Ban Ki-moon Accepts Chang-Lin Tien Award for Distinguished Leadership

On the eve of his first term as secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon was reminded by his predecessor, Kofi Annan, of the words of the first UN leader: “You are about to take over the most impossible job on earth.” Secretary Ban went on to serve ten years at the helm of the world body and preside over the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Accords.

This week, The Asia Foundation presented Ban Ki-moon with the Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Leadership Award in recognition of his leadership in international development. Accepting the honor before an audience of political leaders, philanthropists, diplomats, and heads of business in San Francisco on Tuesday, he summarized his approach:

I believe that we all share a common destiny. We are all in this together. There’s not a single country or single individual, however powerful and however resourceful, that can do it alone. We all have to work together. We have to pool our wisdom and energy. So, ladies and gentlemen, let’s work together to make this world better. And I count on your leadership and global vision. 

He also reflected, sometimes wryly, on his term as secretary-general.

When I assumed my job as secretary-general in January 2007, I declared that my motto, my mission, would be to make this world better. After 10 years of service at the United Nations, whether I had made the world better or not, I’m leaving it to the judgement of the historians. We have much more to do.

Former U.N Secretary Ban Ki-moon receives the Chang-Lin Tien Distinguished Leadership Award from Chang-Lin Tien’s son, Dr. Norman Tien.

The annual award honors the legacy of the late Dr. Chang-Lin Tien, an immigrant from Asia who rose to become a prominent engineer, educator, and internationalist, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, and chair of The Asia Foundation’s board of trustees. Highlighting Dr. Tien’s legacy of internationalism, Secretary Ban spoke of the importance of collaboration and one of his most prominent efforts, helping negotiate the Paris climate agreement among numerous parties.

As a former secretary-general, I do not carry any title, so I’m a free man now. Our world is changing. Multilateralism is under attack. Human rights are under attack, development and humanitarian funds are being slashed, and the U.S. has decided to withdraw from the Paris climate-change agreement, so laboriously, so difficultly negotiated among 197 state parties.

The award was presented to Ban Ki-moon poignantly by the family of Chang-Lin Tien, most notably his son Norman Tien, who spoke to the standing-room-only crowd of his father’s legacy of leadership. The ceremony also showcased a new generation of Asian leaders on the frontlines of change, represented by the 2018 Asia Foundation Development Fellows, 12 exceptional Asian women and men under 40 who are working to solve Asia’s most critical development challenges. A brand new film was screened that highlighted the fellows’ work across Asia. As Secretary Ban spoke, he addressed some of his remarks directly to the emerging leaders.

I hope you will speak up. I think the most important and strongest voice should come not from political leaders, but from civil society. You should raise your voices. This is the world where my grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren will have to live. This is going to be your world, not mine, or the other accomplished leaders attending this dinner. So, let us work together and make this work.

In his final remarks, Secretary Ban offered some thoughts on the nature of leadership and global citizenship.

In my life, I have seen so many political leaders passionate, full of passions, but there are not many people who have compassion. Everybody comes to the United Nations every year. They speak of grandiose visions. They look like global leaders. But once they leave JFK airport, they suddenly become national leaders. They easily become hostages of domestic views. So, it’s very important that we empower and educate our young generation to be global citizens. The Asia Foundation’s ongoing commitment to strengthening local communities and organizations, as well as empowering women and young people like the development fellows here, is harmonious with what I have just said. Indeed, these impactful efforts will secure better outcomes for Asia and our world. And the leadership and memory of Chang-Lin Tien is fully in line with these values and this spirit.

Corruption in Mongolia: A Problem for Youth

The year 2007, according to traditional astrology, was the Year of the Golden Pig. It was believed that good fortune would come to families who gave birth during this auspicious time. Regardless of the role that astrology may have played, Mongolia’s annual birth rate grew from 50,000 in 2007 to nearly 90,000 in 2014, and Mongolia today is one of the youngest nations in the world, with young people age 14–34 comprising 35 percent of the population.

So, what does this mean? First, it means there is a pressing need for more kindergartens, more schools, and more jobs, demands that the country is striving to meet. But more importantly, this cohort of young people will have a dominant role in charting Mongolia’s course through the perilous social and economic challenges it faces today, including the nation’s high levels of corruption.

The Asia Foundation’s annual Survey on Perceptions and Knowledge of Corruption (SPEAK) shows clear cause for concern about the experiences shaping the outlook of this critical youth demographic. The research shows that most of Mongolia’s petty bribery takes place in public services such as health and education. In a multiyear average, at least a quarter of those who said they had paid a bribe reported that it was to teachers.

The hard fact is that many young people in Mongolia are growing up and being educated in an environment of corrupt and unethical behavior. The Foundation’s 2016 survey Transparency, Ethics, and Corruption in the Education Sector found that nearly 40 percent of parents had given small bribes to teachers in return for favors such as better treatment, preferred admission to better schools or classes, and higher grades. Alarmingly, when parents were asked about the results of these payments, 78 percent of those who wanted higher grades for their children said the payment or gift had achieved the desired result (figure 1).

Fig.1: Result of giving gifts or money, by purpose of the gift

When asked if this culture of bribery should be tolerated in the future, 92 percent of parents said no. But when asked if the situation was likely to change, they were pessimistic: 40 percent predicted it would worsen, and 30 percent said it would remain the same.

Low teacher salaries and limited funding for public schools are often cited as the cause of or excuse for this corruption and for not aggressively tackling the problem. But the cost of corruption is more than just the money paid by parents: it’s exposing young people to these practices, which affects their ethical worldview. It is the students who often handle the money in these transactions—they know the purpose of these payments and that they are benefiting from them.

Students discuss corruption

It is not difficult to imagine how young people raised in such an environment might act when they make decisions relating to corruption in the future. According to last year’s SPEAK survey, zero tolerance of corruption is considerably less common among youth than among older age groups. For example, only 28 percent of those age 25–29 say they would not pay a bribe, compared to 51 percent of those 50–59 and 53 percent of those over 60 (figure 2).

Fig.2: If you face a situation in which you are directly asked for a bribe by a public or private official, what is your most likely action? (March 2017, by age group)

So, how can we prevent our children and young adults from succumbing to this culture of corruption? What strategy or methodology should we follow to educate youth? Can we, and they, change the course of development towards a fair and just society in 10 or 20 years? These are the critical questions that Mongolian educational institutions, civil society organizations, and government agencies are trying to answer. The Asia Foundation’s Mongolia office has been engaged in anticorruption activities in the education sector since 2010, and with generous support from the Canadian government we launched a wider intervention campaign for secondary schools and colleges in 2016 as part of our 10-year-old governance and anticorruption program.

Under this initiative, several NGOs and local education authorities are conducting trainings and public-awareness events for hundreds of teachers and thousands of students at 130-plus public secondary schools and 60 colleges and universities in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. At the same time, local NGOs are helping school administrations improve the transparency and accountability of their finances through active school-reform projects.

Despite years of work, clear signs of improvement in the corrupt culture of the education sector are yet to be seen. But educators and activists say these anticorruption efforts must continue to ensure long-term success.

The Asia Foundation’s Survey on Perception and Knowledge of Corruption (SPEAK) is conducted in partnership with Sant Maral Foundation. The survey, which uses random sampling methodology, has been conducted for the last 10 years. The Foundation’s 2016 survey Transparency, Ethics, and Corruption in the Education Sector was conducted in partnership with a local survey firm Statistical Institute for Consulting and Analysis.

Bayanmunkh Ariunbold is a governance project manager for The Asia Foundation in Mongolia. He can be reached at bayanmunkh.ariunbold@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning in Adaptive Programming: Expanding the State of the Art

No matter how you slice it, implementing a project in the field of international development ultimately boils down to this: is the project helping the people it intends to reach, and how do you know? That translates directly into the essential nuts and bolts of project management and how to measure results. Are you achieving what you had hoped? How do you know? How do you measure? Is the process improving? Are you getting better at what you’re doing over time? Are people ultimately benefitting from the program?

In some cases, these questions are fairly easy to answer. If you build a road, you can measure the increase in traffic between two communities. If you build a dam, you can measure the amount of electricity produced or the number of people with a stable water supply. If you distribute mosquito nets, you hope to see malaria decline. These are generally straightforward projects with a measurable before and after.

But sometimes the causal relationship between project and result can be extremely difficult to measure, especially in the core areas of The Asia Foundation’s work. We often work toward less tangible goals, such as improved governance, or empowering women, or economic development. This takes time and is sometimes difficult to quantify. Development doesn’t take place in a petri dish, and it may take a generation to bear fruit. The Foundation is not alone in this regard, and monitoring and evaluating development projects—often referred to as monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL)—has gained increasing attention from development practitioners in recent years. These practitioners—NGOs, academics, donors, and implementing organizations among others—have devised empirically defensible methods to measure results and to evaluate those results at set points.

But what about efforts that are less linear in nature? What if there are unknowns at the beginning, and the path to the intended results is rapidly changing? For example, what if the desired result is an improved policy, but it is uncertain at the outset of the project how best to effect this change? In recent years, the international development community has begun to use the term “adaptive programming” to describe a methodology that continually evaluates results in real time, incorporates learning into a project at all stages, and reexamines the core logic of the program based on evidence from the field. The Asia Foundation has explored this approach—for example, in its cutting-edge Coalitions for Change (CfC) project in the Philippines, a partnership with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The project over time has tackled issues as varied as tax reform, infrastructure priorities, overcrowding in schools, national disaster-risk reduction, and voting guidelines that promote access for disabled populations.

Eager to learn how others were approaching adaptive programming, The Asia Foundation and DFAT hosted the Practitioner’s Forum for Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning in Adaptive Programming this past June in Manila. The forum drew a diverse group of MEL practitioners from large and small development programs around the world: implementers, advisors, researchers, international organizations, and funding partners including DFAT and USAID. While previous conferences have examined adaptive programming, this forum was unique in its focus on MEL.

The Practitioner’s Forum looked at how to develop a culture of learning in projects, adaptive approaches to failure and accountability, and how systems and practices can effectively adjust to an evolving context.

Even in adaptive programs, where learning is encouraged and practiced, participants noted that building a learning culture is challenging. One attendee commented that the challenge is not building learning so much as courageously reversing the lack of learning. Why is this the case? One presenter cited the people factor: mindsets, interests, skills, ways of doing things, and trust issues that constrain the culture of learning. Another culprit is capacity, the combination of human, technical, organizational, and financial resources for MEL. For example, a question that buzzed around the Forum was how much of the project budget to dedicate to MEL. The answer varied from 2 percent or lower to 20 percent, with an overall consensus to invest more than has previously been invested.

The concepts of failure and accountability featured prominently as well. Adaptive programming treats failure as an opportunity for course correction, and one might call it a necessity in environments with many unknowns. But then how should failure be negotiated to maintain accountability? As discussed in the Forum, failure requires flexibility and tolerance from funding agencies; and bilateral donors, who report to taxpayers, have different tolerances for risk. Participants noted that the traditional principal-agent model, in which a donor funds an implementer and the implementer reports to the donor, may need an update for adaptive programming and MEL, perhaps to a shared decision-making model that better lends itself to responsiveness.

Another forum session discussed the importance of management and team composition in adaptive programs with MEL. In a rapidly changing operational context, the hierarchical model of the project manager and the team often proves rigid and cumbersome, with a single decision-maker who can easily become a bottleneck. In adaptive MEL, decentralized decision-making improves responsiveness. This gives increased importance to team communications, because decentralized decisions need to be communicated throughout the project, and it can leave traditional mechanisms for monitoring and measuring project effectiveness struggling to catch up.

The Forum also examined the need for better ways to support the L in MEL: learning. Donors and implementers presented contrasting yet ultimately complementary views. Implementers stressed the need for flexibility in program-management tools like manuals, monitoring systems, and timelines and for new types of work planning, both internally and in relation to donor reporting. Donors, on the other hand, spoke of streamlining approvals to encourage faster decision-making by their implementing partners, and reflected on how some of their own systems could work more responsively. There was a clear consensus among all, however, that fundamental MEL systems and project-management processes need to be updated and jointly examined.

The Practitioner’s Forum did not provide conclusive answers, and it generated many new and vexing questions. But it did so from a position of intellectual honesty, humor, and concise thinking, expanding the state of the art and pushing MEL in adaptive programming toward new frontiers.

Ethan Geary is deputy country representative for The Asia Foundation in the Philippines. He can be reached at ethan.geary@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Advancing Gender Equality in Asia

Earlier this year, the G7 launched the Gender Equality Advisory Council to promote the integration of gender equality and gender-based analysis across all G7 activities and outcomes. As part of Canada’s presidency of the G7 during 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “Gender equality must play a key role in creating lasting solutions to the challenges we face as a world.” The Gender Equality Advisory Council’s first report, Make Gender Inequality History, was released in June. It details commitments, investments, and measurable targets that G7 leaders should embrace to advance gender equality around the world. We see one recommendation as key to all the others: to adopt a feminist approach to international assistance by making gender equality a standalone objective and mainstreaming it throughout all development-assistance policies and programs. A few countries have already been leading the charge, including Sweden, which released its feminist foreign policy in 2014.

Asia Foundation Senior Vice President Gordon Hein moderates a donor panel with representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Australian High Commission, Global Affairs Canada, and the European Union.

As countries and international entities have increasingly focused on mainstreaming gender within their foreign-assistance policies and operations, The Asia Foundation has been building a commitment to gender equality in both our programs and our internal practices for many years. Our Gender Smart Initiative is cultivating an organizational culture and staff capacity to advance gender equality both institutionally and programmatically. As part of this organizational commitment, the Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program team organized the State-of-the-Art Gender Equality Workshop in Sri Lanka in August. The three-day workshop brought together more than 50 gender specialists, program leaders, and senior staff from The Asia Foundation’s 18 country offices for a mix of plenary and small-group discussions of key topics, from how to conduct a gender analysis, to implementing a gender and social-inclusion focus within programming, to combatting sexual harassment, as well as program topics like empowering girls and expanding women’s economic opportunities. Here are five key takeaways from the discussions.

  1. Donors are deepening their commitment to gender equality, both in their funding priorities and by putting their own houses in order, and they expect those they fund to do the same. In the past ten years there has been a groundswell of support among bilateral and multilateral donors for gender-equality issues, along with a push for measurable goals for their institutional commitments. In one workshop panel, senior representatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Australian High Commission, Global Affairs Canada, and the European Union all voiced their commitment to mainstreaming gender equality internally and their firm expectation that partner organizations would institute structures, systems, and reporting that advance gender equality. 

    Mi Ki Kyaw Myint from our Myanmar office and Shabbir Shawkut from the Bangladesh office discuss The Asia Foundation’s gender analysis framework during an interactive skill-building exercise.

  2. Strong organizations invest in their staff as the key change agents for their work. Over 90 percent of Asia Foundation staff come from the countries where we work, and their insights into how to advance gender equality and empower women are critical to developing programs that are locally rooted and engage the right partners to make lasting change. Yet investing in staff is often an afterthought for organizations that are focused on the bottom line or on short time horizons. As a not-for-profit organization with almost seven decades of history in Asia, we are fortunate to have trustees and supporters who know how important it is to provide participatory training and skills building so that our staff have the tools they need to be on the cutting edge.
  3. Face-to-face engagement is critical. There’s a temptation in a globally connected world to imagine that most of our interactions can be achieved more efficiently through conference calls, webinars, and social-media connections. Yet the direct connections we make when colleagues working on similar issues are sitting across the table from each other are tangible. We quickly see that, despite the different country contexts in which we work, we are grappling with the same sticky issues of changing negative gender norms so that both men and women can realize their greatest potential. Brainstorming, debating approaches, and sharing the lessons of successes and failures spark new ideas and a readiness to collaborate that virtual connections cannot. Once those personal relationships have been built, virtual collaborations, which are important, are far more likely to yield meaningful results.
  4. To be a leader in gender equality, an organization needs to scrutinize its own practices. These types of interactive workshops are a springboard to conversations about our own institutional policies and practices and how we can learn from each other to “walk the walk” of a gender-equitable organization. Earlier this year, to further our commitment to our women’s empowerment and gender equality goals, The Asia Foundation endorsed the eight Minimum Standards for Mainstreaming Gender Equality. These are a set of agreed-upon standards for gender mainstreaming in international development programming launched by the Gender Practitioners Collaborative, a community of practice of gender advisors and technical gender experts from key international development organizations, of which The Asia Foundation is a member. Endorsing the minimum standards prompted some terrific discussion at the workshop about innovative practices that some of our country offices are undertaking—like bulletin boards and lunch chats that provide prompts for colleagues to talk about gender issues—that other country offices can adopt. Several offices have established Gender Committees, composed of staff working on different project teams, that enhance cross-learning and set action plans for the office to achieve and measure. We were struck by how creative and engaged our colleagues were, and we all came away with individual action plans to further the work.

    Roshan Shajehan from the Sri Lanka office presents a group action plan at the close of the workshop.

  5. There are tangible and immediate benefits to conducting in-depth gender and social inclusion analyses and building that new understanding into our programs. Discussions throughout the three-day workshop centered on the importance of conducting a gender analysis for every project. Staff from 18 country offices, working across programmatic areas, enjoyed a rich discussion of practical challenges and ways to overcome them. A gender analysis conducted for a labor-reform project in Malaysia was presented as a promising approach. The analysis found that women reached by the project were less likely than men to know their labor rights, and a higher percentage of women workers suffered labor-rights violations of which they were not aware. The findings informed the project’s outreach activities and communications materials, and informational flyers and additional educational workshops for women workers were organized as a result.

The State-of-the-Art Gender Equality Workshop provided an opportunity to examine the breadth and depth of the gender-smart work being carried out across the Foundation. We left with a renewed sense of purpose to move forward at a time of great change in Asia, which we hope will translate to greater gender equality and the advancement of women’s rights across the region.

Eileen Pennington is a senior gender advisor and Elizabeth Silva is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, DC. They can be reached at eileen.pennington@asiafoundation.org and elizabeth.silva@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Recalibrating Thai-U.S. Relations

The United States and Thailand are long-standing allies. It is somewhat remarkable that one of America’s oldest bilateral partners, with 185 years of official relations, is a Southeast Asian kingdom on the other side of the world. For Thailand, the United States has played a critical role in past moments of crisis, helping it, for example, to weather the storm of World War II by protecting Thailand from reparations and loss of territory at the war’s end. During the Cold War, Thailand was one of America’s closest Asian allies. A whole generation of Americans, from soldiers to scholars, worked with Thai counterparts during those times. My father, a U.S. Air Force captain stationed in Udon Thani in 1971, is among them.

But this special history appears to be fading with the passage of time. Since the end of the Cold War, instability in Thai politics, and America’s foreign-policy focus away from Asia, have profoundly affected U.S.-Thai relations. Unlike 40 years ago, the United States is no longer Thailand’s primary option for external partnerships. China is now Thailand’s largest trading partner, and Japan its largest foreign investor, with little prospect that the United States will regain its former status. Defense cooperation has always been the two nations’ strongest link, particularly since the defense agreements of 1954 and 1962. But today, Thailand has many more options for defense cooperation and procurement, and while joint exercises like the annual Cobra Gold are still going strong, a recent survey of Thai military officers has found a growing sense of distance.

Panelists at the Foundation-hosted bilateral dialogue between delegations of Thai and U.S. leaders in Washington, DC.

There is a broad consensus that U.S.-Thai relations need to find a new footing. The U.S. government’s recent adoption of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP) offers a chance to recalibrate. Growing geopolitical competition is shifting U.S. attention to Southeast Asia. Recent congressional legislation, such as the proposed Asia Reassurance Initiative Act, indicates a strong interest in shoring up old alliances. From the U.S. perspective, Thailand, a proven leader in ASEAN, is critical to a rules-based order in the region. From the Thai perspective, a strong U.S. presence is more important than ever to support Thailand’s traditional strategy of geopolitical balancing.

While the strategic context is conducive to stronger relations, there is an urgent need to inject new life into some key areas of cooperation. For the past year, The Asia Foundation has led a program to identify the areas most crucial to U.S.-Thai relations. We have worked with many of the leaders on both sides—diplomats, politicians, military officers, scholars, and business leaders—who shaped the relationship over previous decades, to have them share their insights and ideas. The program began with a study on current relations, based on 50 interviews with Thai and U.S. leaders. Then, in July, we organized a bilateral dialogue between delegations of Thai and U.S. leaders in Washington, DC.

The enthusiasm for this initiative has been apparent from the beginning. Many of the Thai leaders who were interviewed or joined the dialogue have a strong personal connection to the United States. Several have studied in the U.S.—in both civilian and military institutions—and have fond memories of their time there. Many expressed their opinion that this study was long overdue, and that similar analysis should be conducted more regularly to help Thai-U.S. relations evolve. On the U.S. side, many prominent academics and former government officials strongly agreed that such a program was long overdue. These American friends of Thailand have generally been concerned about the growing political distance and have many ideas for building on the lessons of these challenging recent years.

Not all of our interviewees were so enthusiastic. Some questioned the timing of the program, arguing that we should wait until after an election in Thailand. In Washington, some interviewees argued that Thailand’s priority and profile in U.S. foreign policy has waned, and that the administration was rightly investing in “newer” partners with more obvious shared strategic interests, such as Vietnam and Singapore. In Thailand, several interviewees spoke bitterly about Thailand’s treatment after the 2014 coup, arguing that the United States had a double standard—different, for example, than the one it applied to Egypt. We heard a play-by-play account of lines crossed and perceived U.S. missteps from several Thai leaders.

Our final report on the study and the outcomes of the bilateral dialogue is available here. These are some of the most valuable findings: 

  • Potential role of Thailand in shaping the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP). Thailand welcomes renewed U.S. interest in Southeast Asia, but many Thai leaders are concerned they will be forced to choose between the U.S. and China. They are also concerned that the FOIP strategy makes little mention of Thailand specifically. During the dialogue, most U.S. and Thai participants acknowledged the importance of framing the strategy in a way that allows Thailand and other ASEAN countries to work with the United States without irritating China. Economic linkages have dramatically raised the stakes in relations with China, which is now the leading trade partner of every ASEAN country. Perhaps Thailand can play a constructive role in channeling ASEAN feedback to shape the FOIP and U.S. engagement in a productive way.
  • Need for better ways to promote U.S. values of democracy and rule of law. Thai leaders broadly accept the importance of U.S. values in U.S. foreign policy, and the enduring appeal of those values. Some called U.S. promotion of democracy and the rule of law a strategic asset that will strengthen relations over the long term. But there was strong push-back from across the political spectrum against the way this has been done since 2014. Indeed, a separate study on the views of Thai young people found that a strong plurality of university students sees America’s values-based engagement as interference in Thai politics. The dialogue produced several suggestions for U.S. leaders and diplomats, including delivering criticism more discreetly and viewing democracy and rule of law more holistically—as something more than just elections.
  • Digital technology and social media are the most promising areas for future economic and security cooperation. Thai and U.S. leaders agree that a renewed bilateral relationship must have an economic narrative. This is challenging given that the U.S. is falling behind nearby economic powers like China and Japan in manufacturing, investment, and trade—a trend that is unlikely to reverse. In the digital technology sector, however, there are plenty of opportunities for new partnerships. Thailand has enormous potential to accelerate growth and increase productivity through online applications and digital technology. In the past 18 months, more than 11 million Thais have become new internet users, mostly over smart phones, one of the fastest rates of mobile internet penetration in the world. The dialogue produced a set of actionable recommendations on cybersecurity cooperation and the risks of constraining data flows.
  • Need for a new generation of leaders to invest in the Thai-U.S. relationship. One striking finding was the dwindling number of scholars, military officers, diplomats, and students focused on Thai-U.S. relations. In Thailand, we could not find a major Thai university with a U.S. Studies department, while nearly every university has a China Studies and an ASEAN Studies center or department. Several Thai leaders argued for the revitalization of the American Studies Association, which was once a leading actor in supporting scholars and officials interested in U.S.-Thai relations. Likewise, finding a Thailand expert in Washington is becoming more difficult with each passing year, as many of the old guard from the Vietnam War era are long retired. United States Senator John McCain’s recent passing was a stark reminder that the towering figures of that generation, who ensured that Southeast Asia had a prominent place in American foreign policy, will no longer be able to play this role.
  • The Mekong River as a shared strategic interest. Many Thai leaders believe that the Mekong River should become a major area of shared strategic interest between Thailand and the United States. The stakes are high for Thailand and other lower-Mekong countries. Uncertainty over future water levels, concerns about blasting and dredging of the river bed, and the integrity of dams and other infrastructure are all major security and sovereignty concerns. While helpful, the U.S. Government’s Lower Mekong Initiative has been largely silent on these issues, and Thai leaders have been frustrated by the perceived lack of U.S. interest in the Mekong.
  • U.S. foreign assistance losing its strategic relevance. The dialogue suggested several ways that U.S. foreign assistance can bolster U.S. influence and strengthen relations with Thailand and neighboring countries. Compared to China, Japan, India, and Australia, U.S. foreign assistance to the region contributes little to U.S. geopolitical ambitions and is generally felt to be driven by U.S. domestic priorities and internal bureaucratic processes. In contrast, other major aid providers tend to invest in the key priorities of regional governments—particularly connectivity through regional infrastructure—and to support existing mechanisms rather than create new programs.
  • Thai elections are critical for Thai-U.S. relations to reach their full potential. U.S. leaders were clear, across the board, that successful Thai elections and a transition to democratic rule are crucial to a stronger relationship. In the absence of elections, the United States is politically and legally constrained. While not a major topic in the bilateral dialogue, this point came up repeatedly among U.S. officials and in interviews with U.S. leaders.

The Asia Foundation is grateful to all of the Thai and U.S. leaders who have been involved in this initiative that has yielded a set of productive findings. In the next edition of InAsia, we will bring you the views of two distinctive delegates to the dialogue.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. He can be reached at thomas.parks@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Interview with Avais Sherani on VoteFirst and Pakistan’s Momentous Election

The general elections in Pakistan last month that propelled Imran Khan to the Prime Minister’s seat were momentous in many ways. With troubled relations abroad and fiscal difficulties at home, the electoral stakes were high. Newly liberalized voter registration laws and an enormous youth population promised a surge of first-time voters. The Asia Foundation in Pakistan, working with partner NGOs and the Pakistan Election Commission, launched the VoteFirst campaign to educate voters and help get out the vote, particularly first-time voters, women, youth, and minorities. On August 14, Pakistan Independence Day, InAsia sat down with Foundation senior program officer Avais Sherani to talk about the successful campaign.

InAsia: First of all, happy Pakistan Independence Day!

Sherani: Thank you very much. It’s the 71st anniversary.

InAsia: With Pakistan’s uneven electoral history, what significance do you see in the most recent national elections?

Sherani: The most significant thing is definitely the change that the people of Pakistan have witnessed, to a new governing party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf—in English, the Pakistan Justice Movement—the PTI. Since the late 80s, when democracy got back on track after a long dictatorship, there has been a sharing of power between two parties, taking turns, with dynastic leadership. But this time around we have a different party, with a different sort of ideology for Pakistan. It’s something really new—for some it’s exciting; for some it’s kind of scary.

InAsia: How important was the youth vote in these elections?

Sherani: It was the most important vote. Sixty-four percent of the electorate in Pakistan is under 30, and an estimated 80 percent of them voted in these elections. Let me say that again: 64 percent are under 30, and we think 80 percent of them voted. They’re a very large population, a generation that is growing up in the age of really fast communications and a globally integrated community, and they are the people who are going to be leading us into the next decade. So, it’s really important that they actually stepped up, voted, and chose how they want to be governed, what policies they want to see, and how they see the future.

InAsia: Just a few years ago, Imran Khan and the PTI could barely win one or two seats in the national parliament. Now he’s the prime minister. How closely tied is that to the youth vote?

Sherani: Imran Khan is really popular among the youth. That is really a good sign, I think. The old-school thinking was, “Oh, we really want to have a certain set of people in politics.” Now things have changed. A third force has emerged, a force that has been supported by the younger generation.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the PTI has revamped how politics is done in Pakistan. Back in 2011, 2012, Khan started this new trend of political rallies with a lot of music and a lot of political songs that focus on justice and anticorruption and more progressive views. He brought a whole different frame to political gatherings. This was more fun. Again, his main target was the youth. He faced a lot of criticism on that as well, but then all the other parties—we all noticed in this election—everyone now has their own party songs, and there’s a different way that rallies take place.

And then the youth really stepped in, and they were really right behind Imran Khan, because he appealed to them. So, let’s give credit to Imran Khan, who revitalized the nation into coming back into the political sphere and people going out to vote. Especially the youth.

InAsia: Tell me about the VoteFirst campaign. What is the significance of the name?

Sherani: Well, I’ll be dead honest with you, it just came out of my mouth. I was sitting with someone from our program development team, and I was like, “What should it be?” I said the most important thing is to tell the youth to go out and vote, first. Once you vote—you use your power, you use your right—then you get the chance to play your part in other things as well, but the most important thing is to go out and vote, first.

InAsia: What were the elements of the program?

Sherani: It was multidimensional. I really wanted to build on the earlier work we had done bringing in minorities to participate, and I really wanted support the grassroots organizations that had grown up because of that project.

The more important thing was to get to first-time voters—to provide them with the essential information they need to know, like the rules of the Election Commission—to make sure that there weren’t wasted votes. So, one, go out and use your right to vote. Two, know what the procedure is, make sure that you’re using your right correctly by voting correctly.

Another important component was the social media campaign, which was run by our colleagues. Social media in Pakistan is really, really popular. Everyone out there has a Facebook page. That’s the best way to get to the youth. It was the best way to reach a really large audience.

A very interesting part of VoteFirst was our voter-education workshops. One workshop was held in a small village in an eastern district of Balochistan. This was an area that was really conflict ridden, that was under the hold of tribal chiefs. The Army was active. There was a lot of fear among the people. No one went out to vote. So that whole village, people as old as 50 or 60 years, were there to learn how to vote, and the presenter said, “Okay, show of hands: tell me how many people have never voted?” The entire crowd of 70 or 80 people raised their hands. He thought people were not being truthful, so he paused and asked again. And he was quite shocked to see that the whole gathering would be voting for the first time.

InAsia: So, do you see these elections generally as an important moment for Pakistan going forward?

Sherani: Definitely, very important. The country is facing a crisis right now. The most important is the financial crisis, where the government needs to undertake significant reforms and measures to stabilize the economy. And foreign relations are also weak at this point in time. But we have a lot of hope as well, because it’s a new government, a new setup. The new finance minister was one of the most brilliant CEOs in the private sector of Pakistan, and he has been with the party for quite some time, so definitely there is hope.

InAsia: Is VoteFirst going to continue with some level of ongoing voter education?

Sherani: Definitely. We were really impressed with the results of this campaign—the enthusiasm and the participation of voters, and especially the first-time voters. I was personally visiting those workshops, and I saw the level of interest. So, we think this should be continuing. And we’re really, really looking forward to working along these lines with the parliamentarians, with the political parties, and to making it a continuing process.

InAsia: Where should organizations like The Asia Foundation invest their energies to help Pakistan move forward?

Sherani: I guess the most important thing—what I personally see—is a very strong need to work with state institutions to build their capacities and to streamline their processes. We’ve got some very good legislation out there. We’ve got really good institutes that have been set up, but the state is lacking capacity.

InAsia: It sounds like you’re describing a moment when civil society is really ripe to contribute, but it has been facing a logjam.

Sherani: You put it quite rightly. So, at this point in time, it’s really important for organizations like us—who have the experience, who have the exposure of working in multiple countries and seeing success stories—to coordinate with state institutions to bridge this capacity gap. It’s like, the more strengthened the state is, the more benefit the people are going to get from us, from our work.

Avais Sherani is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. He can be reached at avais.sherani@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Tackling the Backlog in Pakistan’s Courts

In his old age, a longstanding property dispute became the bane of Abdul Hamid Khan’s existence. The father of four sons and three daughters in Punjab’s Rahimyar district, Khan had been left, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, without a roof over his head.

It was a dispute over land inheritance. In 2010, Khan transferred all his property, some 16 acres, to his sons and grandsons. Two years later, his sons who lived with him turned him out of the house. He appealed to his daughters to take him in, but his sons-in-law refused on the grounds that Khan had deprived his daughters of their rightful share of the inheritance.

The case had languished in district courts for three years, with Khan homeless and his hopes for a solution slowly crumbling with each hearing.

In Pakistan, civil cases like this one often await trial for years. According to a report published in Dawn this year, any moderately complex civil suit can stretch for 30 to 40 years of litigation. Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah of the Lahore High Court (LHC) last year told an international roundtable that some 200,000 cases were pending in district courts across Punjab and another 130,000 in the LHC.

Heavily fortified High Courts of Karachi, Pakistan.

As perceptions grow that the formal legal system cannot and does not provide justice, alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is attracting increasing attention from both professionals and the public. Last year, the National Assembly Standing Committee on Law approved a government bill on ADR permitting mediators appointed by trial courts to arrange out-of-court settlements with the consent of the disputing parties. The LHC, for its part, has set up court-annexed mediation centers, now functioning in all 36 districts across Punjab, in a bid to speed the administration of justice and provide relief to long-suffering litigants by tackling the backlog in civil courts.

The Asia Foundation’s alternative dispute resolution project, “Mainstreaming Alternative Dispute Resolution for Equitable Access to Justice in Pakistan,” is working to broaden access to justice, in particular for marginalized elements of society, by bringing ADR mechanisms further into Pakistan’s judicial mainstream. Informal systems of dispute resolution have centuries-old roots in the rural societies of Pakistan, but traditional courts, known as panchayats or jirgas, have been criticized for exploiting the powerless and vulnerable, such as women and the poor. The Foundation’s ADR project, on the other hand, seeks to establish a legally sanctioned system of alternative dispute resolution that delivers justice consistent with the country’s formal legal norms.

The project incorporates international best practices into Pakistan’s ADR framework and builds the capacity of judges and lawyers to manage ADR cases effectively. Last year, the Foundation supported a training-of-trainers for judges nominated by the LHC and a selection of faculty members from our partner, the John Felice Rome Center of the Loyola University School of Law in Chicago. The training was designed to prepare judges from the Lahore High Court to conduct further ADR trainings of judges and lawyers in Punjab.

Finally, for ADR mechanisms to be effective, both the public and the legal profession must understand and embrace them. The Foundation has launched an ADR awareness campaign, employing print, electronic, and social media, that provides updates on the progress of the project and highlights ADR success stories.

Abdul Hamid Khan is one of those success stories. When all else had failed, he secured a referral to a local ADR center, where his case was resolved within a week. Under the terms of the settlement, four acres of land that he had previously transferred to his sons were restored to Khan for his personal livelihood.

Abbas Hussain is a program officer for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. He can be reached at abbas.hussain@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Disaster-Risk Management in Laos

In July, Lao PDR experienced significant increases in water levels due to heavy rains from the southwest monsoon. The adverse effects were exacerbated by Tropical Storm Son-Tinh, which blew through several provinces in the south on July 18. The tropical storm damaged one of seven dams in a large hydroelectric network along the Xe-Pian River, in Attapeu Province.

Photo Credit: Phoutthavong SOUVANNACHAK, Shutterstock.com

Around 5 billion cubic meters of water were suddenly and devastatingly released downstream when the dam unexpectedly collapsed, affecting 13 villages and more than 16,000 people, over 10 percent of the province’s population. The flood of water and mud washed out roads and bridges and buried homes and buildings, leaving some 6,000 people homeless. The government has declared the region a national disaster area.

The heavy rains have also affected other provinces, and the Lao government has reported flooding in 373 villages in 10 provinces, affecting roughly 1.5 million people.

Lao PDR is exposed to many climate hazards, such as flooding, drought, landslides, storms, and typhoons. From 1970 to 2010, 33 natural hazard events were recorded, mostly floods and droughts, affecting almost 9 million people and causing economic damages of over USD 400 million.

The Lao government is actively promoting public awareness of disaster-risk reduction. The last decade has seen an important shift in risk-management strategies, from a reactive approach, focused on post-disaster relief, to a more proactive approach, emphasizing pre-disaster preparedness and prevention. Disaster-risk management is coordinated through a relatively new network of provincial, district, and village Disaster Prevention and Control Committees (DPPCs). District and village disaster units are still nascent, however, and have been the focus of capacity building in recent years.

The Asia Foundation and the Korean NGO Luminous Action OrganizatioN (LAON) are working together on a project called “Prepared and Resilient Communities in Lao PDR.” The goal is to increase communities’ resilience to disasters, particularly floods, in Luang Prabang Province by providing disaster-risk reduction and management training to provincial DPPCs, building a safe shelter and community center, and offering training to support disaster-resilient livelihoods in Xieng Ngeun District.

The training approach draws on the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) model. CERT was first developed in the United States by the Los Angeles Fire Department in 1985 and is now widely seen as an effective tool for community preparedness worldwide. It equips community members with essential disaster-response skills and provides a framework for coordinated assistance to professional responders when needed. In 1994, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) expanded the CERT materials to make them applicable to all hazards and made the program available to communities nationwide.

CERT has already been adapted for use in China, where USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and The Asia Foundation supported early efforts to develop community-based disaster management. Between 2012 and 2014, our China office worked with several communities to achieve recognition as model “prepared” communities. Now, just four years later, there are over 6,000 model communities throughout China. The Foundation is currently adapting the CERT training program for the Lao context.

This May, just before the dam collapse, the Foundation organized a CERT training by U.S. FEMA trainers for members of Lao PDR’s national and provincial DPCCs. The curriculum included flood response, fire safety, disaster first aid and medical operations, light search and rescue, and guidance on reducing traumatic stress after a disaster has struck.

In the wake of the flooding in Attapeu Province, the deputy prime minister was appointed to lead emergency relief, and a national response is under way. Some of the government personnel who participated in the CERT training in May, from the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and the Lao Red Cross, are part of the emergency response team now bringing humanitarian assistance to affected communities in Attapeu Province, and we are hopeful the skills they learned at the May training are mitigating the tragic effects of this disaster.

Derin Henderson is Environment Program advisor for The Asia Foundation in Lao PDR. He can be reached at derin.henderson@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Towards Inclusive Cities: Women and Urban Planning in Myanmar

The world’s cities are growing at an unprecedented rate. The United Nations projects that 60 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030 due to accelerating migration and urbanization. In Myanmar, as in other rapidly urbanizing countries, urban growth is placing increasing pressure on municipalities and other governing bodies to deliver quality public services that are responsive to local needs. In this environment, effective urban planning is of the utmost importance, but urban planning that is not inclusive, that overlooks or ignores the life experiences and unique needs of certain demographic groups, will inevitably deny those groups equal access to the social, economic, and political benefits of urban life.

The Asia Foundation has conducted the first multi-city survey in Myanmar that specifically focuses on the well-being and life experiences of urban dwellers. The pilot City Life Survey polled 1,400 residents of the cities of Yangon, Taunggyi, and Hpa-an with the aim of analyzing various facets of urban life in Myanmar—from work, public transit, and taxation to green spaces. It provides preliminary data for municipal leaders to become better informed and more responsive to their constituents’ needs. With gender-disaggregated data and an equal representation of men and women respondents, the report offers new insight into the different urban life experiences of these two fundamental demographic groups.

Women and the city

According to the City Life Survey, urban women and men in Myanmar are equally educated, but women are almost twice as likely to be unemployed and not looking for a job. Women are more likely to be responsible for childcare and housework—19 percent of men reported doing no housework or childcare at all, compared to just 5 percent of women. Women who spend 11–15 hours per day on domestic labor outnumber men by a factor of more than four—14 percent to 3 percent. These data strongly suggest that women have a very different urban life experience than men.

Cities around the world historically have been planned predominantly by men. When women aren’t part of the planning process, the unique circumstances of women’s lives tend to be ignored, resulting in urban design that does not meet their needs. Some cities have taken note. Since the early 1990s, the city of Vienna, Austria, has made gender mainstreaming a central principle of the urban planning process. In 1993, the city held a competition, called Women-Work-City, for an apartment complex to be designed by and for women. Time-use surveys collected gender-disaggregated data which showed that women spent more time per day on household chores and childcare than men. Taking these previously overlooked time commitments into account, the apartment complex was designed to include an on-site kindergarten, a pharmacy, a doctor’s office, and grassy areas for parents and children to play. The complex was located close to public transit routes, making it easier for those with family responsibilities to run errands and go to work.

Vienna is an example of what gender-responsive urban planning can accomplish, and it illustrates the importance of understanding how urban spaces and services are used differently by different demographic groups. Myanmar is not Austria—local contexts must govern local solutions—but one of the most important things that urban planners in Myanmar can do is to collect data that can be broken down by gender, age, ethnicity, religion, and disability. With this information, planners and policymakers can make evidence-based decisions and engage in long-term city planning that is responsive to the diverse needs of their diverse communities.

One lesson of the City Life Survey is that government and civil society must empower women to engage more extensively in municipal affairs. When asked how much influence they think they have over decisions made by their municipality, women were almost twice as likely as men to respond, “I don’t know.” It is encouraging, on the other hand, that women and men generally share similar opinions on topics such as safety, quality of municipal services, municipal funding preferences, and more. The next City Life Survey, to be conducted in 2018, will expand the pool of respondents and locations to accurately capture wide-ranging experiences, but in the meantime, preliminary findings suggest there are no dramatic gaps in these particular areas of urban life.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 11 calls for cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” It is no accident that “inclusive” is at the forefront of this goal. Urban planners know how easy it is to design cities that impose structural barriers on underserved or underrepresented groups. The pilot City Life Survey represents a much-needed starting point for Myanmar policymakers and civil servants to understand and respond to the public’s needs in an evidence-based way. The 2018 City Life Survey, covering more people in more cities, will provide opportunities for better, more inclusive urban planning across Myanmar.

The City Life Survey, in English and Burmese, can be downloaded here.

Alison Chan is gender advisor for The Asia Foundation in Myanmar and a contributing writer to the City Life Survey. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

How Asia Is Viewing the Trump Presidency

This week, we present an essay from the Foundation’s Asian Views on America’s Role in Asia: An Early Assessment of the Trump Presidency. This project convened a symposium of influential Asian thought leaders for ongoing discussions of U.S. foreign policy priorities in Asia. Former Asia Foundation trustee Harry Harding reflects on the participants’ views.

The symposium on which these essays draw, convened by The Asia Foundation, the American Center of Hong Kong, and City University of Hong Kong earlier this year, provided a valuable opportunity to hear Asian assessments of the Trump administration’s Asia policy 14 months after the new president assumed office. As he did throughout his campaign, President Trump entered office questioning many of the long-standing assumptions underlying American foreign policy, both regionally and globally. He promised to reject both these assumptions and the foreign policy elites who championed them. Now in the second year of his term, the president has repeatedly challenged America’s commitment to free trade, its reliance on regional trade and security architecture, and its devotion to human rights. How do thoughtful Asian observers evaluate these developments? And do they regard the president’s views simply as a temporary consequence of his unexpected election that will be swept away at the end of his term, or as deeper, more enduring trends that foreshadow the decline and retreat of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region? Interestingly, the opinions expressed by symposium participants on these issues were neither as polarized nor as extreme as one may encounter in other parts of the globe, including the United States. Instead, they reflected a blend of relief, approval, confusion, and concern across a large number of important regional issues. Their complex and often subtle analysis warrants careful consideration by their American counterparts.

Relief

The relief expressed by many of the Asian participants reflected their realization that many of the preconceptions about the incoming Trump administration, based on Trump’s campaign statements, the views of his political base, the positions of some of his advisers, and the characterizations by his opponents, have thus far proved unfounded. Many Asians had feared that Trump would turn his back on the region, as part of an isolationist policy suggested by one of his main campaign slogans, “America First.” To the surprise of many, however, Trump made a long, six-country trip to Asia early in his administration, not only meeting leaders in each of the countries he visited, but also participating in the APEC meetings in Danang and the East Asian Summit in the Philippines. Asian observers have therefore concluded that while Trump is indeed a unilateralist, he is not as much of an isolationist as some had expected. Asian participants were also relieved that Trump has backed away from his early reservations about the value of key American alliances in the region, especially those with Japan and South Korea, and has now recognized their essential role in dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs.

Approval

The Asian participants also expressed approval of some of the Trump administration’s specific initiatives toward the region. They endorsed his modification or abandonment of some earlier policies that they consider to have been seriously flawed, including the policy of “strategic patience” toward North Korea and the protracted but inconclusive dialogues with China on security and trade issues. Several participants noted that Trump’s tougher diplomacy toward both countries had achieved some early successes, gaining pledges from Xi Jinping to open the Chinese economy more fully to imports and foreign investment, and expressions by Kim Jong-un of his willingness to resume negotiations over his nuclear and missile programs. Nonetheless, they retain significant concerns about the prospects for U.S. relations with Pyongyang and Beijing, as will be described more fully below.

In addition, some analysts in the region appear gratified that, as one put it, the “neglect of [South Asia] is coming to an end,” with a greater focus on the Indian Ocean as well as the Pacific, increased attention to India and Pakistan, and a renewed commitment to Afghanistan, including a modification of what they saw as an excessively accommodative policy toward Pakistan and overly restrictive rules of engagement in Afghanistan. This is not to say that they think this new American approach is guaranteed success, but rather that they believe these changes are moving U.S. policy in the right direction.

Confusion

These positive assessments were heavily qualified by the fact that, even a year after the inauguration, there remained much confusion about the Trump administration’s policy toward the region. This is the result of clear differences of opinion among some members of the administration on major issues including China and North Korea; the lack of coordination among the White House, the Congress, and parts of the bureaucracy on trade policy; and, above all, the unusually rapid turnover in key positions in the administration, including the national security advisor, the director of the National Economic Council, and the secretary of state. Trump’s personal style adds to the bewilderment, particularly how the president has combined harsh criticism of both China and North Korea with statements of respect and even friendship for both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un, and the way in which his impulsive use of social media raises doubts about the sustainability of his administration’s policies over time.

In addition, the implications of some of the Trump administration’s new initiatives remain unclear. At the top of this list is the concept of an “Indo-Pacific” region, focused on the East Asian, South Asian, and South Pacific democracies, especially the United States, Australia, Japan, and India. Does this new formulation replace the more traditional idea of the Asia-Pacific, or merely complement it? Will Washington try to institutionalize the concept through the creation of Indo-Pacific organizations and dialogues, or will it remain a more informal grouping? Does it supplant the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” or is it simply a way of rephrasing it? Those who perceive the Indo-Pacific concept mainly as a reformulation of his predecessor’s pivot are relatively relaxed, although they wonder how enthusiastic the response of the other members of this proposed alignment will be. But those who are deeply invested in the original Asia-Pacific concept, and especially the principle that ASEAN should be the center of regional activities, expressed greater concern about what they fear is an implicit downgrading of ASEAN’s place in the Trump administration’s view of Asia, as well as the possible risks in excluding China from this new grouping.

Concern

Along with some approval and much confusion, there remains considerable concern about aspects of the Trump administration’s approach to the region. One worry is the glacially slow pace in filling several key ambassadorships and high-level positions in the State Department. That, together with an apparent disregard for the familiar Asia specialists in the Washington policy community, suggests the danger that the administration will lack the depth of professional expertise needed to manage key issues, especially in a crisis. This was believed to be especially true of the Korean peninsula. One participant even warned that the Trump administration did not have enough experienced diplomats in place to prepare his summit meeting with Kim Jong-un and to negotiate successfully with North Korea.

A still greater reason for concern is that, just as he promised, Trump has been an extremely unconventional president. In part, this is a matter of style. He has replaced the cautious and restrained styles of earlier administrations with a more impulsive, assertive, even aggressive approach to important issues in the region. As one participant put it, “Asians expected Americans to be nice,” but they are now facing a While House that is blunter and tougher than the previous administrations they were used to.

In addition to adopting a rougher style, Trump has dramatically changed American policy on a number of key issues by adopting less accommodative and more assertive positions.

On North Korea, he has replaced the policy of “strategic patience” with a policy of “maximum pressure,” including threats and displays of military force as well as increasingly stringent economic sanctions.

On trade, he is seen as both a protectionist and a unilateralist, abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that his predecessor negotiated, demanding a renegotiation of the terms of the bilateral free-trade agreement between the U.S. and South Korea, and questioning the effectiveness of the World Trade Organization in mediating trade disputes among its members.

On China, while not completely abandoning the traditional American policy of “engagement” with Beijing, he has demanded a more “results-oriented” approach. He has harshly criticized China’s trade surpluses with the United States, denounced China’s trade and investment policies, and threatened or imposed higher tariffs on Beijing in response to its alleged dumping of steel and aluminum and its methods of acquiring intellectual property. While there is concern about a possible “trade war” between the two countries, Asians are giving investment issues equal if not greater attention. They note that an increasing number of Chinese proposals for investments in the United States have been rejected by the U.S. government, especially in an expanding list of sectors that Washington considers strategically important, even as the United States demands greater access to investment opportunities in China.

In the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy continues to engage in freedom-of-navigation operations that challenge China’s potential control of the sea lanes passing through this important body of water, and has urged its allies inside and outside the region to participate in these exercises as well.

While acknowledging the issues that led to these changes, and while agreeing in many cases that a stronger American stand is desirable, Asian participants expressed concern that Washington’s pressure tactics may not obtain the desired results. As one put it, in some cases pressure seems to be working, but in others it may not succeed, or may even prove counterproductive. The main focus of such concern was Trump’s policy toward the rise of China, which, as our 2016 report suggested, remains the issue that receives the greatest attention in the region. The dominant view seemed to be that it was indeed necessary to balance China’s growing clout in the region and to criticize some of its objectionable trade, investment, and security practices, but it was also important to avoid provoking a Chinse overreaction. In particular, Asians do not want to see either an all-out trade war or a strategic confrontation between the two countries, and doubt remains as to whether the Trump administration will strike that balance effectively. Doing so will be difficult, especially given that the U.S. will receive conflicting advice on this issue from its allies and friends in the region, largely because the members of ASEAN are deeply divided on how best to deal with China, as are the publics in several important Asian countries.

On other key issues, the participants expressed similar concerns. On North Korea, there was both surprise and relief that Washington and Pyongyang were backing away from a military confrontation and moving toward a summit meeting in midyear. However, there was considerable unease about the results of the negotiations. What would Trump demand of Pyongyang, and what would Pyongyang demand in return? Would Trump give too much, or would he get too little? Once again there seemed to be no consensus about what the desirable outcomes would be. There was no agreement about whether a freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons production and ballistic missile deployments would be acceptable, or whether the United States should continue to insist on complete denuclearization of the North. There was similarly no agreement on whether the United States should raise human-rights concerns in the negotiations, particularly with regard to the Japanese and American citizens who have been abducted or held by Pyongyang, or whether it should focus only on the security questions that some regard as more important. Nor was there unanimity on whether the United States should withdraw some or all of its forces from South Korea as part of a denuclearization agreement with North Korea or a peace agreement to end the Korean War.

Thus, the original concern about an outbreak of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula has been replaced by a concern about the outcome of the likely negotiations between the North and the United States. The worry here is either that the negotiations will “succeed,” but on terms that some in the region would regard as inadequate or unacceptable, or that the talks will fail to reach any agreement at all. In that case, the risk of a military confrontation on the peninsula would reemerge, and as one participant warned, “the situation may become more dangerous than before.”

South Asians are concerned about a different aspect of the Trump administration’s policy: its approach to the Muslim world. As one pointed out, “the world’s largest concentration of Muslims is between Dacca and Karachi.” American treatment of Muslim immigrants and Muslim-Americans, and its position on employment visas for well-educated South Asians, will therefore be watched just as closely as American policy toward the Middle East and South Asia, and will profoundly influence regional views of the United States under Trump.

On trade, the countries that agreed to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership were disappointed that the United States withdrew from the agreement, although they acknowledge that opposition to the TPP extended across a broad spectrum of America’s political leadership, including presidential candidates in both parties. They are pleased that the Trump administration has expressed interest in rejoining if the United States can get a better deal, but are uncertain about what his terms will be. The eleven countries that agreed to join a smaller grouping as a replacement for the larger original, the so-called TPP-11, have suspended their acceptance of the most important “WTO-plus” concessions that the United States had originally demanded, and they may now resist reinstating them, let alone agreeing to even tougher measures as part of a renegotiated TPP. The prospect of reviving the TPP on terms acceptable to Washington is therefore uncertain at best. Some observers also question the desirability of creating a trade agreement that would exclude China, especially since China is promoting its own Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement as an alternative to the TPP. On the other hand, some believe that a resurrected agreement on the TPP might help persuade China to change its trade and investment policies in favorable directions. Again, therefore, the Trump administration faces an Asia that has not reached consensus on a key issue.

Conclusion

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the discussions in Hong Kong was the way in which the Asian participants viewed not only the Trump administration’s Asia policy but also the debate over that policy in the United States. While expressing, as already noted, many uncertainties and concerns about Trump’s approach to Asia, the Asian participants took a more balanced and nuanced view than is sometimes heard elsewhere, finding some things to praise as well as others to criticize. One said that the Trump administration “has not been a disaster,” even though many Americans characterize it that way. And they also recognized that this more balanced assessment differentiates them from the more extreme views they have heard from colleagues in the United States. Some said bluntly that they did not want to be drawn into that polarized American debate, especially if they were pressed to take sides.

This is because Asians do not completely reject the idea that Trump should be, at least to a degree, a “disruptive” president. As already indicated, they believe that some past American policies toward their region needed to be reconsidered and modified. But they want those changes to be made in a more thoughtful, coordinated, and sustained way than they have seen so far. They are also concerned about how the other major powers in the region, especially China, will respond to a more assertive approach from Washington. Just as Asians do not want to be drawn into American domestic debates, they do not wish to be entangled in a confrontational relationship between the United States and China. As always, Asians prefer the “Goldilocks” option: a U.S.-China relationship that is “not too hot, not too cold, but just right.”

Finally, while expressing concern about many aspects of the Trump administration’s Asia policy, the participants in this conference could not always reach agreement on what they wanted that policy to be. There were different views about the concept of an Indo-Pacific region, about the desired outcomes of the U.S.-DPRK summit, and about optimal regional trade arrangements. Americans need to listen carefully to their Asian partners and friends, but they cannot expect them to speak with a unified voice.

Harry Harding is university professor and professor of public policy at the University of Virginia and visiting professor of social science at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.