SINGAPORE — Speaking in Tokyo this morning, US President Barack Obama called on Burma’s military rulers to release opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, saying it was a precondition for any softening of sanctions against the country’s military junta.

Obama said Burma needed to take “clear steps” toward democracy, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, an end to conflicts with minority groups and a “genuine dialogue” with the opposition and minorities on a “shared vision for the future.”

Obama also pledged to raise human rights issues with the Communist leadership in Beijing, attempting to head off concerns that his administration was taking a soft line in countries such as Iran, Sudan and Zimbabwe, as well as in China and Burma.

However, to avoid angering Beijing, he did not mention Tibet. Obama recently came under fire from human rights advocates for refusing to meet Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in Washington.

In contrast, the Bush administration met with the Dalai Lama numerous times, and toughened sanctions on the Burmese junta in response to the harsh crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Despite this, the US under Bush maintained a positive relationship with Beijing, according to Singaporean academic Kishore Mahbubani.

In Singapore over the weekend, some leaders of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) bloc appeared to pine for the edgier days of the Bush administration.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told a forum of Apec business leaders that he admired the Republican administration’s policy on free trade. A US-Malaysia trade pact remains stalled. Najib said that he hoped “the same message (on trade) will be repeated” when Obama arrives in Singapore later tonight.

Singapore’s former leader and self-styled “minister mentor” Lee Kuan Yew told business leaders that the US risks being fenced out of Asia unless it revises its newfound aversion toward trade liberalization, while almost all Apec leaders united in calling for a conclusion to the Doha round of trade talks by 2010.

Meanwhile, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told Apec counterparts that “big government is not the answer” to resolving the current economic crisis, or building stronger and more prosperous economies in the future.

The Obama administration is taking heavy political fire in the US, losing two recent state elections to the Republicans, as it pushes for increased government spending, nudging the US toward a more statist governance system and a European-style healthcare plan.

Speaking in Bangkok recently, Kishore Mahbubani remarked that the US had plumbed new depths on human rights by reintroducing torture at Guantanamo Bay during the Bush administration, adding that this meant a loss of moral authority for the US on the world stage.

Alarm has also been growing recently over Obama’s apparent slackness on human rights. When Lee Kuan Yew spoke in Washington recently, urging the US to head off China’s growing clout in Asia, Obama replied by praising the former Singapore strongman effusively, but failed to raise issues about freedom of speech and assembly in the city-state.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton muddied the rights water further when she said that we need a “broad” definition of human rights that doesn’t just focus on freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free elections, or religious freedom, but includes better housing or the right to a job. Cynics say this means that repressive regimes can dispel concerns about basic freedoms by boosting infrastructure or social spending, and is reminiscent of Cold War era sound bites delivered by Communist leaders in Eastern Europe, as well as by leaders in Asia who have long resisted Western pressure to improve their human rights records.

More directly, the US has embarked on a hands-across-the-divide attempt to engage with a variety of regimes—in Iran, Sudan and North Korea, as well as Burma. The US has joined the much-maligned UN Human Rights Council, alongside states such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and China, seeking to “reform it from within,” according to Washington’s UN ambassador Susan Rice. The council has been derided for electing countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Libya, allowing those countries to deflect scrutiny of abuses taking place, and for an excessive focus on Israel.

While the Obama administration has barely begun its engagement with the Burmese regime and pledges not to grant the junta any concessions or reduced sanctions without meaningful reforms first, the impression is that the US will move first to talk to repressive regimes. Despite conciliatory talk from Washington, however, Iran ran a rigged election and clamped down on mass protests earlier this year, while North Korea tested a nuclear weapon.

Besides human rights, Obama will also need to address a major strategic issue during his trip to Asia that looks likely to shape international relations for decades to come—dealing with the rise of China as a world power.

A new paradigm that could inform the way US-China relations develop in the future was recently described by Dr Jing-dong Yuan, the director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies. Writing in Asia Times online, he said that “a concept is emerging that calls for ‘strategic reassurance.’” Though yet to be fleshed out, the basic premise is that the US would not seek to impede China’s rise, while Beijing would ease Washington’s concerns about its growing economic and strategic clout.

With the US now trying to make up lost ground to China in Asia, and mindful of its own growing economic interdependence with Beijing, rights issues may take a back seat. Engaging with Burma gives Washington the opportunity to meet the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations, while hedging on Chinese clampdowns in Xinjiang and Tibet will ensure that Obama can play hardball on issues such as the value of the Chinese yuan, and seek Beijing’s co-operation on North Korea. Burmese citizens may hope he seeks Beijing’s assistance in making the new “engagement” policy with Burma work as well.

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