BANGKOK—The weekend’s Asia-Pacific summits in Bali will be dominated by a growing US-China rivalry, part of which revolves around Burma, with Hillary Clinton set to visit the country next month.
Burma’s Government has been granted its wish to hold the Association of Southeast Nations (Asean) chair in 2014, two years ahead of schedule and one year before the country’s next elections, due in 2015. This step-by-step rehabilitation continued today, with US President Obama announcing that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Burma next month.
Obama flew into Bali on Thursday night—the first time an American President will attend an Asean/East Asian summit—and, in what China will surely take as a provocation, is likely to bring up the simmering South China Sea dispute.
Vietnam and the Philippines have sought backing not only from the US in their confrontations with China over ownership of islands in the sea, but also from Japan and India. All told, seven countries have claims of some sort on the mineral and fishery-rich waterway, and China’s uncompromising stance to date has set its neighbors on edge, offering the US a chance to step in.
In Bangkok last month, Kurt Campbell, the senior-ranking U.S official covering Asia, pledged that the US would shift resources and attention from the Middle East and South Asia to the Asia-Pacific region. However, the US has work to do, in Southeast Asia at least. According to a paper by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C. think-tank, the US dropped from being Asean’s largest trading partner to fourth, a swing compounded as China went from ninth to first over the same time-period.
New US plans to launch a free trade bloc known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seem explicitly designed to counter China’s growing economic weight in the region. The same proposal could prove a useful re-election peg for Obama next year, a buffer against Republican party accusations that he has been slack on boosting US trade links and has failed to stand-up to Beijing.
And while still-sanctioned Burma, with its mothballed economy and infrastructure, is a long way from joining any US-led free trade grouping, Burma hosting an Asean summit in 2014 is now a done deal, and if Obama is re-elected, therefore, he will likely visit Burma at least once in 2014 for the summits to be held that year.
On Friday, the US president announced that he will send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma next month—for the first visit to the country by a US secretary of state since military rule was first imposed nearly 50 years ago.
The internationally-backed reputation-laundering of a once-pariah state will facilitate US economic and political relationship-building in Burma and—Washington hopes—will lay the groundwork for an attempted roll-back of China’s economic influence there, at least to the extent that Burma does not become a signed sealed and delivered Chinese vassal.
Two days after Burma’s foreign minister met with American officials in the U.S., Burma’s President Thein Sein announced —to international astonishment—the suspension of the US $3.6 billion China-funded Myitsone Dam project in northern Burma. By causing China to lose face in such a public and abrupt manner, and demonstrate that it is not yet the Chinese vassal some depict it to be, the Burmese government thinks it has done its bit to entice the US to “engage” more. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Thursday, Burma’s Information Minister Kway Hsan hinted at what the Burmese government wants next from the Americans by blaming US sanctions for hindering development in Burma and forcing the country to rely on Chinese investment.
That said, it seems that the US is not yet ready to relax sanctions, suggesting that the Burmese need to undertake additional reforms before topping the bar in Washington’s eyes. Speaking in Australia on Thursday morning, Obama said that “Some political prisoners have been released. The government has begun a dialogue. Still, violations of human rights persist. So we will continue to speak clearly about the steps that must be taken for the government of Burma to have a better relationship with the United States.”
One country that is not yet sure of its Asean approval is Timor-Leste, which submitted a revised membership application to the current Asean chair and former occupier Indonesia on Tuesday.
Previously, Timor Leste’s application had always faced rejection from Singapore, which argued that the country would hinder Asean’s moves toward an EU-style “community” by 2015. This week, Indonesia’s ever-quotable foreign minister Marty Natalegawa said that “Asean ministers welcome Timor Leste’s application. We have formed a working group to review the roadmap Timor Leste will take to become a member based on the Asean Declaration,” though it is not clear whether Singapore’s misgivings have been overcome.Show