By S. M. Hali

Following Obama administration’s declaration of Asia-Pacific region being America’s new priority, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Myanmar (1-2 December 2011). Her visit to the recluse and sanctioned Myanmar, the first by an US Secretary of State in 56 years, is being viewed as an effort to woo Myanmar away from Chinese influence. Myanmar and China enjoy a long border and an equally long history. While the west chastised Myanmar for its alleged human rights abuse and lack of democracy, Beijing held its hand. Myanmar was treated by the west as a pariah state but China provided diplomatic, material and economic support while Western nations imposed tough economic, trade and political penalties. China is Myanmar's largest economic partner, with $4.4 billion in trade last year and nearly $16 billion in total investment.

In the recent past, the US has commenced another Great Game, this time in South-East Asia. It is trying to court China’s opponents in the region by stoking domestic differences possibly in an attempt to encircle China. An example is the South China Sea Islands, over which Beijing has an apparently genuine claim but is contested by Vietnam, Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and Japan. The US has openly encouraged the contestants to stand up to China. One must first get the perspective from China’s outlook. Beijing’s strategic ambitions in Southeast Asia are real. From China’s perspective, Southeast Asia is its southern doorstep—China has deep roots in the region derived from geography (a common border with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar), ethnicity (large, economically powerful urban Chinese communities throughout the region) and history (the ‘tribute system’ that expressed Southeast Asian deference to China over millennia).
From the standpoint of Beijing, Southeast Asia is properly understood as a natural and rightful Chinese sphere of influence, a region where China’s interests are paramount. When these are properly acknowledged, China is prepared to adopt policies that benefit Southeast Asia as well as China—a dominion of Confucian harmony and benevolence. Since the mid-1990s China has emphasized the latter with a sophisticated diplomatic ‘charm offensive’ designed to portray a good neighbour dedicated to the economic advancement of Chinese and Southeast Asians alike.

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Coming back to Myanmar, despite China’s unstinted support, its leadership has been wary of the relationship and has tried to reach out to China’s rival in the region, India. The US had shunned Myanmar in the past, especially after its 1988 military crackdown, but 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 US decided to change its stance. The new government also freed and began high-level talks with Nobel laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

One move, which is being viewed by some analysts as to be at the behest of the US is the decision made by the new government of President Thein Sein 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.

Beijing on the other hand, has put up a bold face at the US overtures. Sun Yun, an expert on China's foreign relations at the Brookings Institution has commented that: "Beijing understands Myanmar's aspiration to diversify its international engagement and improve relations with the United States. However, Beijing doesn't wish to see those goals achieved at the expense of China."

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It should be clear that China would prefer to see a stable Myanmar as its neighbour as it too could have violence and drugs spill across its borders. On the other hand, it is an accepted fact that the Southeast Asian governments fear being forced to choose between China and America. No Southeast Asian country wants to make such a choice, but no less an authority than Singapore’s widely respected ambassador to Washington, Chan Heng Chee, has observed that, if forced, the Southeast Asians would generally opt for China. There’s a consensus in the region that the US-China relationship is vital to all concerned. When asked what kind of relationship best protects Southeast Asian interests, the answer is the proverbial Goldilocks principle — “not too hot and not too cold”. A cooperative but not deeply collaborative relationship is just right.
Secondly, as previously noted China’s influence and strategic reach into Southeast Asia is deep, powerful and growing. This is particularly evident in the economic sphere. As the global financial crisis weakened the credibility of the US and European economies, China’s economy steadily rose.

An important chess piece is Myanmar’s pro-democracy leader as well as Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whom President Obama has hailed as “a hero.” Hillary Clinton met Aung San Kyi, a meeting encouraged by the Myanmar leadership, since they view Aung San Kyi’s endorsement of relations with the US as imperative. Last month, the Myanmar government amended election regulations to encourage Suu Kyi’s party to return to the political system. Suu Kyi has said that she backed U.S. involvement in her country and that she would take a chance with the recent reforms.

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“We hope that they are meaningful,” Suu Kyi told reporters. “I think we have to be prepared to take risks. Nothing is guaranteed.”

Myanmar would look to have the US sanctions on it removed but that would require the approval of the US Congress, which would need further proof of Myanmar’s baby steps towards the restoration of democracy.

It is important to note that China may be wary of US overtures towards Myanmar, but prudence dictates that the US consider China a partner in the region rather than a rival.