Analysis: US overtures may lure Myanmar from China

November 19, 2011 - 9:40 AM
Indonesia US Myanmar Obama

U.S. President Barack Obama stands with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as he announces that she will travel to Myanmar, on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia summit in Nusa Dua, on the island of Bali, Indonesia, Friday, Nov. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first visit to Myanmar in a half-century by the top U.S. diplomat will open a door for that nation's military-dominated government to reduce its international isolation and dependence on China, a staunch but mistrusted ally.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to travel to Myanmar, also known as Burma, on Dec. 1-2, to meet with government and opposition leaders. It is the culmination of a two-year effort to engage with a repressive government the U.S. long had shunned.

Washington hopes to encourage further democratic reform rose after Myanmar staged elections last year that ushered in a government of civilians, albeit one dominated by a military structure that had directly ruled the country since 1962.

The new government also freed and began high-level talks with Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Obama administration's diplomatic overtures have a strategic intent, too, of seeking to expand U.S. ties in economically vibrant Southeast Asia as a counter to the growing influence of China.

China has been an all-weather friend to its southern neighbor, Myanmar, and its ruling generals. After a bloody 1988 crackdown on democracy protesters that heralded Myanmar's descent into pariah status, China provided diplomatic support, investment and weaponry, while Western nations imposed tough economic, trade and political penalties.

Despite that backing, Myanmar's fiercely nationalistic leaders have an ingrained suspicion of China and are wary of becoming in thrall to another power. They have sought to balance China's influence by building ties with a neighbor to the west, India.

"Burma has always been uncomfortable with both of those relationships and wants to balance them with others," said Priscilla Clapp, who served as the top U.S. diplomat in the country between 1999 and 2002. "That's the choice they are making now."

She said that many of the older generation of army officers that now hold senior positions in the government first gained their military experience fighting insurgents who once controlled large tracts of the vast country's north, backed by China under then-ruler Mao Zedong.

China has long since ended that support. Its economic footprint has grown in the past two decades, particularly in the north of the country, through investments and exploitation of natural resources, such as oil, gas, minerals and timber.

The Chinese influence has bred resentment among the wider population, said Aung Din, a former political prisoner in Myanmar and now executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

Probably the single most significant decision made by the new government of President Thein Sein has been to suspend work on a massive, China-backed hydropower dam in northern Kachin State that would have yielded major revenues from electricity exports.

Thein Sein said the project, which would have flooded an extensive area and disrupted the flow of the nation's main Irrawaddy River, was against the will of the people.

His decision also sent a powerful signal at a time the U.S. was making energetic efforts to engage Thein Sein's government: Myanmar was not beholden to China.

Myanmar will have to do more to get what it really wants from Washington, which is the lifting of sanctions.

That would require the approval of Congress, where some influential lawmakers have strong personal interest in restoring democracy to Myanmar. The country will first need to fully reconcile with Suu Kyi, release its political prisoners and make peace with ethnic insurgents.

In the meantime, the Obama administration can reward progress with significant gestures.

Clinton's visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state since John Foster Dulles in 1955, is a diplomatic boost to Thein Sein and rewards the tentative reforms he has initiated so far that could yet face resistance from hard-liners in the military establishment.

Clinton's visit also should strengthen the hand of Suu Kyi, who gave her green light for the trip and whose approval will be key to further U.S. steps to deepen ties with the government.

Even if Myanmar's government unclenches its fist to meet the extended hand that the Obama administration says it is offering, do not expect lightning political change.

Washington has welcomed the decision of Suu Kyi's party to contest coming by-elections after unfair regulations were amended. But even if it should fare well, her party will have limited leverage. The military-proxy party controls nearly 80 percent of the seats.

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Online:

U.S. Campaign for Burma: http://uscampaignforburma.org

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EDITOR'S NOTE — Matthew Pennington covers U.S.-Asian affairs for The Associated Press.