(Editorial) - Washington is taking its engagement with the Golden Land seriously, an Asian country viewed as a crucial piece of US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. Obama’s keenness to embrace Myanmar has less to do with cuddling democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, as we saw during his official visit, and more to do with money, natural resources and the dragon that lurks on the country’s northern border.
Obama’s landmark visit to Myanmar in 2012 and Myanmar President Thein Sein’s reciprocal visit to Washington earlier this year indicate the embrace is getting tighter. But there is more to America’s new love affair than meets the eye.
On the face of it, Washington stresses support for democratic reform, human rights, improving the economy, and paving the way for American companies to do business in the country. But, largely behind the scenes, America is pursuing a China containment strategy, aware of that country’s growing military and economic clout. Few America policymakers and think-tank experts take China’s self described strategy of “Peaceful Rise” at full face value.
China sits center-stage in U.S.-Myanmar relations, despite Washington’s denials that their moves to engage with Naypyitaw should not be viewed as competition with China. The denials are mere diplomatic obfuscation – a veneer of politeness to thinly hide the 21st century’s replaying of the Great Game, albeit on slightly different turf.
As far as Washington is concerned, Myanmar is a brick in the wall around China’s western, southern and eastern flank. As Jurgen Haacke says in an analysis entitled, “Myanmar: Now a Site for Sino-U.S. Geopolitical Competition?” the United States has for some time generally welcomed China’s growing stature and weight. However, Washington has also been concerned about China’s growing military capabilities, he says, and it has sought to influence China’s foreign policy choices by shaping the latter’s regional environment, not least by revitalizing relations with alliance partners and friendly states.
What that means for U.S. ties with Myanmar is a tighter engagement on a political and military level, with an increase in military cooperation and training between U.S. forces and the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military. This follows a pattern of play seen in such countries as Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, where joint-force military games are held.
Pivoting towards Asia has seen a revitalization of Washington’s relationships in Asia and particularly Southeast Asia. This includes enhanced naval capacity in the region, two thousand U.S. marines in Australia and an increased positive involvement with ASEAN nations.
Beijing has at been at pains to limit overt sabre-rattling; however increasingly vehement disputes with fellow Asian nations over numerous small atolls and islands suggest a clear policy of force projection that unsettles other countries in the region. China’s official newspaper, The People’s Daily, has raised the ante in voicing suggestions that
Japan’s Ryukyu Island chain, which includes Okinawa, might well be subject to a renewed Chinese claim of sovereignty.
Washington fears China’s rise may not be peaceful, and has also been concerned that some of the economic and trade balance problems it has with China are due to the deliberately managed undervaluation of the yuan. China has increasingly been troubled by the sense that the U.S. is interfering in the issues of human rights, Taiwan, the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the South China Sea, which it sees as either hypocritical, in terms of human rights, or a
sovereign challenge, as with the others.
What this means is that geopolitical competition over Myanmar between China and the United States will increase. In the coming months and years, we can expect to see more officials from Beijing and Washington currying favor in the halls of power in Naypyitaw.
This editorial first appeared in the August 29 edition of M-ZINE+.