Obama to Burma?

By Aung Zaw 7 November 2012

During his tentatively planned visit to Southeast Asia later this month, reports spreading in social media indicate that US President Barack Obama will come to Burma. Should this prove correct, he would be the first US president to visit in more than half-a-century.

And this historic visit would 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.

My Thai colleague Kavi Chongkittavorn wrote in his column in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper on Monday, “Indeed, US-Burma relations appear to be on a rollercoaster after President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visits to North America.”

In September, Obama welcomed democracy icon Suu Kyi to the Oval Office as his administration further eased sanctions on the once-isolated Southeast Asian nation.

The National League for Democracy chairwoman was in the US to receive the Congressional Gold Medal Award. Thein Sein was also in the country at the time to address the United Nations and met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The former general mentioned Suu Kyi in his speech in New York and won praise from the international community and world media—the first time any Burmese head of state has acknowledged the Nobel Laureate’s role in the democracy movement.

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 US 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.

In October, the first Human Rights Dialogue between the US and Burma was held in Naypyidaw. Interestingly, high-ranking defense officials from both sides also attended the meeting. The dialogue was candid and frank, according to the American contingent.

The irony is that Burma has been deemed the success story of Obama’s foreign policy strategy. During his annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, the 44th US president praised ongoing democratic reforms by noting, “A new beginning in Burma has lit a new hope.”

Regarding his chequered record in the Middle East, Asia (including North Korea) and Russia, Foreign Policy magazine wrote, “Obama’s foreign policy has been sensible and serious but not path-breaking.”

Yet with Burma, it appears that the US could play a more active role in engaging with the government. But why?

Burma is a neighbor of China and India with direct access to the strategically important Bay of Bengal and 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.

The country’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 in election year.

The US has declared that it is coming back to the Asia-Pacific with refocused strategic interests in the region, including the troublesome South China Sea. Obama’s strategic policy of using Burma as its “pivot towards 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.

There is no doubt that rapid US reengagement with Burma has raised concerns in Beijing, despite Washington insisting that it does not intend to step on China’s toes.

New US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell insists that the United States’ relationship with Burma does not entail any deterioration of Sino-Burmese relations. “It is not meant to come at the expense of any country,” he recently told reporters in Rangoon.

“It is not in the interests of the United States that Burma has tense relationships with its neighbors; in fact the contrary,” added Mitchell. “China and Burma have a long history as well as a long border. They have deep economic relations in the past and it’s between the two nations to determine their future.”

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 $2.6 billion, while China’s investments also increased during this period with heavy input in the energy sector.

In Burma, Mitchell held several meetings with high-ranking military officials including armed forces commander-in-chief Vice-Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Burma has also expressed interest in being an observer in next year’s Cobra Gold exercise. Beijing, a major arms supplier to Burma, is keenly watching these developing ties between the two militaries.

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.

He also stressed that when Thein Sein visited China and met with his counterpart Hu Jintao in 2011, the pair decided to establish the China-Burma comprehensive strategic cooperation partnership.

Indeed, 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 UN Security Council. To be blunt, China thinks Burma owes it one.

However, it is safe to say that Chinese influence on the Burmese public is almost non-existent and indeed contrasts strongly with the US. 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.

Naypyidaw knows well that under the previous regime there was a steady rise of anti-China sentiment amongst the Burmese public which could lead to serious consequences—they played the China card carefully when announcing the suspension of the Myitsone Dam project in Kachin State.

But as Burma continues to normalize relations with the US, we can anticipate some dramatic changes in its foreign policy balance sheet. One thing is sure; Burma does not want a patron-client relationship.

This time around 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.