Page 1 of 2 US zeroes in on China's clout in Myanmar
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - A high-level American delegation will travel to Myanmar in coming
weeks on a fact-finding mission as part of the United States' new engagement
policy with the military ruled country. The talks will center on improving
Myanmar's human-rights situation and its claimed intention to move towards
democracy, but the subtext will be improving diplomatic relations and fostering
influence in a country widely viewed as a key regional ally of China .
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Kurt
Campbell, said on October 21 during hearings before the House Foreign Affairs
Committee that he will lead a fact-finding trip to Myanmar in coming weeks to
hold discussions with the regime and meet with democracy leader, Aung San Suu
Kyi, as well as ethnic group representatives. Campbell said the trip is
designed to build momentum behind the policy shift, however, no other details
or dates were publicly disclosed.
During the hearings, Campbell reiterated that the new policy does not mean the
end of US economic and financial sanctions against the regime and its members.
"Our dialogue with [Myanmar] will supplement rather than replace the sanction
regimes that have been at the center of our Burma [Myanmar] policy for many
years," he told the committee.
The US says sanctions will only be removed when the regime makes tangible steps
towards starting a dialogue with the democratic opposition and ethnic groups,
as well as release over 2,000 political prisoners, including Suu Kyi.
There is, however, more to the new policy than mere democracy and human-rights
promotion. A desire to build stronger ties with Southeast Asia became clear
during US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inaugural tour through Asia in
February when she attended the opening of the Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) secretariat in Jakarta.
This was followed by her attendance at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phuket,
Thailand, in July. Policy analysts say a major reason for this new gambit is a
realization that Chinese influence in the region has blossomed in the past
decade while US attention was largely diverted elsewhere, especially on the
"war on terror".
Washington has become increasingly concerned about China's growing power and
influence in the region. While much of the focus has been on China's rapidly
modernizing military and its growing capacity to project power beyond its
immediate borders, including towards nearby US ally Taiwan, a quieter
competition is emerging between Washington and Beijing for influence in
In the late 1990s, China switched to a strategy of improving diplomatic
relations and investing heavily in economic and infrastructure development
projects in Southeast Asia, a gambit many analysts have referred to as China's
"soft power". The strategy is a departure from its previous approach to the
region which emphasized confrontation and even armed struggle as a way of
pushing its interests.
Under the new approach, China has made efforts to work with the various
authoritarian and quasi-democratic regimes in the region. This has included
invitations to meetings and trade fairs, training for government officials and
special scholarships to study in Chinese universities. Chinese development aid
is often highly publicized and includes high-profile infrastructure projects
such as roads and hydro-electric dams and prestige projects such as the main
stadium for the 2009 Southeast Asia Games to be held in Vientiane, Laos, in
December and the recently completed Council of Ministers building in the
capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh.
China has also emerged as an increasingly important source of low-interest
loans, grants, development projects, technical assistance and foreign
investment. These projects combined with China's "no strings attached" approach
to aid have made Beijing an attractive partner to regimes with questionable
human-rights and democracy records.
In contrast, much of the West's aid comes with demands for improvements in
political freedoms and human rights and initiatives to counter corruption.
China's inroads have made US policymakers anxious about its possible effects on
Washington's political clout and position in the region. Opinions among
analysts vary on whether China is seeking to dominate the region to the
detriment of the US or simply securing its interests in a region contiguous to
its southern provinces. Either way, the consensus is that if the US is to
remain a power in the region, China's soft power needs to be balanced,
especially in the three countries identified as China's main allies in the
region: Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
The US has increased development and military aid to Laos and Cambodia. While
some of this effort began in the last years of the George W Bush
administration, renewed US intent was signaled in concrete terms when President
Barack Obama removed Cambodia and Laos from a trade blacklist. This opened the
way for more American companies to apply for financing through the US
Export-Import Bank for working capital guarantees, export credit insurance and
loan guarantees. Although neither country represents a major market for the US,
the move signaled US intentions to improve relations through commercial
In September, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg met in Washington
with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Tea Banh to discuss
security cooperation. During the same month, the US Embassy in Phnom Penh
announced the donation of some US$6.5 million in military equipment through the
Foreign Military Financing program. Cambodian national defense spokesman,
General Chhim Socheat, also announced in September that about 1,500 American
soldiers would participate for the first time in joint military exercises in
mid-2010, supported under a US program dubbed the "Global Peace and Operations
Initiative" designed to expand global peacekeeping capabilities.
Even Thailand, usually considered one of the US's staunchest allies in the
region, is receiving more attention due to a perceived shift towards China
begun under the premiership of now exiled former prime minister, Thaksin
Shinawatra. The latest sign of a renewed US interest in democracy promotion in
the kingdom is a forthcoming United States Agency for International Development
program aimed at improving civil society structures and media capacity across
the country. The nationwide program is also slated to include projects in
Thailand's restive southern region, an area where both Thailand and the US had
previously wanted to keep US involvement to a minimum.
To US policymakers keen to counterbalance China's influence in Southeast Asia,
Myanmar provides a conundrum. China has made strong inroads into Myanmar, and
the US, due to its adversarial stance to the regime, currently has very little
leverage to counter it. Unlike in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, the US has no
aid programs, civil society building projects or military-to-military
exchanges. American interests are currently served by a charge d' affaires,
since the US removed their ambassador to the country after the military regime
violently crushed pro-democracy protesters in 1988.
During October 21 hearings before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, the
chairman, Howard Berman, summed up US policy shortcomings in regards to Chinese
influence in Myanmar. "It is also clear that our policy of isolation over the
past two decades has resulted in China's growing political and commercial
influence in [Myanmar], and little progress in supporting those calling for
reform," he said. "Historically, China's relationship with [Myanmar] has been
precarious, but in our absence it has been strengthened."
Years of aggressive posturing towards the junta have made the generals wary of
the US and its intentions. Generals have said that the extensive bunker and
tunnel complex being constructed around the new capital at Naypyidaw is to
protect against a possible US invasion. Army contingency defense plans and the
creation of civilian paramilitary groups across the country are as much about
controlling the population as they are about preparing for a theoretical US-led
In the wake of the devastating Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, a US naval task
force carrying much-needed relief supplies, helicopters and other vehicles as
well as manpower was denied permission to land on junta fears it could be a
prelude to a military invasion.
Deficit of influence
With this deficit in influence in mind, the Obama administration needed a way
into Myanmar and the policy review provided the opportunity to change tack.
However, with a high-profile international campaign accusing Myanmar's regime
of gross human-rights violations and a strong anti-junta lobby in the US
Congress backed up by sanctions legislation, the latest of which, the Tom
Lantos Jade Act passed in 2007 with overwhelming support, the administration
could not simply step up funding of development and capacity building programs
as it had with Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.
Instead, the US has adopted a policy that keeps sanctions in place, but also
allows for high-level diplomatic engagement. Washington also reserves the right
to put in place new punitive measures should the regime step out of line, as it
did during the 2007 crackdown on peaceful demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.
In the policy announcement and during testimony before a senate hearing on the
new policy last month, Campbell said that he is skeptical that nationwide
elections scheduled for next year will be free and fair. He has also made it
clear that progress in Myanmar will be long and slow. In the meantime, through
diplomatic exchanges, the US can create a dialogue to potentially balance
China's influence in Myanmar.
China's economic and strategic interests, as well as political clout, have
steadily risen in Myanmar since Beijing reversed previous policies and withdrew
support from the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (BCP) in the 1980s. This
contributed to the BCP's later collapse through a mutiny in 1989, and in its
splintering the formation of several ethnic-based insurgent organizations,
including the narcotics trafficking United Wa State Army, now active along the