These are heady days in Myanmar. For decades an international pariah dependent on the largesse of China, Myanmar’s recent decision to pull away from Beijing’s embrace and begin a tentative democratization process has been lauded by the global community, both in word and in deed. The Financial Times recaps the latest developments:
- The UN secretary-general and the EU’s foreign policy chief will visit Myanmar this weekend, on separate missions, although both are expected to discuss a program to vastly expand the amount of aid Myanmar will receive;
- The foreign ministers of Germany and South Korea will also arrive in the coming days. This follows a recent visit by the Italian foreign minister;
- The World Bank will open an office in Myanmar in June, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the International Monetary Fund will follow soon after;
- Myanmar’s debts – $393 billion to the World Bank and about $500 billion to the ADB – will not be forgiven, but they are expected to be restructured on “extremely lenient terms” according to World Bank officials;
- Japan has said it will forgive the $3.7 billion Myanmar owes Tokyo;
- Australia, the EU, Norway and the US have all reduced some sanctions in recent weeks and are planning to resume a significant aid program, although Congress will have to vote to approve any US funding.
These are all positive steps, but this is a geopolitical story as well as a human rights one. Myanmar’s (former) status as one of China’s few allies in the region should not be downplayed. Myanmar’s leaders made a conscious decision to cut ties with their Chinese allies; the U.S. and its allies in Europe and Asia are only too happy to support this decision.At some point in the not-too-distant future, Burma’s leaders will face a decision point. It is one thing to put a fresh coat of paint on a dictatorship, hang out a few flags and let some dissidents prance around in the streets and make speeches in parliament. It is something else to turn over power. The Burmese leadership presumably began the reform program with an idea to safeguarding and even enhancing their power; how will they react when threatened with the loss of it?Neither the Burmese authorities, the democracy activists, the ethnic insurgents or Burma’s new friends know what happens when and if the change will become irreversible if not stopped. The geopolitical case for cooperation with Burma will be as strong as ever, but the love will be gone.This has been a terrible spring for the home team in Beijing, and the Burma story is a significant part of a chain of events that, perhaps someday soon, may impact the conventional wisdom that sees a surging China challenging the US for global leadership. The daring and dramatic flight of the blind Christian human rights activist Chen Guangcheng from house arrest to the safety of the US Embassy in Beijing could not have come at a more neuralgic time for China’s embattled leaders.Setback on setback, humiliation on humiliation: this is not what Chinese nationalists expected after years of rapid economic growth and military buildups, and it is not what they want. Secretary Clinton will have a hard time convincing her hosts that the US is not engaged in a systemic campaign to undermine China. Negotiating the release of Cheng and his family, overcoming the next round of arms sales to Taiwan, explaining America’s newly vigorous support for China’s neighbors in their territorial disputes over the South China Sea, assuaging Chinese concerns about US-Indian nuclear cooperation, and saying something for the folks back home about how America is going to fight unfair Chinese trade practices: that is a tall assignment, especially when your goal is to coax China inside into the tent.As Secretary Clinton prepares to fly to Beijing, she should brace herself for a certain amount of suspicion in the Middle Kingdom. Worried by the way what they hoped would be a smooth political transition has morphed into a huge scandal amid coup rumors in the Bo Xilai mess, China’s leaders may not show all the ire they feel — but feel it they will.Ministerial visits are often pretty insignificant events. This one will likely not be. The relationship with China is being redefined; the Chinese will be extremely interested to hear what the Secretary has to say even as they are fascinated, and not in a good way, by what the US and its allies are doing from Mongolia to Myanmar and beyond.