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Obama Burma Trip: Why China is Watching Closely

After winning reelection, President Obama is set to visit Southeast Asia in what will be a three-stop trip to Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia. 

This will be Obama’s first official trip abroad since his victory on November 6, and will set  in his crucial “Asia Pivot” strategy and what could be his foreign policy legacy

Obama’s Asia trip will be crucial for two reasons. First, he will work to nurture and “boost” the seed of democracy in Southeast Asia – particularly in Myanmar – by giving public support to Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy advocate, 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Winner, leader of the National League for Democracy, and MP in Myanmar’s House of Representatives of Kawhmu since May 2012. 

Second, Obama will work to strengthen U.S. relations with all three states and draw them into the growing pro-U.S. coalition in Asia to balance China’s rise.

The overall purpose of Obama’s Asia trip will be to make good use of U.S. soft power in Southeast Asia to reassert American influence and values in the region, and advance U.S. interests in this part of the world. According to Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, to "fill in [the U.S.] pivot to Asia [as a] a critical part of the president’s second term and ultimately his foreign policy legacy."

Watering the Seeds of Democracy

For the U.S. and the international community, Aung San Suu Kyi’s story is one that inspires awe and admiration for her tireless work to promote democracy in her country, Myanmar (which has been ruled by the Myanmar Military since the late 1980s).

Suu Kyi had been in political exile for more than 20 years due to the military junta's tight grip over the political system during the past 25 years. During this time, she spent 15 years as a political prisoner. Since her release, in November 2010, she has helped democracy take root.

Obama’s visit to Myanmar will likely prove to be significant in solidifying the gains made by Suu Kyi during her decades of struggle. And the meeting between the two Nobel Prize winners is a good start.  

Suzanne DiMaggio, of Asia Society, noted in a recent interview that Obama's trip is a clear sign that the U.S. supports the democratic reforms that are ongoing in Myanmar, and substantially adds to political capital of the reformers in their efforts to liberalize Myanmar's political system.

 

Even before his arrival, the vast majority of the local population has already begun to count down the days until the president arrives in Rangoon. Arthur Myint, an editor at The People's Ageexplained: "The interest reflects the changes here. People hope Obama will put pressure on the government to make more changes ... Some political prisoners were released this morning, and people feel it's connected to Obama's visit."

Balancing Out the Chinese Dragon

In deepening U.S. influence in Southeast Asia, America can wean and lure these previously pro-China nations into joining a burgeoning coalition of Asian states concerned with China’s rise. Obama's trip serves to deepen diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the three host nations, as well as the region as a whole, through Obama's scheduled appearance at the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia.

Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia have all been accommodating China. But now that China has begun to flex its muscle, in disputes in the South China Sea, many including Myanmar have sought to shift their political allegiances toward the U.S. (in order to balance China's rise).

Jeffrey Bader, of the Brookings Institute, notes that this trip will be one that presents a rival offer of aid and security from the U.S. in comparison to China's seemingly bellicose assertions over the South China Sea. The important thing to note is that Obama is traveling to affirm the U.S. role as a leader and partner to Asia's nations (and not a escalation of military might beyond what was already here). The U.S. seeks to send the message of: "we're with you (the nations rethinking their relationship with China and the citizens yearning for democratic governance) and we're watching you (to China)."

It's, therefore, no surprise that China will be closely monitoring Obama's Asia trip, as it is anxious about the U.S. effort to reassert influence in Asia as a whole (especially, given its current interest in the South China Sea. China will watch to see what Obama will offer and say to gain the allegiance of the nations of Southeast Asia.

This simmering dispute over the South China Sea is central to Obama's trip and will allow him leverage to increase U.S. influence as he is set to attend the ASEAN Summit. The president has the chance to present the case for U.S. leadership to a region concerned with China's rising influence, which has caused internal tensions in three countries (including religious tensions in Myanmar’s southwestern Rakhine State, and the brewing power struggle in Thailand).

Obama can cement his "foreign policy legacy" by presenting a succinct and convincing case for why the U.S. offers the better partnership with the nations and everyday people of Southeast Asia, through his support of leading lights for democracy like Ang San Suu Kyi and diplomatic engagement with the leaders of the region (in order to strengthen political and economic ties). 

Southeast Asia is ready to become good friends of the U.S. in a time when China looks to become a threatening hegemony in the region. Furthermore, the U.S. is ready to commit to securing regional stability and balance China's power.

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