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Obama's 'Asia pivot', 6-hour Burma layover, causes heartburn in Beijing

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The historic visit of  U.S. President Barack Obama  to Burma, the highest profile American diplomatic contact ever to this long isolated political pariah state, saw the United States enter a high stakes geopolitical chess game in Southeast Asia.

Thus amid the shimmering golden temples and pagodas of Rangoon, the president set out to cut through the murky political haze which still envelops this storied Southeast Asian land.

A rogue regime — Burma  has long been courted by China, coveted by India, and shunned by Washington and most Western countries — has come back into play after a reform process by the current quasi-civilian leadership under President Thein Sein.

Burma's military rulers are allowing incremental reforms.

The political dynamic appears to be changing as Burma’s leadership has allowed a series of incremental reforms which included contested parliamentary by-elections, a release of political prisoners, and allowing respected dissident and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi a prominent place in the political transition.  Just a year ago Secretary of Stare Hillary Clinton made a celebrated visit to Burma, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles in 1955, to nudge open the political doors.

During the recent United Nations General Assembly debate, pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi made a near victory lap visit to the UN.

Whether Washington’s proposed engagement is prompted by a genuine glimmer of political hope in the country, it is being perceived by the People’s Republic of China as a bold political move on the Mainland’s southern frontier at a time when Beijing has  already chastised President  Obama’s plans for a “policy pivot” to Asia. The move is seen in China as “part of a cold war mentality” and an attempt at American encirclement.

Thus the welcome thaw in relations between Burma and the United States has been viewed by Beijing as playing in the People’s Republic’s backyard.

Consider the geography. Burma is bordered by China on the north, Thailand to the east, India to the West, and the Bay of Bengal to the South. This land of 55 million remains in the vortex of competing power interests.   Historically the country has been in the Chinese sphere or in the orbit of former British India.

The resource-rich ex-British colony was once close to the West. Since the early 1960’s the “Burmese Way to Socialism” has been the pernicious path followed by a left-wing military regime exhibiting an eclectic political mix of nationalism and xenophobia.

The rulers changed the country’s name to Myanmar and switched the capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, an inland city of gaudy but glittering government buildings in the middle of nowhere.

Periodic regime crackdowns on dissidents, ethnic minorities and the house arrest of the leading human rights figure Aung San Suu Kyi,  prompted suffocating sanctions and isolation from the United States and European Union. During the past decade both the former Bush Administration and the Europeans worked in close political harmony to isolate Burma’s military rulers.

Correspondingly, China moved closer to the Myanmar regime offering the military government diplomatic support in the United Nations and concessionary commercial relations.  Nonetheless,  China has overplayed its commercial ties and political links, prompting a backlash even from Burma’s once docile rulers.  As is often the case in Africa with Chinese aid and investment schemes, overplaying a strong hand causes resentment and a search for options among dependent client states.

“We were in isolation for may years and now are opening up, but that will not hamper the relationship between Myanmar and China,” stated Ko Hlaing Advisor to the Burmese President in an interview with Beijing’s China Daily. “ The bilateral relationship is a special one.”

Over the past five years, the UN has made quiet but determined moves to politically engage and “sound out” the Burma rulers.  Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has visited the storied land three times and pressed for political efforts to ensure a slow but certain political thaw. Yet, Burma’s reformist rulers are still shadowed by a skeptical military.

Obama’s six-hour visit  to Rangoon was part of a larger trip to an ASEAN conference.

Burma appears one of the painfully few places where American foreign policies seem to be trending towards the positive; the setbacks in Egypt in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the shameful cover-ups after the terrorist attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi,  the dangerously unresolved conflict in Syria, and the ticking atomic clock in Teheran, offer a sobering counterpoint.

Speaking of the current reforms, Suu Kyi stated, “The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight…we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success.”

President Obama himself conceded, “This is just the first steps on what will be a long journey.”

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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