Burma to be ‘Guide’ for US in Asean

By The Irrawaddy 10 July 2012

A senior US State Department official says Burma can act as a partner for the United States in Asean during a regional tour looking primarily at boosting business ties.

Speaking en route from Tokyo to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the US delegation member said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be highlighting the recent progress made in Burma as well as future challenges during her upcoming speech in Cambodia.

“There’s a practice in Asean that [non-members] have a partner country that serves as your guide, so to speak, in Asean. And Burma is now ours, or will become ours,” said the official.

“And so we’ll be working very closely with them. And one of the things that’s been very interesting is—and quite rewarding—that it was only a year ago that we essentially had absolutely no contact with this country, almost no interaction. And now we’re working with them on so many different areas. It’s actually one of the most exciting things about my job.”

Such a turnaround comes amid the US beginning to repeal punitive economic sanctions against Burma, officially known as Myanmar. Unlike the European Union and Asian nations, Washington has kept in place a number of sanctions including a ban on imports such as gems thought to benefit the military.

“[Clinton] will also be laying out, when we are in Siem Reap, plans for how the process of sanctions easing will proceed, and she will be engaging with members of the American business community who are anxious and interested in the prospect of participating in the economic opening, and we will be discussing how to think about that,” said the official.

“There are enormous challenges, obviously, in Burma. We’ll be discussing that in Siem Reap. And frankly, we expect that in almost every multilateral setting that we will—that we’ll have over the course of the next several days, we will be talking with Burma.”

And the official said that Washington is looking carefully at balancing the interests of the business community with remaining criticisms from human rights groups that restrictive measures are being removed too fast while many serious concerns remain.

“I think one of the things that the secretary and the administration has tried to do very carefully over the course of the last several months since the process of reform was initiated is to move very carefully in response to dramatic steps inside the country—the release of political prisoners, the allowance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party to join the Parliament, a number of steps towards seeking to ease the very, very substantial ethnic tensions within the country,” said the official.

“And so the key here is to be very careful and judicious in our overall approach, and we’ve sought to do that with respect to the economic opening as well.

“And I think the secretary will be laying out, clearly, what are some of the provisions, what are some of the aspects of the reform, the business opening, that we think will still help us promote the kinds of necessary reforms that will help Burma into the future.”

The main event of the trip is a business forum in Siem Reap which sees some of the biggest firms in the US—including Boeing as well as representatives from manufacturing, technology, financial services, energy, construction, insurance, health, medicine, food and agriculture—looking to invest in the region.

“I think one of the keys here is if you look at Asean, it’s one of the fastest-growing middle classes in the world,” said the US official. “And as you consider what will be an important ingredient in American economic revival, clearly the role of exports will be central, and particularly in Asia.

“And that’s one of the great success stories—the doubling of—essentially of [US] exports over the course of the last several years.”

The US is seeking to substantially enlarge the scope of its business activity in Asia by encouraging more companies to deal in the region. The vast majority of North American activity in Asia is currently with the top tier of companies, according to observers.

And the State Department will be sending two representatives—Robert Hormats, the undersecretary of state in charge of economic growth, and Francisco Sanchez, the undersecretary of commerce for international trade—to Burma this weekend in order to boost trade ties.

“Our primary focus right now is in the overall effort of what might be called rebalancing,” said the official. “What we have essentially seen over a period of decades is very strong American imports of what is produced in Asia.

“In order for there to be the kind of stabilizing global rebalancing, the United States has to save more, but Asia has to buy more. And when they buy more, they have to buy more from the United States. And Asia is increasingly serving as a very substantial engine of growth along with the United States. But that is still underutilized and much more needs to be done.”