. "As one who has taken a strong interest in Burma for over 20 years, and as the lead author in this chamber of an annual sanctions bill aimed at encouraging the Burmese government to reform, this is welcome news."
Office of Sen. John McCain
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) visited the "Hanoi Hilton" prison today, where he was jailed and tortured for years as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.
"Touring the Hanoi Hilton this morning - it's been converted
into a museum
#Vietnam," McCain tweeted Friday from the trip through
Southeast Asia he is on with Sens. Joe
Lieberman (I-CT), Kelly Ayotte
(R-NH), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). "Also visited Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi - where
I landed after being shot down in 1967 - & the monument to my capture."
Politico reported that McCain has visited the Hanoi Hilton several times: "A frequent visitor to the Hanoi Hilton, he was last there in 2009.... McCain first returned to the Hanoi Hilton in 1985 -- the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon -- with legendary broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite. He visited again in the early 1990s with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a fellow Vietnam veteran, to promote efforts to normalize relations with the communist country. McCain also made a trip there shortly after losing the GOP presidential primary race in 2000."
Speaking with the New York Times after his 2000 trip, McCain scoffed at the Vietnamese government's whitewashing of what went on at the prison and described the daily torture and propaganda he and other prisoners were forced to endure.
"'I still bear them ill will,'' he said of the prison guards, ''not because of what they did to me, but because of what they did to some of my friends -- including killing some of them.''
McCain also tweeted photographs of the delegation's meeting with the Vietnam's President Truong Tan Sang.
The delegation visited the Philippines earlier this week, where they met with President Benigno Aquino III, among others. Lieberman took the lead in tweeting during that leg of the trip.
"1st stop - Philippines. Dawn of a new era in our 60 yr alliance, which grows stronger based on shared history, interests, values, and future," Lieberman tweeted on Jan. 17. "US must support Philippines military, esp maritime domain awareness and territorial defense."
The United States is planning to send an ambassador back to Burma as President Barack Obama's administration carefully ramps up its engagement with the Burmese junta in the hope of encouraging greater reform there.
"In Indonesia, I spoke about the flickers of progress that were emerging in Burma. Today, that light burns a bit brighter, as prisoners are reunited with their families and people can see a democratic path forward," Obama said in a Friday statement, following the junta's announcement that it would release 651 of the estimated 2,000 political prisoners in the country. "Much more remains to be done to meet the aspirations of the Burmese people, but the United States is committed to continuing our engagement with the government in Nay Pyi Taw."
"I have directed Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and my administration to take additional steps to build confidence with the government and people of Burma so that we seize this historic and hopeful opportunity," Obama said.
Clinton became the first secretary of State in over 50 years to visit Burma when she traveled there in December. In her own statement, she said she has seen progress in the country on several fronts, and emphasized that Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi also welcomed the junta's recent steps as a sign of the government's commitment to reform. Clinton also noted the ceasefire announced Thursday between the Junta and the Karen National Union, an opposition ethnic group that has been fighting the regime for decades.
Clinton noted several indications of progress in Burma, including the government's easing of restrictions on media and civil society, engaging Suu Kyi in a substantive dialogue, amending electoral laws to pave the way for her party to participate in the political process, setting a date for the by-elections this year, passing new legislation to protect the right of assembly and the rights of workers, beginning to provide humanitarian access for the United Nations and NGOs to conflict areas, and establishing its own national Human Rights Commission.
"As I said last December, the United States will meet action with action. Based on the steps taken so far, we will now begin," she said. "An American ambassador will help strengthen our efforts to support the historic and promising steps that are now unfolding."
These steps and optimistic rhetoric is being accompanied by a whole slew of high-level U.S. delegations to Burma. The State Department's Special Representative for Burma Derek Mitchell visited this week, as did the State Department's Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca. A senior State Department official said that Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Tom Countryman will travel to Burma next week.
There are also a series of congressional visits to Burma in the pipeline. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY) was in Burma this week. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will be there next week. And more lawmakers are planning visits soon after, we're told. Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA) and John McCain (R-AZ) were the only U.S. lawmakers to visit Burma in the past three years.
The United States had an ambassador in Burma from 1947 until 1990, when career Foreign Service officer Burton Levin left the post but was not replaced. Since 1990, the U.S. mission in Burma has been led by a chargé d'affaires, currently Michael Thurston.
A senior State Department official, speaking with reporters Friday, warned that it might take a while to actually place an ambassador in Burma. The nominee has to be selected, vetted, and then confirmed. Confirmations this year could be difficult due to the GOP fight with Obama over his recess appointment of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray, which Republicans believe is legally suspect.
Two names that were floated in the past for Mitchell's job -- and now therefore may be up for the ambassador's position -- were former NSC Senior Director for Asia Mike Green, now with CSIS and Georgetown, and Human Rights Watch Washington Executive Director Tom Malinowski, a leading writer on Burma. Green is close to Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affair Kurt Campbell, the architect of the administration's Burma policy, as is Mitchell. Malinowski is set to travel to Burma next week.
In October, The Cable reported on the details of the State Department's plan for engaging Burma through "step for step" actions that could lead to a relaxing of international and U.S. sanctions. The conventional wisdom is that the administration would first focus on relaxing those sanctions that don't require going through Congress, such as executive orders against Burmese individuals and restrictions on lending to Burma through international financial institutions.
The State Department official emphasized that Congress would be consulted every step of the way and he singled out Webb for special recognition.
"He has pioneered many of these actions. He was one of the first senators on the ground, pushing for the release of prisoners, asking the United States to engage actively. And the secretary wanted me to underscore his service ... basically as a diplomat in the Senate," the official said.
Campbell clashed with Webb early in the administration because Webb was out ahead of the administration's Burma policy, pushing for more robust engagement. Webb also gave Campbell grief during Campbell's confirmation process, but the two have made up now and, more significantly, their approaches to Burma are now in alignment.
The Burmese government has also signed a ceasefire with ethnic Karen rebels, and is reportedly pursuing deals with other rebel groups. The Cable asked the official if there are signs that the junta has actually halted its violence against ethnic minorities, considering that it has broken ceasefires in the past and reports on the ground point to continued and widespread violations of human rights.
"It's difficult to fully ascertain whether or not there's been a diminution of violence in ethnic areas ... but there still are unacceptable levels of violence in ethnic areas and that continues," the official said.
CNN wanted to know when the U.S. government will stop calling the country "Burma" and start using the junta's preferred name, "Myanmar." The official said the United States would discuss that with stakeholders both inside and outside Burma.
"There are many factors that go into that," the official said. "We adhere to the reference of the country as Burma. The secretary and Aung San Suu Kyi discussed this when they were together and this is an issue that will be addressed in due course."
The Obama administration is considering easing sanctions on the Burmese government, but the release last week of about 200 political prisoners is not enough to prove the junta is really changing, according to Derek Mitchell, the State Department's special representative and policy coordinator for Burma.
"Any political prisoners are too many political prisoners, and what we're looking for is release of all political prisoners without condition, to really send the signal of genuine commitment to democracy in the country," Mitchell told reporters at a special State Department briefing Monday.
Reports have noted that the initial release of prisoners by the junta is only a fraction of the total of over 2,000 estimated political prisoners in the country and doesn't include many prominent political prisoners whom the international community is advocating for. Those include student leader Min Ko Naing, activist leader Ko Ko Gyi, and many others.
Mitchell names Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi as examples of political prisoners the Obama administration would like to see released as proof that the junta's new attitude is serious.
"I said directly to the leadership that these are the people that if you're serious about democratic reform, you would see as allies, because they actually are seeking the same goals you are," he said. "I'm not sure we've seen anything necessarily exactly like we've seen over the past several months.... But there are still questions about how far they're going to go and where this is going to lead."
Mitchell also said that real engagement by the United States and the international community can't be fully realized until the Burmese government stops the abuses and attacks on ethnic minorities near Burma's borders.
"Their violence continues. Credible reports of human rights abuses, including against women and children, continue," he said. "And in fact we made it very clear that we could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur and as long as there is not dialogue with these groups and with the opposition and violence remains -- then that will be a constraint on the relationship."
Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, told The Cable that the junta often uses the release of small numbers of political prisoners as a bargaining chip for short-term political gain and to dilute international pressure.
The junta hasn't even acknowledged the numbers of political prisoners in its control, he said, and is claiming it only has 600 political prisoners under arrest.
"The best way to confirm the numbers of political prisoners is to allow the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] to visit all prisoners and conduct an investigation about their numbers and situation," he said. "I hope the United States government continues to push the regime to allow the ICRC to visit prisons, confirm the numbers of political prisoners, and release them as soon as possible."
Aung Din participated in a Burma discussion last week at the Heritage Foundation with Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski; Jared Genser, founder and president of Freedom Now; and Walter Lohman, director of Heritage's Asian Studies Center.
The group's consensus was that the junta's moves are heavy on form and light on substance and have been tried multiple times in the past.
Genser laid out several items of perceived progress and concluded, "An analysis of those items where people are pointing to potential progress are, in fact, so far mostly illusory, particularly when you put this in the context of recent Burmese history."
The Obama administration is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of reengagement with Burma, and the State Department is busily preparing a host of new rewards for the ruling junta if and when their promises of reform ever become a reality.
"We're going to meet their action with action," Derek Mitchell, the new special representative and policy coordinator for Burma, told The New York Times. "If they take steps, we will take steps to demonstrate that we are supportive of the path to reform."
But is Burma actually on the path to reform? The main pieces of evidence that change is afoot are that the new government, led by President Thein Sein, paused construction of a huge dam being built with China, which would have displaced thousands and wrecked the local environment, released 220 prisoners, and promised to release thousands more. But those changes alone aren't going to convince anyone in the administration -- or Congress, for that matter -- that the government is really committed to wholesale reform.
While the Obama administration sees some signs of change in Burma, it has no idea why they are occurring and has communicated that the United States will only ease sanctions after Burmese reforms. Administration officials are also trying their best to be clear eyed about the possibility that the junta is only trying to appease the international community, and has no intention of instituting real, actual change.
The Cable sat down with a senior State Department official to flesh out the administration's new approach to Burma, and gauge whether the Obama team really thinks that the Burmese junta is changing its tune.The official said that State has actually taken several steps in planning exactly what the United States is prepared to do if and when the junta takes steps to increase democracy and respect for human rights.
"We're far along," said the State Department official. "We're thinking about it very actively and we have some ideas of things we might do if we see the concrete steps."
The administration's strategy is to focus on steps the administration can take without needing to go through Congress, which is always skeptical of the Junta and never eager to loosen sanctions. For example, a ban on Burmese imports was implemented through a legislative maneuver, and would therefore need congressional action to remove. A ban on investment in Burma, however, was made by executive order, so the administration could remove that on its own.
"We would be consulting with Congress on the ideas that we have," the official said. "You can't have a perfect roadmap because there are many different scenarios to their actions and we'll calibrate it accordingly. So that's the art rather than the science to all of this."
Banking sanctions on Burma were authorized through Congress, but the sanctions placed on individual Burmese officials are an executive prerogative, so the administration could remove holds on specific Burmese officials who make positive steps.
The administration is still grappling with what it can do about removing restrictions on lending to Burma by international financial institutions, a key aspiration of the Burmese government. The New York Times reported that the administration is "considering waiving some restrictions on trade and financial assistance and lifting prohibitions on assistance by global financial institutions, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund."
We're told that the administration isn't quite there yet. Rather, officials are conducting an assessment of the conditions on the ground as to what would be needed as a precursor to considering waiving restrictions. For close observers of the Burma issue, that's a small but important distinction.
The administration is also being careful not to get ahead of reformers on the ground, specifically Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.
The official noted that the administration has already provided some carrots to the Burmese. It invited Burma to be an observer in the Lower Mekong Initiative, which is the U.S. effort to deepen ties with certain Southeast Asian countries. It eased travel restrictions on Burmese officials so that Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin could come to Washington last month and visit the State Department.
There is a short and clear list of things the Obama administration has told junta leaders would constitute action deserving of reciprocal action on the part of the United States. They are to release political prisoners, amend the political party law to allow Aung San Suu Kyi's NLD party to run in the next elections, and stop violence against ethnic minorities in Burma's rural areas.
The official said that, despite a feeling of political change in the urban areas of Burma, government violence against civilians near Burma's borders is actually getting worse. And there is still the unresolved issue of Burma's relationship with North Korea, which may include missile transfers and nuclear weapons cooperation.
"The ceasefires have been violated and there is continued military aggression and credible reports of abuses, including against women and children, that come out, which is typical of the past in Burma," the official said.
And what if the Burmese don't actually reform or even backslide on their progress? Is the administration willing to use the sticks -- including additional sanctions?
"We would look at everything.... It's fair to say we would be looking at that if things reverse," the official said.
Special Representative Mitchell's office, created in this year, is made up of just him and one assistant. He sits inside the offices of the East Asian and Pacific Bureau at State, but he reports directly up to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and has responsibility for coordinating the entire interagency policy on Burma.
Burma experts believe the new office is useful, and see Mitchell as the right man for the job. But Burma watchers are also wary that the cautious optimism of the administration doesn't turn into naiveté.
"There's a lot of hype right now about everything is changing in Burma," said Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch. "There's always a bureaucratic impulse to believe that positive change is happening in situations where a lot of U.S. diplomatic effort has been expended."
"That's the danger that there's so much positive rhetoric out there that the Burmese will think, aha, we don't actually have to do these things, all we have to do is talk about them," Malinowski said.
The State Department official said the administration was well aware of that risk, and was making sure the Burmese knew that they would have to implement real reforms to renew their relationship with the United States.
"I think [Burmese leaders] recognize that folks are waiting and see what's going to happen. People are restraining themselves from assuming that individual moves are somehow representative of something fundamentally different," the official said.
The other main administration officials involved in U.S. Burma policy are Adam Szubin, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, Senior Director Dan Russel and Director Colin Willet in the NSC's Asia team, NSC's Senior Director Samantha Power on human rights, East Asia Pacific Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and Deputy Assistant Secretary Joe Yun, and Southeast Asia Office Director Patrick Murphy at State.
The U.S. and Burmese governments are reengaging, both in Rangoon and in New York, as the State Department makes a new push to test the willingness of the Burmese military junta to reform.
Special Envoy Derek Mitchell is on his way home after a five day visit to Burma, where he met with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi as well as a host of Burmese government officials, although not President Thein Sein. He called his talks with government officials a success in a press conference at the end of his trip.
"I consider this a very highly productive visit," said Mitchell, explaining that he had discussed the release of political prisoners but received no firm commitments from the Burmese government. He also met with Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and Labor Minister Aung Kyi.
"We had a very candid dialogue on the subject" of human rights violations, Mitchell said. "The issue of sanctions was not a primary point of discussion."
"I know that many within the international community remain skeptical about [the Burmese government's] commitment to genuine reform and reconciliation, and I urge the authorities to prove the skeptics wrong," Mitchell said.
Apparently, the dialogue was encouraging enough for the State Department to schedule another round of meetings with Burmese officials, this time in New York, on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next week. Maung Lwin is set to meet with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Cambell, according to a U.S. official traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in San Francisco this week.
"There are clear winds of change blowing through Burma. We are trying to get a sense of how strong those winds are and whether it's possible to substantially improve our relationship," the official said.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), one of only two U.S. senators to visit Burma, is also renewing his push for more interactions with the Burmese government. He argued in a recent statement that, despite the severely flawed elections in Burma that took place last November, positive change was occurring on the ground.
"The election resulted in a new governmental system and opportunities for engagement. Burma is now in the midst of a key transitional period that has yielded greater opportunities for interaction with government leaders and civil society, and restructuring of government and military institutions," said Webb.
The Senate is actually considering a bill this week to reauthorize sanctions on Burma. However, Senate Democrats decided to try to attach $6.8 billion in emergency disaster aid to that bill, which provoked resistance from the GOP, so its path in Congress is now caught up in the fight over the relief funds - despite the fact that neither party has any objection to the renewal of sanctions.
Webb said the bill should be passed but noted that it allows the president to waive specific sanctions if and when he feels it's in the U.S. national interest.
"There are clear indications of a new openness from the government, and the United States should be prepared to adjust our policy toward Burma accordingly," Webb said.
Thirteen U.S. senators, all women, are calling on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to take concrete action to address the Burmese junta's use of rape as a weapon of war.
"Given the Burmese regime's unabated use of rape as a weapon of war, we urge you to call on the regime to end this practice and pursue our shared goal of establishing an international Commission of Inquiry into war crimes and crimes against humanity," the senators wrote in an Aug. 10 letter, obtained by The Cable.
The signers on the letter were Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), Susan Collins (R-ME), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Patty Murray (D-WA), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH).
The senators cited several reports that the Burmese army has been using gang rape in its conflicts with ethnic minorities along its borders recently. For example, the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand reported that dozens of women have been gang raped since the truce between Burma and the Kachin Independence Army broke down in June, and that Burmese soldiers claim they have "orders to rape women."
The Shan Women's Action Network (SWAN) has also been documenting all known cases of rape during the Burmese government's new offensive against the Shan State Army following the collapse of a 22-year ceasefire.
"Burma Army troops are being given free rein to rape children, the pregnant and the elderly," said SWAN coordinator Hseng Moon in a press release. "We strongly condemn these war crimes."
Since 2003, groups such as Refugees International, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have all detailed atrocities committed by the Burmese army.
In late May, the UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Quintana, highlighted the Burmese army's actions, saying, "Systematic militarisation contributes to human rights abuses. These abuses include land confiscation, forced labour, internal displacement, extrajudicial killings and sexual violence."
The senators also referred in their letter to the June testimony of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who called for the U.N. human rights rapporteur to visit Burma and for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into the human rights situation in Burma.
"We must not allow this regime to continue to commit such dire crimes while the people of Burma continue to suffer," the senators wrote.
Add this issue to the list of challenges that new U.S. Special Envoy to Burma Derek Mitchell now faces. Mitchell was confirmed by the Senate last week and is now in charge of coordinating the State Department's new Burma policy, which is meant to mix pressures with engagement of the Burmese regime.
"Overall, the average Burmese citizen lacks fundamental freedoms and civil rights," Mitchell said at his June 29 confirmation hearing. "I am encouraged that the new President of Burma speaks of reform and change, but the pathway to real national reconciliation, unity among its diverse peoples, and sustainable development requires concrete action to protect human rights and to promote representative and responsive governance."
If there's one thing the Chinese Communist Party really gets annoyed about, it's when someone confuses them with the government of Taiwan! And that's exactly what the State Department did during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent trip to Asia.
Following Clinton's meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Bali last weekend, the State Department put out a press release that began with this line:
"During their meeting today, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republic of China Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reviewed the wide range of common interests between the United States and China and discussed ways to advance our shared goal of maintaining peace, stability, and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region."
The problem is that the "Republic of China" is the official name of Taiwan, and the Beijing-led government is the head of the "People's Republic of China."
The incident brings to mind a 2006 incident during former Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to Washington when, in a ceremony on the White House lawn, the Chinese anthem was introduced as "national anthem of the Republic of China."
Although it was most likely an innocent mistake, we're told by a source on the plane with Clinton that the Chinese delegation went ballistic and complained to Clinton's staff. The State Department sent out a correction soon after and the State Department website now reflects the corrected information.
As the nation careens toward a possible debt default, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Asian business leaders not to overreact to the U.S. political crisis, taking some implicit shots at China's economic policies as well.
"The political wrangling in Washington is intense right now. But these kinds of debates have been a constant in our political life throughout the history of our republic. And sometimes, they are messy," Clinton said in Hong Kong on Monday. "But this is how an open and democratic society ultimately comes together to reach the right solutions."
"Through more than a century of growth, the American economy has repeatedly shown its strength, its resilience, and its unrivaled capacity to adapt and reinvent itself," she said. "And it will keep doing so."
Clinton, who was speaking at an event organized by the Macau chambers of commerce and the Asia Society, said that economics is becoming a higher priority in U.S. foreign policy. She pledged to give a major speech on "America's strategic and economic choices" this fall, and argued that the United States' and East Asia's economies are inextricably linked.
"We are a resident power in Asia -- not only a diplomatic or military power, but a resident economic power. And we are here to stay," she said.
In remarks that appeared at times to be directed at China, Clinton then went on to call for fairness and transparency in economic systems.
"Openness, freedom and transparency contribute to the fourth principle we must ensure: fairness. Fairness sustains faith in the system," she said. "That faith is difficult to sustain when companies are forced to trade away their intellectual property just to enter or expand in a foreign market, or when vital supply chains are blocked. These kinds of actions undermine fair competition, which turns many off from competing at all."
The Chinese government, the largest holder of U.S. debt, has been largely silent about the U.S. debt ceiling crisis. But experts warn that the failure of the U.S. government to resolve the issue expeditiously could further undermine confidence in the already weak U.S. dollar and harm the overall image of the U.S. as a competent world leader.
"We've got repeated statements from Chinese officials of sort of, you know, we hate you guys, but we don't have any choice. And we're still buying your debt, because we don't see anywhere else to buy it," said Sebastian Mallaby, senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations. "But, when the reserve currency is unloved by the accumulators of those reserves -- namely, the central banks of countries like China -- you're on thin ice. They're buying the dollar assets, but they don't like it. And so they're looking actively over a sort of long-term horizon to try to find an alternative."
The Heritage Foundation's Derek Scissors wrote today that China has already slowed its purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds, but for the time being, China has few other options but to continue buying U.S. dollars.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.