Bloomberg News

Clinton Opens Door With Myanmar as U.S. Watches China’s Moves

December 01, 2011

Nov. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Myanmar today makes the resource-rich Asian nation a new focus in the struggle between the U.S. and China for influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Clinton will be the highest ranking U.S. official in half a century to visit Myanmar, dominated since 1962 by a repressive military regime that still exerts control through a new civilian government. She plans to meet the country’s leaders, ethnic minorities and democracy advocates including opposition icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Ahead of Clinton’s visit, China’s Vice President Xi Jinping hosted Min Aung Hlaing, head of the Myanmar armed forces, in Beijing on Nov. 28 and discussed boosting military cooperation. The new leaders of Myanmar, also known as Burma, have instituted political reforms and reached out to the U.S. for help countering China’s influence.

“There’s a lot of hedging going on in the broader Asia- Pacific region,” said Bryce Wakefield, Asia program associate at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group. Smaller Asian countries are moving closer to the U.S. “both as a bargaining strategy against China and as a way of ensuring their own security,” Wakefield said.

Douglas Paal, director of the Asia program at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said Myanmar’s leaders are looking for a counterweight to Beijing.

Seeking Balance

“China has been so overwhelmingly involved in Burma that it’s looked like a Chinese province,” he said. “They want some balance.”

Relations with Myanmar will yield little trade or defense benefit for the U.S., said Wakefield. For many lawmakers and policy makers, the priority is advancing democratic freedoms, he said.

“China certainly sees Clinton’s visit in geopolitical terms,” Wakefield said. “The U.S. approach may be geopolitical, but it’s also certainly ideological.”

China welcomed the moves by Myanmar “to improve its relations with western countries and hopes its measures help Myanmar’s stability and development,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said yesterday.

In China, some see Clinton’s visit as “another move to encircle” the country, said Sun Zhe, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “A lot of people think we don’t have to worry that much because we also have historical friendship and historical ties with Myanmar,” Sun said.

Suu Kyi Call

President Barack Obama announced Clinton’s visit this month, citing “flickers of progress” in Myanmar, where the government has eased some political restrictions.

He telephoned Suu Kyi to confirm that the visit would be all right. That has not inoculated Obama from criticism.

Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that Clinton’s visit is “a monumental overture to an outlaw regime whose DNA remains fundamentally brutal.”

Myanmar and the U.S. may mark the visit with announcements, though it’s unlikely the U.S. will ease sanctions that ban imports, curb aid, restrict money transfers and freeze assets.

The U.S. may consider placing an ambassador in the capital Naypyidaw or begin calling the nation Myanmar, the regime’s name for its country, rather than Burma, the name used before 1989, said Ernest Bower, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Sign of Trust

Suu Kyi, 66, may also announce that she will leave the country for the first time in two decades to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos next year, Bower said. The opposition leader has refused to leave Myanmar, even when her British husband was dying in 1999, due to fears the junta would not allow her to return.

The daughter of the general who led Burma to independence, Suu Kyi returned to Myanmar from Britain to care for her dying mother in 1988. When a nationwide uprising against military rule erupted that year, she became its leader. Her National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won 1990 elections, results the military leaders ignored. She was subsequently held under house arrest for years.

Suu Kyi’s travel would be a signal of her trust in the government and, if she is allowed to return, a sign that the government is serious about reform, Bowers said.

To date, the new government has released hundreds of prisoners, allowed greater press freedom and passed a law allowing public protests. President Thein Sein, a former general, has reached out to pro-democracy advocates, changed a law to convince Suu Kyi’s party to participate in elections and engaged her in dialogue.

Changing ‘In Steps’

Thein Sein released Suu Kyi from house arrest last year, after his junta-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party won around 80 percent of 664 seats in Parliament. The constitution decrees that the military retain a quarter of seats in both houses of Parliament.

“The United States must recognize that Myanmar’s politics will transform in steps,” wrote Zaw Htay, director of the president’s office, in a Washington Post opinion article. Zaw Htay called for strong support from the U.S. if it wants Myanmar “to become a democratic country as measured by their values and norms.”

Myanmar’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014 will speed the process, Zaw Htay said. He pointed to the government’s September decision to suspend construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese-backed dam in the northern part of the country. It would have fed electricity to China and displace thousands of Burmese villagers, according to the BBC.

Dam Dispute

Rejection of the dam “was seen as an important step in defying Chinese influence,” said Paal.

Myanmar’s moves to engage the West are “not really” about reducing reliance on China, Nay Zin Latt, a political adviser to Thein Sein, said in an e-mail interview on Nov. 26.

“We should have warm relations with our neighboring countries such as China, India and Thailand,” he said. “In the meantime we should also be on good terms with the Western world, which can provide us more technology and management.”

Clinton’s visit will give legitimacy to the government and strengthen reformers, said David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

“It makes it more difficult to go back and the harder we make it to go back, the better the lives of the Burmese people will be,” said Steinberg, who lived in Myanmar from 1958 to 1962.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied Clinton’s visit is meant to counter Myanmar’s neighbor to the north.

“This visit to Burma is not about our relationship with China,” Toner said yesterday at the State Department briefing. “It’s about, as the president said, trying to seize an opportunity where we’ve seen flickers of progress within the Burmese leadership and carry out our policy of principled engagement and see if we can’t convince the Burmese authorities to take more steps in a positive direction.”

--With assistance from Michael Forsythe in Beijing and Daniel Ten Kate in Bangkok. Editors: Terry Atlas, Steven Komarow

To contact the reporter on this story: Nicole Gaouette in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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