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UK PM To Visit Myanmar Friday; Should China Be Nervous?

After decades as an international pariah, Myanmar is being well compensated for its moves toward reform and less dependence on China. Last week the United States announced plans to relax some of the sanctions it imposed on Myanmar over the past two decades. Now comes news that British Prime Minister David Cameron is planning a visit. Cameron’s trip is historic; as the Financial Times notes, he will be the “first major western leader to visit the country since the west imposed sanctions on its military regime in the late 1990s.”

Cameron’s one-day visit was hastily added to his tour of Asia after Myanmar held free and fair elections for 45 seats in parliament on April 1. According to the FT, the visit could be more than merely symbolic:

The UK has pushed harder than other EU countries to maintain sanctions on Myanmar – which mainly ban business in sectors such as timber, gemstones and other natural resources, as well as block military ties and some official aid. . . .

Since the April 1 poll, some EU countries have urged the removal of all sanctions except for the ban on military aid. But the UK and some smaller members of the 27-member bloc, including the Czech Republic, have urged a phased approach, arguing that some leverage was needed to press for further reform, said European diplomats in Yangon.

This visit is only the first of many for Myanmar. India’s Prime Minister will arrive in Myanmar on April 28. Later this month, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is scheduled to visit, and Myanmar’s President U Thein Sein will travel to Japan, which has committed to re-establishing its aid program. Large business delegations from South Korea and Singapore also visited the country recently.

This is good news, both for the people of Myanmar and for America’s Asia policy. It is considerably more troubling for Beijing, however. Until its sudden about-face, Myanmar, along with North Korea, was one of China’s few allies in the region. While it’s unclear how  relations will change under Myanmar’s new leadership, Beijing must be hoping that North Korea, which had close relations with the ruling junta, isn’t paying close attention.

The American press, always given to interpreting overseas events through moralistic filters, sees this mostly as a ‘triumph of human rights’ story. Myanmar has stopped sinning and we have stopped punishing it. This is part of what is going on, but if we focus exclusively on the feel good side of the story we will miss what geopoliticians — like those folks who sit in Beijing and plan Chinese foreign policy — see.

What they see is a massive, perhaps coordinated push from both local rivals like Japan and India and more distant ones like the US and the UK to swoop in on Myanmar at the first opportunity to pull it away from China. As we congratulate ourselves on our virtue, righteousness and all around generosity of spirit and nobility of intent, we should remember that what we see and what others see is not always the same thing.

China has a lot of reasons to feel pushed into a corner right now. The US shouldn’t kowtow and cater to Chinese feelings of entitlement, but we also need to be alert to China’s perceptions and concerns. We need to remember that our goal isn’t to win a confrontation with China in Asia; it is to work with many countries, including China, to build an Asia that becomes more prosperous, more peaceful and more free as time goes by.

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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    This isn’t pushing China into a corner; it’s pushback for China’s saber rattling. Spratly and Paracel islands, Jammu and Kashmir, Tibet, Taiwan; China is clearly greedy and grasping, and while a few border agreements have been made over the last decade, the sheer number of border disputes indicates a policy of unjustifiable expansion at the expense of its neighbors. America isn’t getting the rails greased to greater involvement in Asia for no reason at all; China’s neighbors are pushing back against Chinese aggression, and using America to do it. This isn’t Obama Administration foreign policy brilliance, as the pivot to Asia would never have happened if China’s neighbors hadn’t invited America into a closer alliance to begin with.

  • Alex Weiner

    Presumably, most of these countries, particularly those who did not have official diplomatic relations with Myanmar over the last decade, are to talking to their counterparts in China about this sort of thing behind the scenes. As we saw with the leaked US cables this happens all the time, even among so called rivals.

  • Luke Lea

    “China has a lot of reasons to feel pushed into a corner right now.”

    Which is why if they decide to get aggressive they will go the other way. Look out Kazakhstan.

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