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