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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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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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