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President Obama’s Burma Visit Comes at Right Time

By Kanbawza Win Created: November 15, 2012 Last Updated: November 15, 2012
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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) meets with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese pro-democracy opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Clinton's office at the State Department Sept. 18, in Washington, D.C. The U.S. relation with Burma may prove to be a key part of President Obama’s foreign policy of pivoting to Asia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) meets with Nobel Peace Prize winner and Burmese pro-democracy opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Clinton's office at the State Department Sept. 18, in Washington, D.C. The U.S. relation with Burma may prove to be a key part of President Obama’s foreign policy of pivoting to Asia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama will travel to Burma (also known as Myanmar) as part of a trip on Nov. 17–20 that will include stops in Cambodia and Thailand. In Burma he will meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. This is the first trip to Burma by a U.S. president.

The American Nobel Peace Prize meeting the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize is quite natural and this historic visit will no doubt embolden President Thein Sein’s reform agenda, while boosting the image of a government that came to power through rigged elections in 2010.

We can only hope that the world will be a much better and safer place by the time of Obama’s trip. Shortly after his re-election, the Chinese regime is unveiling a new batch of leaders, with Xi Jinping as the new chairman of the government and general secretary of the Communist Party.

Litmus Test

We can hope that the world’s most important bilateral relationship is on the upswing. The upcoming East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, will serve as a litmus test regarding how the United States and China can work together for the prosperity and stability of Asia, particularly on sensitive security issues.

The world knows that the United States remains a key actor in the contemporary era. It has the biggest economy in the world, possesses more military capabilities than the next leading 10 countries combined, and is the pre-eminent player in the production of popular culture. The United States is not only different from other nations but also provides an exemplary political model for the rest of the world.

As for foreign policy, Obama has pledged to maintain the strongest military in the world but believes that after a decade of war, the United States must nation-build at home and lead by force of example rather than the example of force.

For the Obama team, history does not need to be shaped, because it already offers a clear and positive verdict for U.S. values and interests. In an interconnected world, it is the ideas of democracy, not dictatorship and political fundamentalism, which have mass support.

Clinton’s Role

But whether Asia policy gets the same degree of attention from the United States as it did during Obama’s first term will depend partly on who succeeds Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She has made at least a dozen trips to the region, including Burma, and championed the view that U.S. interests lie in more ties with that booming continent.

Clinton’s visit to Burma in December last year was also an interesting turning point in US–Burma relations. Washington decided to relax restrictive measures and even powerful U.S. congressmen, who have long been vehemently pro-sanctions in line with Suu Kyi, visited Burma and decided it was time to welcome the former pariah nation back into the fold.

Obama has attempted a balancing act in relations with Beijing, seeking deeper ties and encouraging it to play by international norms to ward off the possibility of confrontation.

His second term is likely to see more attention on economic ties with Asia. The United States will be looking to finalize the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation regional trade pact brought forward during a time of bitter partisanship in Washington. This treaty could be an issue where Obama finds common cause with Republicans.

Success Story

President Barrack Obama’s visit to Southeast Asia has been largely welcomed by the region’s political and business establishments. Burma has been deemed the success story of Obama’s foreign policy strategy. During his 2012 State of the Union Obama praised ongoing democratic reforms by noting, “A new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope.”

Burma is a neighbor of China and India with direct access to the strategically important Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Moreover, a country bordering China, and generally known to be in Beijing’s pocket, which suddenly forges closer ties with Washington is a rare foreign policy coup for the White House.

Burma’s move from authoritarian rule to democracy will therefore be welcome in Washington, even if it still has far to go, and this can also be seen as a political achievement for Obama. Obama’s strategic policy of using Burma in its “pivot toward Asia” has been greeted with interest in Southeast Asia. Many countries in the region want to counter China’s growing influence and this could work in Washington’s favor.

China’s investment in Burma reached US$20.26 billion by the end of last year, making it once again the nation’s largest foreign economic partner. In the first six months of this year, bilateral trade amounted to US$2.6 billion, while China’s investments also increased during this period with heavy input in the energy sector.

Li Junhua, Chinese ambassador to Burma, recently told Xinhua news agency that for more than 60 years of Sino-Burmese diplomatic relations, the two countries’ leaders have maintained frequent and reciprocal visits based on mutual respect and support, pushing the continuous development of traditional, neighborly, and friendly ties.

China’s influence and strong political ties with Burma’s top leaders—including active and retired military bigwigs plus the business community and Burmese-born Chinese businessmen—should not be discounted. In the past, China used its veto to protect the former junta from frequent condemnation at the U.N. Security Council. To be blunt, China thinks Burma owes it one.

But Chinese influence on the Burmese public is almost nonexistent and indeed contrasts strongly with the United States. Washington’s engagement in Burma does not merely involve the government—it has established strong contacts with opposition and civil society groups both inside and outside the country.

As Burma continues to normalize relations with the United States, we can anticipate some dramatic changes in its foreign policy balance sheet. One thing is sure; Burma does not want a patron-client relationship with either China or the United States. But now Burma no longer needs to hide behind China. The fact remains that China will not sit idly by and let Burma go without a fight.

Rebalancing

If there has ever been any U.S. president that is knowledgeable and appreciative of ASEAN, it is Obama. The U.S. rebalancing policy, with the incumbent remaining at the White House, will enter its second phase with intensified U.S. engagement with group members in all areas.

The world wants a U.S. president with a practical foreign policy toward China. The Obama administration’s policy is both competitive and collaborative, which augurs well with the ASEAN approach to the two super dialogue partners and the region will benefit from this balanced approach providing it has sufficient room to engage and secure influence in ways that would increase the region’s profile.

Currently Cambodia wants to demonstrate that it has a neutral foreign policy regarding major powers, especially toward the United States and China.

We prefer a U.S. leader who does not treat Russia as an enemy as it would have a direct impact on overall regional peace and stability. Russia under third-time President Vladimir Putin is returning to the region, in particular the previous Indochina, where the former Soviet Union used to reign supreme. Moscow wants closer cooperation with ASEAN and is willing to do more to harness these relations. Please recollect that in 2005, it was Moscow that demonstrated eagerness to attend the nascent East Asia Summit.

ASEAN hitherto has taken for granted that China would not act assertively as it would be accommodative to the bloc’s interests and remain at best benign. However, at the ASEAN–China retreat in Pattaya, Thailand, at the end of October, Beijing delivered direct and tough words by reiterating that it would no longer hold back—any provocation would see a proportional response to the perceived threat to China at the time.

This did not bode well for other territorial disputes in this part of the world. ASEAN has accordingly changed its long-standing perception of China and now, individually and collectively, will have to decipher a new batch of younger Chinese leaders and their motives toward the region.

Failure to do so would further deepen mutual suspicion that both sides could not afford to have at this juncture. Obama’s visit comes at the right time.

Kanbawza Win is former foreign affairs secretary to the prime minister of Burma during the 1970s and former senior research fellow at the European Institute for Asian Studies.

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