How Obama Asia Pivot Will Increase American Flexibility with China


America’s Asia “pivot” got its first real kickoff with President Obama’s trip to Myanmar, after the preparatory visit by Hillary Clinton to the secretive Asian country, in what might be a rare gem of U.S. foreign policy practice. Re-engagement with Myanmar is a high point of American foreign policy, because it enhances regional security with several objectives.with three key objectives.

1) Maintain an image of mutual respect.

A forced regime change might be an effective tool for superpowers to maintain their interests somewhere in the world, but it never curries favour with the locals. While Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta for the 50 years since its independence from the British Empire (Myanmar gained its independence in 1948, and the junta took power after a coup in 1962) long-term change is done through diplomacy, not war. American foreign policy needs a change of perception.

2) Ostracize North Korea.

Pyongyang is Southeast Asia’s dark horse and an effective buffer for the Chinese against American influence, but Myanmar has been friendly with North Korea in the past. Taking out that support and legitimating the country’s nuclear programs with the IAEA means that North Korea has one less ally in the international system. This is an important step to the gradual international delegitimation of North Korea, and if one dares to dream, reunification.

3) Increase flexibility with China.

Going forward, there will probably be little change on the particulars of the Chinese-American relations. Indications that Myanmar is not seeking to be exceptional to the international system is a source of stability in a largely volatile region of the world. Put another way, the tensions we all know and love will continue, but things are going to be business as usual with a new country to talk about.

What strikes me is that the U.S. approach to Myanmar is identical to the reopening of relations with China 40 years ago. Henry Kissinger prepared the ground with a secret visit in 1971, before Richard Nixon’s official fanfare visit in 1972. Granted, relations with a poor, authoritarian country can never be on the same level and complexity as those with China, but their starting point is very similar. Over time, the bilateral relationship may develop along the same push-pull dynamic as the one with China, but it will be lesser in complexity and scale.

The reason is that the opening of Myanmar to the world also affords a lot of room for Chinese capital to enter. This, in turn, will bring Beijing’s political influence. Not insignificantly, the influence of multinational corporations from the West, China and wider Asia might turn Myanmar into a boom town for foreign investment. This sum of factors make it hard to say that the idea of the Asia 'pivot' is to contain China, because so many interdependencies already exist.

The junta itself is enjoying a credit of trust from the international community. It is a chance for relevant political reforms in order to improve the livelihood of the country’s people. Aung San Suu Kyi, who holds a Nobel Peace Prize and the Congressional Gold Medal of Honour, has become the poster child for democracy in Myanmar. If the current regime manages to utilize her in the political system to open it up to a greater degree, it will add invaluable legitimacy to the junta, as it transitions into a civilian government.

In the very least, the result will be the improvement of regional security and stability in Southeast Asia, and America will look good doing it.