Asia Times online
October 24, 2009
A high-level American delegation will travel to Burma 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 Burma’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 Burma 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 Southeast Asia.
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. Continue reading “US zeroes in on China’s clout in Burma”
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