Why Should the U.S. Care About Burma?

Is Hillary Clinton's trip there about promoting democracy or countering China? Probably both—and that's why it could be so significant.

burma nov17 p.jpg

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a news conference to mark the first anniversary of her release from house arrest / Reuters

Hillary Clinton will be the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit Burma in over 50 years, President Obama announced this morning. The historic move to engage the long-closed, military-run nation between India and China comes after two very recent openings that Obama and Clinton likely see for the U.S. to step in: democratic reform and softening Chinese influence. The two might seem like very different reasons to make such a dramatic shift to U.S. policy, but in this case they might not be.

First, the country has undergone a remarkable -- and totally unanticipated -- democratic opening over the past year. New president Thein Sein has shocked Burma-watchers (normally a jaded bunch) by releasing political prisoners, loosening restrictions, and most importantly by releasing and then holding talks with with democratic activist and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. U.S. engagement could help accelerate these reforms, or at least prevent backsliding. Obama made clear that democracy-promotion is a U.S. objective, personally calling Aung San Suu Kyi before announcing the trip.

The second opening came when Burma took a symbolic step away from China, its lone major ally, earlier this month by abruptly cancelling an enormous, $3.6 billion, Chinese-run dam project in northern Burma. The dam was itself a symbol of Burma's corrupt, autocratic government: it would have been a terrible deal for Burma, with 90 percent of the electricity sent north into China, and was widely protested by Burmese civil society groups for its environmental harm and alleged abuse of workers. But the dam was a good deal for the military leadership, which gained personally and also likely hoped to use closer ties with China as a means of balancing against the West. Many analysts saw this as a signal that Burma would try to ease its reliance on China and pursue a more independent foreign policy. Neighboring India, normally not very effective at pushing into China's backyard, quickly pounced on the opportunity to expand its influence in Burma. Naturally, the U.S. might want to do the same thing.

The Obama administration denies it's trying to contain China's regional rise, as it almost always does (even when its actions look an awful lot like containment). "It's about Burma, not about China," a senior administration official told National Journal. "China itself benefits from a Burma that is stable, that is prosperous, and that is -- they're integrated into the international community. ... engagement with Burmese leaders by the United States does not come at the expense of China or China's relationship with Burma." According to the U.S. government sources speaking to National Journal, the U.S. "held close consulations with China on Burma, and Beijing has so far been supportive of American engagement and has been encouraging political reform inside the country." It's not clear why Beijing would be supportive of Burmese reform when that's exactly what just cost them a multi-billion-dollar dam project and an influx of the hydroelectric power it so badly needs.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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