HANGZHOU, China — Human rights barely registered on President Obama’s latest visit to China, which ended Monday night with a news conference at which he made only a glancing reference to differences with Beijing over “religious freedom.”
And as Mr. Obama moved on to Laos for a summit meeting of Asian nations, human rights advocates worried that their concerns were falling off the American agenda not only with China but also across the region, for the same reason: Beijing’s continuing rise as an economic and geopolitical power.
As China challenges the United States for influence in Asia, the administration is concerned that any criticism of nations like Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Laos for backsliding on human rights could alienate them rather than pulling them closer. At the same time, shining a spotlight on China’s own rough treatment of dissidents risks losing Beijing’s cooperation on issues like trade, climate change and nuclear proliferation.
Rights advocates accused the administration of being too timid, arguing that the United States should put as much pressure on governments over how they treat their citizens as they do during trade negotiations.
“Decades of experience should make clear to Washington that Beijing responds only to the expectation of unpleasant consequences,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch.
“Why not threaten sanctions, cut out the pointless pomp or visibly align with peaceful critics of the government?” she said. “On other diplomatic, economic and security issues, governments recognize and use these points of leverage. Why not on human rights?”
Others say Mr. Obama, who speaks openly about civil rights in the United States, has been wise not to inject the issue into talks with China, even as Beijing has carried out the most sweeping crackdown on Chinese civil society in nearly 20 years. They say the president understands that a more powerful China is better able to resist American pressure on human rights than it was a decade ago.
“To its credit, the Obama administration has not exacerbated the many U.S.-China economic and security issues with a high-profile human rights policy,” said Robert S. Ross, a professor of political science at Boston College. “It is quite a stretch to argue that diplomacy could persuade an authoritarian, single-party government to undermine its domestic political power by allowing greater opposition to the government and tolerating greater political instability.”
The pattern is now extending beyond China’s borders. During Mr. Obama’s visit to Laos, a tiny country run by a repressive Communist regime, he so far has chosen not to publicly raise the case of an American-trained civil rights worker who disappeared at a police checkpoint four years ago.
He has refrained, at least in public, from criticizing the new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been unapologetic about waging a violent war against drugs in the first two months of his term. On Wednesday, a day after Mr. Obama abruptly canceled a meeting with Mr. Duterte, who had unleashed a profanity-laden diatribe against him, the two men met informally.
During Mr. Obama’s visit to Vietnam in May, he agreed to lift a longstanding ban on the sale of lethal weapons without winning significant concessions on human rights. And after trying to draw Malaysia closer, Mr. Obama has been embarrassed by the country’s prime minister, Najib Razak, who has closed online news outlets and prosecuted opposition figures in an effort to stay in power.
The Obama administration has pressed China on human rights in a high-profile way on only a few occasions. In 2012, the American Embassy in Beijing harbored Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident, and flew him to the United States. But the days when the White House could demand and expect the release of a few Chinese political prisoners before a summit meeting are gone, Professor Ross said.
As the Chinese Communist Party gained confidence, it began rearresting dissidents who had been released before American summit meetings. “Since then,” Professor Ross said, “U.S. human rights diplomacy has been reduced to rhetoric, which, no surprise, has not improved China’s human rights situation.”
Despite Mr. Obama’s fleeting public reference to religious repression this week, for example, few expect the Chinese authorities to retreat from a campaign against Christian churches in the area surrounding Hangzhou, the city that hosted the Group of 20 meeting.
One of the new challenges for Mr. Obama, and one for his successor, will be how to deal with Mr. Duterte. The police in the Philippines say they have killed about 1,000 suspects in the antidrug campaign, and about 300 people have been killed by vigilantes. Rights groups have urged the United States to do something about the situation.
“It’d be difficult for us to overstate how grave the situation has become in the Philippines,” said John Sifton, the deputy Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “At this rate, we’re talking about over 6,000 people dead by the end of the year.”
But the Philippines is an American ally and a bulwark against Chinese military gains in the South China Sea. By that calculus, the United States cannot afford to alienate Mr. Duterte. Philippine analysts say that Mr. Duterte is on good terms with Chinese business executives who invested in Davao, the city where he served as mayor, and that he may be open to negotiating with Beijing over the South China Sea.
Under American legislation known as the Leahy Amendment, Washington is obliged to cut off assistance to Philippines law enforcement units that are suspected of human rights abuses. But Antonio La Viña, a professor of government at Ateneo de Manila University, said the threat of such a sanction was unlikely to be effective.
“The truth is that the Philippines has the money to modernize our military,” he said.
Mr. Obama is the first sitting American president to visit Laos, and he has sought to promote reconciliation with the nation, on which the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs at the height of the Vietnam War.
But he is also being called on to press Laos’s repressive government — a traditional ally of China — on the case of Sombath Somphone, a civil rights campaigner and American-trained agriculture specialist who disappeared at a police checkpoint in the capital, Vientiane, four years ago. Mr. Obama will also have to decide how hard to push concerns about human rights with other leaders at the meeting, several of whom are being wooed by China.
One of Mr. Obama’s favorite Southeast Asian leaders, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, is scheduled to visit the White House this month, and American officials hope to make progress on addressing the plight of the Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority in the predominantly Buddhist country. More than 100,000 Rohingya live in fenced-off camps in northern Myanmar, and Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi has appointed a commission that includes the former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan to find solutions.
“She has demonstrated a recognition that this is a problem that must be solved,” said Tom Malinowski, the United States assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labor.
The Obama administration has been less vocal on conditions in Vietnam, which it has tried to steer closer to the United States in the face of Chinese pressure over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Since then, the human rights situation has only deteriorated, said Nguyen Quang A, an activist and a former member of the Vietnamese Communist Party who was invited to meet Mr. Obama in Hanoi but who was stopped by Vietnamese security forces. Political prisoners remain in jail, the news media is muzzled, and independent labor unions have not been allowed, despite promises to Washington.
“Should Obama have done more to try and influence the government of Vietnam?” Mr. Quang A asked. “Absolutely.”