Secretary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar this week has been billed as a “significant shift in policy”, a “huge gamble”, and a “real opportunity” as the commentariat comes to grips with the latest twist in the new Great Game. True, it is the first visit of such a high-level American official since John Foster Dulles ran State. Clinton herself has been more pragmatic, saying “we have to do more fact-finding”. In Myanmar itself, her arrival was overshadowed by the hullabaloo over the simultaneous visit of Mikhail Myasnikovich who is, as every serious student of world affairs knows, the prime minister of Belarus and who was welcomed to Naypyidaw by billboards and a front page spread in the state newspaper.
The world media, however, was more interested in Secretary Clinton’s visit, coming as it did on the heels of some of the most dramatic US diplomatic activity in Asia in years. Her visit is the high point so far of a US-Burma thaw that is part of a wider geopolitical shift in Asia.
Burma’s military leadership has made a series of careful steps toward reform since the junta appointed Thein Sein prime minister in 2007. The 2010 elections, despite obvious interference by the military (Thein Sen and his party won over 85 percent of the seats in parliament), were seen as a first, timid stage in a process that continues to develop. What followed was even more promising — Aung Sun Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. Government newspapers reported she had been well-behaved and her political party will be allowed to contest elections. A handful of other political prisoners were released as well. Recently, Thein Sein has attracted comparisons to Mikhael Gorbachev.
Add all this up and you see a country seemingly moving toward democracy. But the military has lost control of neither the process nor the country. Only a handful of political prisoners have been released: comedians and monks. However, with Aun Sang Suu Kyi backing the reforms, and calling on foreign countries and investors to relax sanctions, the incomplete changes so far are enough to bring Burma out of the cold.
While everyone welcomes the human rights improvements however limited they may be, this is a geopolitical story rather than a morality play. The steps on human rights are part of a Burmese effort to end its exclusive dependence on China: to diversify its portfolio, so to speak. The generals wanted to reduce their dependence on China, and they knew that the democratic powers wanted some changes made, so they moved.
The real question is why. From an outsider’s perspective, when the rest of the world had turned its back on the repressive military regime, China gave Myanmar everything it could want: including funding multi-billion dollar projects to build oil and gas pipelines, roads, hydropower infrastructure, and railways. And of course, China provided vast amounts of military hardware to the junta, no questions asked and no pesky NGO groups running around making complaints.
But being locked into an exclusive relationship with China had its price. Upset by a serious dependence on their northern neighbors, as well as unchecked immigration by Chinese nationals into northern Myanmar, the junta seems to have determined that it needed new friends. The China-leaning former prime minister and intelligence chief Lt.-Gen. Khin Nyunt was forced out of power by his fellow generals in 2004; in 2009 the army drove 30,000 Chinese nationals and ethnic Chinese citizens of Myanmar across the border into China. Then in September Thein Sein canceled the China-funded construction of the Myitsone dam in northern Myanmar, a project of both economic and political importance to the Chinese leadership.
Myanmar’s discomfort with China attracted the attention of other regional powers. Washington, which has been meditating ways to check China’s influence for some time, is not without its allies: as Bertil Lindner writes in Foreign Policy:
For more than a year, it has been known in security circles that the United States wants South Korea to lure Myanmar away from its military cooperation with North Korea. The much richer South would be able to provide more useful assistance to Myanmar than the North, the argument goes.
India too has emerged as a willing partner in the effort to bring Myanmar in from the cold and to free it from China’s tight embrace. New Delhi has adopted a business-oriented “Look East” policy aimed at promoting trade and cooperation in Southeast Asia. India needs Myanmar’s help in battling an insurgency in its northeastern provinces — some rebels maintain bases on the Myanmar side of the border. Recent arrests of Indian separatist leaders in Myanmar signal that the generals have been willing to cooperate. Trade between India and Myanmar has more than doubled between 2005 and 2010.
Rather than criticizing India for breaking an economic boycott intended to push the generals toward political change, the US blessed India’s approach. On November 23, a communications advisor to President Obama announced that “the President very much welcomes India’s Look East approach. We believe that just as the United States, as a Pacific Ocean power, is going to be deeply engaged in the future of East Asia, so should India as an Indian Ocean power and as an Asian nation.”
For its part Japan is moving to restore economic development aid to Myanmar, and Japanese investment in the once-isolated country can be expected to increase.
It is hard to think of anything China would like to see less: its most important and powerful neighbors are moving in concert with the US to limit China’s reach with one of the only two regional allies it has (the other is North Korea). On Wednesday, China’s state-run newspaper Global Times had this to say:
[T]he olive branch offered by US President Barack Obama to Myanmar is not without its thorns. People in Myanmar know that Obama just wants to take advantage of the changes to support the US return to Asia. Will Myanmar be willing to be taken advantage of by the US at the expense of its close relationship with China? I’m afraid not. Even if any ASEAN member wants to do so, the US doesn’t have the same power as it once had in its war in Vietnam.
Preserve a balance: that should be everyone’s goal. That is how the Obama administration is proceeding, and this looks like a policy that will serve both this administration and its successor. The United States does not want to be the “hegemon of Asia”, whatever that title might mean. It has no territorial aspirations there and doesn’t want to overthrow governments, change boundaries or create a new Cold War with China or anyone else.
Most Asian countries think that a balance of power in Asia best serves their own economic and political interests. They want the US committed enough to keep China from being too overbearing, but most of them wouldn’t welcome an anti-China alliance. Austrialia’s current foreign minister was sharply reminded that others don’t want an anti-China alliance by the harsh reactions Indian defense officials had for his call to build a sturdier treaty-based relationship. From a Times of India report:
Completely “taken aback” by Australian foreign minister Kevin Rudd’s statement that India would be roped into the trilateral pact, which will seek to “contain” China in the Asia-Pacific region, top defence ministry sources said India was “not keen” on hopping onto “any multi-lateral security constructs” in the region.
Perhaps the most awkward (and, to Republicans, most irritating) element of the Obama administration’s Asian diplomacy is the term chosen to describe it: a “pivot” to Asia. In reality the US never left and the broad outlines of what the Obama administration is doing now reflect Bush administration policies. It was the Bush administration that negotiated the nuclear deal with India; that deal paved the way for what is now widely seen as a strategic partnership between the world’s two largest democracies. Admittedly we are in the run up to an election, but to its credit the Obama administration is behaving in Asia like the prudent guardian of the national interest and the goal should be to build a national consensus behind this policy. Stressing the deep continuities in America’s Asia policy also makes sense abroad: Asians need to understand that this US commitment is for the long term. This policy is not a sudden fad and it is not the work of one administration; it is the logical outgrowth of two hundred years of American interest and activity in Asia and it is deeply rooted in our national interests.
The US wants to see the Burmese generals make changes; it is likely that some more steps will still come. But the generals probably understand that Burma doesn’t need to become as democratically pure as Denmark to be an American ally. After all, Vietnam is a valued member of the new informal Pacific entente. For now, they are moving and we are moving and all is well. No doubt new problems will emerge down the road; it is far from clear that the generals’ commitment to reform is deep enough to induce them to step down from power.
But as it is, the US is launched on a new era of its longstanding effort to build a peaceful, prosperous and (ultimately) democratic Asia in which no single country threatens the rest; it is a testament to the strength of this policy that from Tokyo and Seoul down to New Delhi and Canberra, important Asian countries welcome our interest and want to help us get this done.