Democrats on Asia: Bluster or real change?


THE new year will see a handful of seasoned Democrats championing democracy, human rights and protectionism, shaping congressional opinion on Asia. China, Indonesia and Myanmar in particular will be in their sights when the new Congress opens in January.

But with foreign policy still the sole prerogative of President George W. Bush – and the Democrat camp deeply divided – expect little change in the immediate future but plenty of bluster and populist rhetoric.

Clearly, the Democrats, led by opinionated and often confrontational leaders such as incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Harry Reid, will press for change in a partisan atmosphere charged by the looming presidential election of 2008.

Beijing, in particular, should brace itself for cold winds blowing in its direction from Capitol Hill.

Washington might be seized with Iraq and the Middle East, but China will figure prominently too. Indeed, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman predicts a “civil war” in American politics over the massive US trade deficit with China.

The key player on the China front will undoubtedly be Ms Pelosi. She has been Beijing’s harshest critic on its human rights record and trade practices for years and calls America’s trade relationship with China a disaster.

There are concerns in the White House that a Pelosi-led, Democrat-controlled House could seize on China issues to bash the Bush administration.

Ms Pelosi’s California district includes San Francisco’s Chinatown, which has traditionally taken an anti-Beijing stance. Her aides were quoted by the Washington Post as saying she would allow tough China legislation to come to a full vote in the House, instead of keeping the Bills bottled up in committees, as previous speakers have done.

The Senate, with Mr Reid as majority leader, also seems poised to play hard ball with Beijing. Four other senators will play a critical role.

Messrs Max Baucus, Charles E. Schumer, Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley are drafting legislation that would apply pressure on China, in the form of sanctions on imports.

Mr Baucus will head the Finance Committee. He and the others will pressure Beijing to allow a freer float of the yuan.

In the House, representative Sander Levin of the influential Ways and Means Committee supports a hardline American stance on trade issues.

Mr Thomas Lantos, who will head the House Committee on International Relations, is also someone to watch. He has a long record of vocal opposition to alleged human rights abuses in China.

While Congress will have its prominent China bashers, their views are at odds with the outlook of a large number of other Democrats.

Dr Robert Sutter, a seasoned China watcher at Georgetown University, points out that many of these other Democrats joined working groups aimed at fostering a more pragmatic US policy on Beijing.

Such groups moderate the congressional tendency to bash China.

Dr Sutter noted the bruising fight among Democrats leading to the selection of Representative Steny Hoyer as House Majority Leader against the wishes of Ms Pelosi. It was an indication that they might not necessarily toe her line.

“Even if Speaker Pelosi wanted to push House Democrats to follow her past leanings to be tough in relations with China and on other Asian issues regarding human rights and trade, the make-up of the Democrat caucus and likely committee leadership strongly suggests less than uniform support,” he said.

A similar dynamic might be in place for Indonesia.

Jakarta is watching with some trepidation the appointment of Senator Patrick Leahy as chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Sub-Committee, which disburses funds for foreign and military aid.

Mr Leahy, after all, was the author of legislation tying military aid to human rights violations by the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) following violence in East Timor in 1999.

In November last year, military ties were restored. The concern now is that he will use his new position to block funds for the TNI.

In the same camp is Mr Tim Reischer, chief-of-staff of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Sub-Committee.

Congressional sources highlight three other prominent faces who could take a tough line.

One is Democrat Russell Feingold, who worked with Mr Leahy in the late 1990s to tighten the screws on the TNI.

Another is Mr Eni Faleomavaega, a leading candidate for the Asia and Pacific Sub-Committee in the House Foreign Relations Committee, hails from Samoa and is a staunch supporter of Papuan independence from Indonesia.

And the third is Ms Nina Lowey, who will be Mr Leahy’s counterpart in the House Foreign Operations Appropriations Sub-Committee.

But among the Democrats, there are also those who appear friendly towards Jakarta and supportive of reform efforts by the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration. They include Mr Robert Wexler of the Indonesia Caucus and rising star Senator Barack Obama who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr Obama, whose stepfather is Indonesian, lived in Jakarta for four years as a teenager.

A senior Indonesian official told The Straits Times: “Leahy’s position is decisive for Indonesia because he controls the purse strings. We expect a lot of hot air from him. But we believe that if there is a vote in Congress against any detrimental legislation he might introduce against Indonesia, we will have our fair share of supporters.”

In the case of Myanmar, however, there appears to be unity not only within the Democratic Party but also with Republicans, and it is a deep-seated hostility towards the military junta.

Dr Sutter, for one, is expecting sound and fury in the new Congress, but not a whole lot more given that in the end, the President calls the shots.

He said: “Although a US economic recession – or a massive government crackdown, military confrontation, or other unanticipated development in Asia could substantially change US policy, prevailing circumstances argue for only modest change.”

Democrats to watch

Ms Nancy Pelosi, Mr Harry Reid, Mr Tom Lantos, Mr Charles Schumer, Mr Lindsey Graham {SEE CORRECTION ABOVE}, Mr Max Baucus, Mr Charles Grassley {SEE CORRECTION ABOVE}, and Mr Sander Levin.

Mr Patrick Leahy, Mr Russell Feingold, Mr Eni Faleomavaega, Ms Nina Lowey

Ms Nancy Pelosi, Mr Tom Lantos

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