Hillary Clinton’s trip to Burma this week could be a breakthrough moment in U.S.-Burma relations. In every respect, the conditions in Burma are among the most dire of any country. To its credit, the Obama administration recognizes that this moment of change is an opportunity for the United States to help move Burma away from authoritarian rule and into the world community.
The visit also sends a strong signal to China that the U.S. is seeking to contain Beijing’s influence in Burma. While the U.S. sanctioned itself out of playing a role in resource-rich Burma over the past few decades, China has been aggressively pursuing its commercial interests, and today is the country’s main trading partner and arms supplier. But Burma’s recent decision to suspend the construction of the controversial Myitsone Dam project, which was to provide much needed electricity to China, is a strong indication that the government is ready to say no to Beijing when it is in its interest to do so.
Clinton’s visit to Burma, which comes on the heels of President Obama’s recent Asian tour that culminated at the East Asia Summit in Indonesia, also represents a reassertion of American leadership in the Asia-Pacific. While in Asia, Obama shored up trade, diplomatic, and military interests in the region, announced plans to station U.S. troops in Australia, and pursued a multilateral approach to resolving territorial and energy disputes in the South China Sea — a set of issues that Beijing prefers to deal with bilaterally. Re-engaging Burma is part of this strategic reorientation.