Obama Burma Trip: Goal is to Send a Message to China

On Monday, President Obama will become the first U.S. president to visit Burma in a trip that will also include Cambodia and Thailand. It is part of an agenda to ‘pivot’ American foreign policy toward Asia after a decade of almost singular focus on the Middle East — and China is eyeing it suspiciously.

On the surface, it is a show of two informal allies working together; an opportunity to demonstrate America’s commitment to democracy across the world. It was just last year, after all, that the Obama administration indicated it would support Burma as it ousted its repressive military junta. A year later, cautious praise is the goal of Obama’s visit. He will laud the country’s progress while expressing concern over the continuing human rights abuses under President Thein Sein, including some 200 political prisoners. His two central meetings will be with the president and Aung Sun Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize-winner democracy activist and former political prisoner.

But these public shows of commitment to open and democratic values are afterthoughts compared with the wider agenda of ‘rebalancing’ American military and economic interests in Asia after more than a decade of intense involvement in the Middle East. After an election driven by alternating allegations of ‘weakness’ on China and pledges to be ‘tough’ on the country and to label it a currency manipulator, it goes without saying that taking a more pronounced stance toward the country was on the slate for the next administration. Obama’s trip to Burma echoes a classic American strategy of containing Chinese power: encircling the country with American military and economic interests.

U.S.-Chinese relations have been fraught throughout the second half of the 20th century. In an attempt to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States pursued a policy of engagement in China. Over the decades, the trade relationship flourished: China is the U.S.’s more important market, and the U.S. is China’s biggest source of foreign investment. Indeed this rapprochement between the two countries is very much responsible for China’s rise, and Washington’s anxieties about its hegemonic potential are very much the product of American policies. The United States was too busy enjoying the cheap labor and sleek toys this relationship allowed them to notice that Chinese power was growing far outside their comfort zone.

China sees the United States’ commitment to democracy and human rights as little more than a false pretense under which to flex American muscle in foreign regions — the establishment of democracies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all demonstrate just how influential this strength is. To China, Obama’s visit to Myanmar is just a continuation of this strategy. On an ideological level, democracy in the region is a gain for the United States and a loss for China. It is a symbol that Chinese growth has limited potential.

These threats are intensified by American plans for military strengthening in the region. Last January, the Pentagon’s Strategic Guidance Document listed Iran and China as the U.S.’s most central security concerns, and military plans have reflected that. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has announced that by 2020, 60% of U.S. naval vessels will be deployed in the Pacific, and a record number of Marines will be stationed in Australia by 2016.

To China, Obama’s trip to Myanmar is just a smoke screen for these grander ambitions. The bizarre nature of the relationship between the two powerful countries—simultaneously symbiotic and resentful—assures that such shows of democratic cooperation in the region will have the same two sides of the coin.