107. Memorandum From Michael Armacost of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • My Trip to Asia

Two weeks in Asia offered me a timely opportunity to explore many issues with prominent Southeast Asian leaders. Among those I saw during my sojourn were President Marcos and Secretary Paterno (Minister of Industry) in the Philippines; Minister of Mines Sadli,2 Ali Moertopo (Bakin), and General Benny Moerdani (Intelligence) in Indonesia; Under Secretary of Foreign Affairs K.C. Lee, and S.R. Nathan (Head of Intelligence) in Singapore; General Kriangsak, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, and General Lek, Deputy Minister of Defense in Thailand; Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, Minister of Home Affairs, of Malaysia; plus Owada, Arima, and a host of foreign ministry people in Tokyo.3 I will not try to summarize all of my impressions from this trip, but did wish to pass on a few observations bearing directly on our current and future policy problems.

(1) U.S. Troop Withdrawals from Korea. I was frankly surprised at how much attention and concern our troop withdrawals from Korea evoked from Southeast Asians.4 Virtually everyone with whom I spoke raised this issue with me. This was attributable in part to the fact that General Singlaub was in the news,5 and Habib and Brown were consulting in Seoul and Tokyo at the time.6 Concerns appeared greatest in Thailand and Singapore. Japanese Foreign Ministry people told me that both Marcos and Lee Kuan Yew devoted much of their time in recent visits with Fukuda ruminating on U.S. intentions in Asia in the [Page 379] light of our Korean troop withdrawal decision. The intelligence chief in Singapore, S.R. Nathan, told me that many of his associates wondered whether they could expect a “Paris agreement” approach to Korea. When I inquired what he meant, he said, “Provide the ROKs a surge of aid, then walk away.”

These concerns cannot be explained in terms of any real interest in Korea’s fate per se. I think the explanation relates more to their fears about the wellsprings of U.S. foreign policy in general. Singlaub’s public comments persuaded most that the troop withdrawals are not being undertaken for military reasons. Since no concessions are being sought from the North, most Asians conclude that diplomatic considerations got short shrift. That leaves only one explanation: domestic politics. They see domestic factors at the heart of our human rights campaign as well. But since Southeast Asians feel they have no particular constituency within the U.S., an American foreign policy determined heavily by domestic considerations, they fear, will attach scant priority to their interests. I would have expected some of these concerns to have dissipated by this time. I was wrong. We need to bear them in mind. The Vance speech on Asia (June 29) offers one opportunity to counter excessive fears of U.S. disengagement from Korea—and elsewhere in the area.

(2) Human Rights. Our stance on this issue has inspired widespread bewilderment in Southeast Asia, and no little paranoia. Most people I talked with realize that human rights is a thread running through our entire foreign policy. Most were inclined to concede purity of motive to us. Few understood exactly what we had in mind, and one Singaporean told me bluntly that “the arrogance of morality is as offensive as the arrogance of power”. Criticisms fell into several categories:

—Many resent our pretentiousness in specifying the political standards others should strive to attain.

—Others feel that we attach excessive importance to political/civil rights and too little significance to the provision of basic economic necessities—a task in developing countries which frequently requires disciplined government.

—Still others felt that U.S. attacks on human rights practices of the ASEAN governments would hand their opponents an exploitable issue.

—Many feel that our approach has been directed almost exclusively at friends, since they see no evidence that human rights is a significant factor in our policy toward Vietnam or China.

—A number of ASEAN country officials contend that we forget that they have narrower margins of tolerance for dissent in view of ongoing insurgencies.

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Clearly the Southeast Asians still perceive our human rights policy as a very blunt instrument. The nuances in the Vance speech7 have not been picked up.

We have our work cut out for us on this issue. Recent evidence that President Marcos is moving toward cosmetic—and perhaps substantive—improvements in his human rights practices suggests that we can have an effect in this field. But given the volatile character of nationalism in Asia and the excess zeal which we occasionally apply to moral crusades, we need to proceed with restraint, keeping in mind the local conditions and traditions, balancing our concern with political and civil rights against local security problems and economic development imperatives, and concentrating on general trends rather than acting as ombudsman for every particular incident.

(3) Philippine Base Negotiations. I returned with greater optimism about the prospects for successful base negotiations. Marcos is not pressing for an early resumption of formal talks, but he obviously is eager to explore informally some of the key issues with us. It is evident that the GOP is worried about its relationship with the United States. Marcos is not yet clear as to how much importance we attach to the bases, and realizes that Congress may now be less generous with quid pro quos; he is genuinely worried about the way in which the human rights issue could adversely affect our relationship; the Mindanao situation is still precarious,8 and Marcos is increasingly aware that he cannot expect the Libyans to help in resolving that problem. Under these circumstances he is not sure how hard he can afford to press us. For the time being he is content to take the measure of the new Administration’s attitudes through direct, informal talks. And he is trying to improve his image and restore some civility to the relationship with the U.S. Embassy—which suffered greatly as a result of the mutual distaste Imelda and Bill Sullivan had for each other. Hopefully, Marcos can be persuaded to scale down his objectives, even as he moderates his negotiating tactics.

I am persuaded that the “mutuality” underlying our defense relationship has more rhetoric than substance to it. There are, to be sure, common interests. Our naval presence helps secure the sea lanes in Southeast Asia, and our air wing provides air defense for the Philippines. In return the GOP extends to us access to key facilities. But beyond this, our treaty obligations do not cover those threats which concern the Filipinos, i.e. the insurgency in the South, and the territorial [Page 381] dispute over the Reed Bank area. Meanwhile, we desire bases essentially to give us flexibility in meeting third country contingencies; yet it is by no means clear that Philippine interests would converge with our own in those contingencies, and that they would consequently allow us to use the bases when we need them most.

While these considerations impose some limits on what we can expect from a security relationship with the Filipinos, we have an obvious stake in avoiding major adjustments now. So, too, does Marcos. We do not wish to reinforce uncertainties about our Asian policy or diminish our military flexibility further. Marcos cannot afford at this juncture a split with us or the loss of revenues associated with our presence.

The key issue may be whether we can provide at least quid pro quo in the form of “rent”. Marcos went through the case for rent for me, and it has a certain plausibility. In return for the bases, he gets treaty commitment and MAP. But our commitments are now interpreted restrictively, and Congress can unilaterally cut MAP. Thus he is left without any control over the degree of reciprocity in the arrangement. We need to look at possibilities for a “rental” payment of some kind more carefully. General Poston, Commander of 13th Air Force at Clark Air Base, agrees.

(4) ASEAN . It is impossible to travel in the ASEAN countries without being enormously impressed with the economic vitality of the area, the relative openness of the societies, and the friendly orientation toward the U.S. Regrettably this is rarely publicized in the world press in which Southeast Asia cannot shed an image of violence, political instability, communal unrest, endemic corruption, intraregional disputes, authoritarian governments, and coups and countercoups. To the extent the newspapers don’t write about this, they don’t report anything.

This is a bum rap. The ASEAN countries have currencies of remarkable stability—a fair measure of investor confidence and administrative competence. Growth rates have been consistently high. Leadership has been changed infrequently. Recent strides taken toward improving the cohesion of ASEAN are impressive. ASEAN Governments have developed habits of consultation and informal policy coordination on a wide range of issues. This is a more important measuring rod of success than the elaborate institutional superstructure that accompanied supranational integration in Western Europe.

While conditions in ASEAN are promising and warrant our support, virtually all participants at the Bali Conference9 expressed con[Page 382]cerns about U.S. diffidence toward their regional enterprise. All are looking for symbols of reassurance. I believe the following actions might help assuage these concerns.

—We need systematically to consult with ASEAN as a group on U.S. policy issues that affect them. We should brief the ASEAN Ambassadors in Washington on the Korean troop withdrawals decisions and keep them posted on our talks with the Vietnamese.

—We need to increase the tempo of official visits to the region. Prominent American faces in ASEAN capitals are worth much more than assertions from Washington that “we remain an Asian/Pacific power”. A visit by the Vice President to the area later in the year would have an especially salutary effect.10

—Private investment will be the principal engine of economic growth in this area. New U.S. investments have been slow in the last two years. The ASEANs are waiting to see what our policy toward investment will be. A repeal of the tax deferral laws would convey a particularly negative signal. We need to find ways of encouraging investment, e.g. more effective use of OPIC, support of ADB technical assistance in support of feasibility studies of the ASEAN complementary industrial projects, etc.

(5) Aid. While in Indonesia, Ambassador Newsom told me that we are now proposing aid projects to Indonesia which would place Americans in substantial numbers at the local and provincial level of administration. The inspiration for this seems to be a Congressional desire to assure that U.S. aid money is channeled only to the poorest of the poor, and their suspicion that unless monitored closely by Americans, U.S. assistance will be diverted to line the pockets of Asian oligarchs. We have had some experience with Americans operating as district advisors. It is not a happy tale. Asian participants in the Bali seminar generally felt that U.S. aid officials working at the village level would create problems in the ASEAN countries. The risk of excess meddling is obvious; so is the danger of evoking nationalist reactions. I believe we should reconsider this approach. It would seem more appropriate to concentrate U.S. aid on the training of Asian specialists to implement projects at lower levels of their administrative structures.

  1. Source: Department of State, Official Correspondence of Under Secretary for Political Affairs, 1969–1988, Lot 89D265, [unfoldered material], My Trip to Asia. Secret. Sent for information.
  2. Mohammad Sadli.
  3. No records of these meetings have been found.
  4. Carter first announced his intention of moving ground troops out of South Korea when he spoke to the Foreign Policy Association June 23, 1976. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 6.
  5. General John Singlaub, Chief of Staff of U.S. Forces in South Korea, was relieved of duty after he publicly challenged Carter’s decision. See Bernard Weinraub, “Carter Disciplines Gen. Singlaub, Who Attacked His Policy on Korea,” New York Times, May 22, 1977, p. 1.
  6. May 24–28.
  7. Reference is to Vance’s April 30 speech on human rights, which he delivered at the University of Georgia Law School. For the text of the speech, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 37.
  8. Reference is to the Islamic insurgency in Mindanao.
  9. The Indonesian Center for Strategic and International Studies sponsored a seminar on Southeast Asia-U.S. relations in Bali May 30–June 1. The Embassy in Jakarta reported on the seminar in telegram 7395 from Jakarta, June 7. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770203–1209)
  10. Mondale visited Southeast Asia April 29–May 10, 1978. See Document 129.