106. Briefing Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Holbrooke) to Secretary of State Vance1

My Trip to East Asia

I have just returned from a trip to Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Taiwan.2 The following are some of the highlights and conclusions:


1. There are no crisis-level issues in the region that require the immediate attention of you or the President. However, there are a number of issues on which corrective action must be taken soon, if we are to avoid extremely serious problems later.

2. The foremost need at this time is for us to explain to our friends in Asia what this first post-Vietnam Administration plans to do in their region. The region positively thirsts for more information and contact. If they don’t get it from us, they listen to and believe wild distortions from other sources. Our Ambassadors are unable to provide everything that is needed, through no fault of their own. These Ambassadors, still holdovers, cannot speak with the authority of the President when they attempt to explain the President’s personal commitments, our new positions, or our human rights stand. So great was the Asians’ desire for information that although I played my own visits in low key, at every stop there was immediate and prolonged access to the head of government. I spent four hours with Lee Kwan Yew, ninety minutes with Suharto, an hour and one-half with Chiang Ching Kuo, and a full [Page 372] day with President and Mrs. Marcos and half their Cabinet.3 In every case the response was good simply because they thought they were finally hearing something direct from Washington.

3. Travelling with a Congressional Delegation gave two added benefits: first, I think that relations with the House Subcommittee for Asia were solidified in a useful way; second, the joint travel (but separate in-country schedules) conveyed to the countries we visited that the eight years of bitter Congressional-Executive battles over foreign policy, which had so worried countries like Indonesia, were coming to an end. There were repeated comments to this effect in every country we visited together. (Congressman Wolff went to Bangkok and Tokyo without me, while I visited Singapore without him.)

4. In every country, without exception, human rights was the subject which we talked about the most. It will pose a major problem for us throughout the region. Asian leaders have not yet understood what we want, or what would “satisfy” us. After its eight-year absence, we must re-introduce human rights into the foreign policy equation in Asia with skill and care, or else we could create major problems for ourselves without improving the human rights situation. I believe the policy we have followed so far—of not yet criticizing Asian governments by name or with specifics, but first pressing them quietly—is the right one for the first phase, after which we may need to speak out more publicly. But we cannot explain what we want solely through our Ambassadors. Some skilled special representatives, including Washington-based officials, should be used to talk privately to key figures in Asia. I would rate our chances of getting some movement, perhaps cosmetic, on human rights as fair in the Philippines and Indonesia, and poor in Korea. Without question, Korea will pose us with the most difficult and critical decisions.

In regard to human rights, we must be prepared to applaud nations when and if they take some steps, even partial steps, in the right direction. The failure to do so during Thailand’s three-year experiment in a feeble democracy certainly contributed to the collapse of the government and its replacement by a military junta in October 1976.4 [Page 373] Human rights means different things to different nations. We cannot and will not be able to duplicate our level of freedom in Asia. We should not even try. We must be ready to work for much but to accept less than we seek. Still we must also strive to reverse the sad record of retreat from democracy and freedom of the press that has occurred in Asia in the last eight years.

5. Two other major issues in the region—narcotics and regional economic development—will not be dealt with in this report. On the former, Peter Bourne, who was also traveling with CODEL Wolff, will be reporting directly to the President; we will be working very closely with him to develop new plans to cut down the flow of heroin out of the Golden Triangle. As for economic development, Deputy Assistant Secretary Erland Heginbotham is still in Asia, representing us at the Asian Development Bank meetings, and I would like to await his return before discussing this vital issue with you.

The Message:

In response to their concerns and questions, the message I brought to the countries visited was relatively simple, as follows:

1. The U.S. has just emerged from the most difficult decade in its history. But Vietnam and Watergate are finally behind us, and we have a new President who is building up strong public and Congressional support for his foreign policy.

2. The U.S. will remain an Asian-Pacific power. We will not turn our backs on Southeast Asia. We are ready to work with ASEAN, and with the individual countries of the region.

3. The question of human rights is of great concern to the President and the American people. We want to see progress made in this difficult area among the non-communist nations of Asia.

4. We will maintain the strongest possible ties with Japan. But we will not talk to the rest of Asia through Tokyo.

5. We will withdraw our ground troops from Korea over a four to five year period (plus the rest of the standard line).

6. We will try to move towards normalization of relations with the PRC within the framework of the Shanghai Communique, with due regard for the future status of Taiwan.

7. We are about to begin negotiations with the Vietnamese, and if the MIA issue can be satisfactorily resolved, we hope to move towards normal relations with them.5 But this will not be done at the expense of our old friends in Southeast Asia. The U.S. will not pay war reparations. [Page 374] Limited amounts of humanitarian assistance may be possible at some later date, but even that is not possible now. Congress prohibits any direct aid to Hanoi.

We would hope, by our presence in Hanoi, to dilute Soviet influence there.

8. No decisions have been made yet on the base negotiations with the Philippines.

The Response:

The following is country by country response, and my observations:

[Omitted here is the discussion of Korea.]

Indonesia: The Indonesians are less worried about us now than they were a few months ago. My visit helped, as has David Newsom’s skillful handling of the situation since his return to Washington. Suharto is still worried we will lean towards Hanoi. He welcomed my statement that we will not speak to Southeast Asia through the Japanese, which he says would be unacceptable. He does recognize, of course, the special role and importance of Japan. Suharto hopes to establish full diplomatic relations with Peking this year, despite lingering Indonesian fears of the Chinese, and I encouraged this.

On human rights, Suharto, for the first time, indicated a willingness to open a dialogue with the U.S. I praised him for letting the CODEL go to East Timor, which was a difficult decision for him, and urged him to speed up the release of the 30,000 Class B political prisoners. He made no commitment on the latter point. I pushed everyone in the government very hard on the question of letting Newsweek back into the country, and had a stormy and difficult session with the Ministry of Information over restrictions they intend to impose on journalists covering the upcoming elections. On all these points, the Indonesians must be pushed. The upcoming elections, only the third in Indonesia’s history, have the government worried. They were concerned about recent events in Pakistan. Human rights considerations will take a back seat until they get through the voting in late May.

Dave Newsom, an old hand and an outstanding American, found all this encouraging. He will be following up.

Suharto also expressed great interest in getting to know Jimmy Carter. He feels that he had a personal relationship with Nixon and Ford, and puts great store by this. I did not hold out any hope of any early meeting, nor did I link a meeting to human rights or any other issue. But here (as well as in Korea and the Philippines) we have the option of letting him know that the possibility of a visit would be influenced by action on the human rights front.

Finally, I must express my own dismay at the tragedy of the money lost in Indonesia. No one will ever know the full extent of the scandals, [Page 375] but the amount of oil revenue lost was in the billions. The man most directly responsible is now under house arrest, but the money is gone forever, and with it an irretrievable chance to improve the Indonesian economic situation. As it is, this poorest of the OPEC nations will see a doubling of its already huge population by the end of the century, and oil reserves seem to be running out.

Singapore: Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew invited me to stay in the government guest house, and to a long, eight course dinner. Each course included a lesson in America’s loss of will, or Communism’s relentless quest. Lee, who is undeniably brilliant, has enjoyed the company of Henry Kissinger, Bob McNamara, Bill Bundy, and many other senior Americans for years. He encouraged us in Vietnam, but now tells me that it was a dreadful mistake which he recognized “immediately” when he heard we had sent the Marines into Da Nang in 1965.

Lee is the absolute ruler of his tidy and prosperous little city-state. His sermonizing, his predictions of American decline, his call for us to take up the fight as he sees it—all this seems to me to be very much out of tune with the times, and very unhelpful to the objectives that both he and the U.S. seek. [3 lines not declassified]

On human rights, Lee made it clear that he believed in a double standard, to be determined solely by him—no human rights for leftists and communists under any circumstances. He will personally define who the communists are. [2 lines not declassified] He was, however, very interested in our thoughts and plans about China, the Soviet Union, the Indian Ocean, and Vietnam. On all these issues he supported the policies that I outlined, and paid careful attention.

Lee’s open questioning of our resolve and leadership is listened to in other capitals, and among journalists. We need to find ways to show him that the United States has regained its voice and its leadership.

The Philippines: Here I had the longest and most personal talks, not only with President Marcos but also with Imelda Marcos, with Foreign Minister Romulo, and Defense Minister Enrile. Marcos demonstrated what kind of a country he runs by suddenly assembling all these people, plus several other top Ministers, and taking all of us off on a combination work-pleasure cruise for a day and a night (in the middle of the week) on his huge boat. It was what Ambassador Sullivan calls the “His and Hers treatment.”

Since the conversation was clearly designed to reach you and the President directly, I am attaching the cable summarizing it.6 Some additional comments:

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—The war in the south is far more serious than is realized in Washington. Three quarters of the Philippine Army is now there. It is probably unwinnable. Marcos has placed all his hopes on Qaddafi’s willingness to make and enforce a deal. No one took the referendum very seriously. If Qaddafi does not come through as the Marcos’ hope, the war could ultimately play the same dramatic role in the Philippines that other distant wars have played for other countries, including Portugal. We have no real knowledge of what is going on in the minds of the junior officers who are fighting in the south.

—I got the impression that while they won’t admit it, the Marcos’ are scared. Thus, they are turning back towards the Americans, and have stopped the attacks on us. If the situation doesn’t improve in the south, they will need us all the more. The fact that there is a new Administration in Washington attracts them all the more.

—On the negotiations on the bases, we inherited a rushed and botched negotiation which I think should be best left in the historical archives. I told Marcos that we should start again, and he agreed. I think we should not resume where Kissinger left off, but let a few more months pass. We are not in any rush. We need to look for ways to break out of the sterile impasse we inherited. Marcos wants us to pay rent, and although the Pentagon is opposed, I agree with Ambassador Sullivan that we should consider the idea seriously. I further think that the negotiation should not be conducted by the new Ambassador, whose main job should be to restore good US-Philippine relations, but by a separate negotiator. Prior to that, we should have another high-level discussion with Marcos.

—I think that at this time we need both bases, although they are both vastly swollen with waste and inefficiency. They are needed for our strategy of preventing Soviet expansion into the Pacific, for maintaining our position in the Indian Ocean, and they are important in regard to our policies vis-a-vis the PRC, Australia, and Japan. The waste at Clark and Subic could be reduced at Presidential direction, in keeping with Jimmy Carter’s campaign pledge.

—We talked endlessly about human rights. Both Mr. and Mrs. Marcos asked me to tell the President that they would do something about the issue, particularly in reference to Aquino, Lopez, and Osmena7 (the first of whom is Marcos’s leading democratic opponent). Marcos wanted assurances that “official Washington would not lionize these people.” I told Marcos that if he was truly strong and had popular support, he should not be afraid of what other people said about him.

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—I particularly stressed the fact that the Philippines should take the lead among Asian nations in responding to President Carter’s call for human rights action. I told him and his wife that only one thing stood between a return to very close relations between our two countries. “Yes,” said Imelda, “I know. Human rights.”

—Only time will tell if they will do anything. Sullivan thinks not, except maybe a few cosmetic gestures. But at this point, any movement, even a small one, in response to our calls would be welcome, and might start a larger process. We are not going to immediately build democracy in Manila or elsewhere in Asia right now, but, as the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

[Omitted here is the discussion of Taiwan.]

Final Comments: We should pay more attention to the “handholding” side of our relationship with the non-Communist countries of Asia. We know that we are not going to forget them, but they don’t know it, and they need to be told it, not once but repeatedly. They fear we are moving into an era of concentration solely on the communist adversary nations, including China and Vietnam, and the trilateral nations. New Zealand and Australia, for example, remain in need of reassurance; Warren Christopher can do useful work here when he goes to the ANZUS meeting in late July.8

As for a policy for Asia, I think that the first outlines of one are beginning to emerge. Human rights will be the most difficult variable in the first phase, but we can deal with it if we are both skillful and patient, and Congress understands what we are doing. By the time you speak before the Asia Society in New York in June,9 we should be ready to lay out a fairly comprehensive policy, which I hope will include the placement of China and Vietnam within an overall Asian setting for the first time in the last 25 years.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 39, East Asia: 3/77–10/78. Secret; Nodis.
  2. Holbrooke traveled to East Asia April 10–20 with a congressional delegation headed by Representative Lester Wolff.
  3. No memoranda of conversation of these meetings have been found. A summary of the meetings with Lee Kwan Yew is in telegram 1636 from Singapore, April 17 (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770251–0181, D770133–0584); with Suharto in telegram 4890 from Jakarta, April 18 (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770133–0730); with Chiang Ching Kuo in telegram 2294 from Taipei, April 22 (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770133–0730), and with Marcos in telegram 5898, April 20. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770137–0153)
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–12, Documents on East and Southeast Asia, 1973–1976, Document 425.
  5. See Documents 911.
  6. Attached but not printed is telegram 5898 from Manila; see footnote 3 above.
  7. Benigno Aquino, Jr.; Sergio Osmena, a former Philippine Senator; and former Foreign Minister Salvador P. Lopez, all opponents of Marcos.
  8. The ANZUS Council met in Wellington July 27–28. Christopher’s report to Vance is in telegram 3151 from Wellington, July 28. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770270–0240)
  9. Vance spoke at the June 29 Asia Society meeting. For the text of his address, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 48.