*This story was updated May 21, 2013
Barack Obama hasn’t had a lot of good news of late on the foreign policy front. His nonplan for Syria is under fire from all sides. His nonstrategy for the Arab Spring — from Benghazi and Cairo to Iran and Bahrain — has drawn near daily criticism. Chinese hacking is getting worse. The war in Afghanistan drones on. And so it must have been with some sense of relief that the President turned his attention Monday to the one small foreign policy victory his first term can claim: normalization of relations with Burma.
Obama welcomed Burmese general turned President Thein Sein to the White House, the first Burmese leader to visit in nearly 47 years. Despite outrage from human-rights activists — dozens of whom protested at the White House gates on Pennsylvania Avenue — the meeting was hailed as a landmark one. It follows Obama’s November trip to Rangoon, where he was the first sitting U.S. President to visit Burma. In honor of Thein Sein’s visit, the White House put out a statement calling Burma for the first time “Myanmar,” the preferred name of the military junta. Thein Sein updated Obama on his progress in making the political and economic reforms the two discussed in November and asked for further U.S. support in capacity building, reforming the rule of law, increased trade and military-to-military training, according to Ernie Bower, a Burma expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies who met with Thein Sein in Washington on Sunday. “This visit is overwhelmingly important. American engagement in Myanmar is one of the more significant geostrategic developments in our overall Asia strategy in last couple of years,” Bower says.
The reopening of Burma to the Western world is a blow to Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. For much of the past 20 years China was one of the big investors in Burma. But decades of what local authorities came to view as abuse by Chinese companies exploiting Burma’s bountiful natural resources helped create an opening for the Obama Administration, says Ken Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution. Chinese leaders are “increasingly concerned with the resentment they’re experiencing in Burma. They’re trying to engage on a modified model — building schools, trying to come across as a good neighbor — and that requires a lot of repositioning and that will take time,” Lieberthal says. “They’re always concerned when the U.S. presence and influence grows around their periphery, and that is happening in a major way in Burma.”
It also comes at a time when Chinese relations with other Southeast Asia countries are fraying. Border disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam have soured relations with those two countries. Several signatories to a 2010 Chinese free-trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are seeking to renegotiate it as they feel the deal gives too much away to China. And China’s then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi didn’t help matters much when he declared at an ASEAN meeting last October, “There is one basic difference among us. China is a big state and you are smaller states.”
The Obama Administration has done a good job of courting Burma, both Lieberthal and Bower say, at a time when Burma’s influence with the ASEAN countries — and with its neighbor to the west, India — is on the rise. The U.S. strategy in “repositioning” Washington’s attention to Asia has been to use the existing multinational institutions like ASEAN, APEC, the East Asian Summit, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (though the U.S. is still just looking at becoming a member to this one) to influence China, Bower says. “We’ve been using these frameworks to convince China to make the rules with their neighbors in this region and play by these rules,” he says. Burma is a key member of almost all these groups, Bower adds, and while the U.S. and Burma were at odds, America’s ability to sway regional decisions was limited.
Of course, none of this would’ve been possible without the blessing of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who visited Washington last September to much fanfare. Suu Kyi, who spent the better part of two decades under house arrest for her political opposition to the junta, has been working with Thein Sein to open up Burma. On her visit, she called on Washington to lift its sanctions on Burma and even encouraged U.S. officials to call her country Myanmar. Notably, as Thein Sein was in Washington, a 12-member delegation from Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy was on the first of two planned visits this year to China at Beijing’s invitation.
Will anything truly substantive come out of Monday’s meeting? Perhaps some marginal progress on a few fronts, says Bowers. “Obama may not be able to do some of the more forward-leaning requests, like adding Burma to the Generalized System of Preferences,” which gives preferential duty-free entry into the U.S. market for up to 5,000 products for developing countries that qualify. “But it’s clear the Administration is committed to working with [Thein] Sein, and underlining that is important in itself.” Because despite the outraged protesters at the White House gates, the Obama Administration believes it can achieve a lot more working with the not-quite-democracy than against it — not just for Burma but also for Asia.