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.

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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.

These two most likely reasons for Obama's sudden change in policy on Burma might appear to be unrelated. The first, democracy promotion, has been a mainstay of liberal foreign policy going back a century. The second, managing China's rise in what can sometimes look like a sort of "great game" over which great power can project more influence in East Asia, is the kind of hard-nosed realism that typically drives U.S. foreign policy decisions. Usually the two conflict: most liberals wanted to intervene in Libya to spread democracy but most realists didn't see what was in it for us; realists want to expand U.S. ties to strategically positioned countries like Uzbekistan, which many liberals want to boycott for its human rights abuses. But, in this case, the two line up, and it's not a coincidence.

China's influence in Burma took its recent hit precisely because the rise of Burmese democracy made it easier for civil society groups to challenge the unpopular dam project. If Burma continues to open up its political system, that doesn't mean it will necessarily align with the U.S., but rather that its people and leaders will align with whoever can best serve their country (almost certainly, it would welcome some combination of U.S. and Chinese involvement). So the U.S. has an incentive to help reinforce Burma's democratization both for the sake of spreading democracy and for the sake of limiting China's ability to impose its will on neighboring states.

In Burma at least, the one, realist goal is aligned with the liberal other. That doesn't always happen, but the Obama administration sometimes seems to look for opportunities to line up its values (democracy, human rights) with its interests. That's what happened this December when the U.S. sent an ambassador to Syria, the first in years. Though some in Congress attempted to block the appointment, warning it would lend legitimacy to the Syrian regime, the ambassador gave the U.S. additional leverage in the country (thus serving its interests) and, later, a way to show crucial support for the protesters. Agreeing to draw down troops from Iraq honored its democratic processes while helping our (not-so-great) credibility with their leaders and people. The U.S. often fails at this: Obama's approach to Iran often upsets liberals for refusing greater engagement as well as realists for not doing enough to encourage, whether through sanctions or support for protesters, outright regime change. That doesn't mean U.S. policy toward Iran is bad, only that Obama's administration doesn't seem to have found a way to dovetail its interests there with its values.

Engaging Burma might not work. The regime could slide back into dictatorship, it could re-engage with China and shun Western involvement, or it might simply fizzle out, as U.S. engagement with Egypt's new military leadership seems to have. The U.S. might end up with only half of its apparent agenda: a more-open Burma that is closer to China, or a U.S.-friendly regime that is still bad to its people. But the goals are complimentary here, and if Clinton can secure one on her trip, she just might get the other, too.