How China views Obama's trip to Myanmar
China is watching Obama's trip to neighboring Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia this weekend with a wary eye. But Myanmar could offer an opportunity for China and the US to work together, say analysts.
As President Obama heads to Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand on Saturday, China is keeping a wary eye on the latest US move in the sometimes bruising tussle between the two giants for influence in the region.
Myanmar (also called Burma) is Exhibit No. 1 in the case for such fears. A nascent civilian government has recently stepped out of neighboring China‚Äôs orbit and leaned toward the West with liberal political and economic reforms there.
But Myanmar, an impoverished and ramshackle country, despite its wealth of natural resources, could offer an opportunity for China and the US to work together, suggest analysts in both countries. (see map here).
‚ÄúThe US is trying to compete with China to make friends with Asian countries, but this does not have to be a zero-sum game,‚ÄĚ argues Liu Feitao, an expert on US policy in Asia at the Chinese Institute for International Studies, a think tank linked to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.
‚ÄúBurma could be one area where we can get beyond the idea of strategic competition,‚ÄĚ agrees Michael Green, head of the Asia desk at the National Security Council during the Bush administration. ‚ÄúUS-China relations with third countries could be healthy.‚ÄĚ
The Chinese government has not yet reached a final judgment on the US policy of rebalancing its security emphasis toward the Asia-Pacific region, Chinese scholars say, nor has it developed a strategy to deal with it.
‚ÄúThey tell us that rebalancing is not aimed at containing or encircling China and we would like to believe it,‚ÄĚ says Dr. Liu.
But officials have expressed serious reservations. ‚ÄúThe United States must ‚Ä¶ convince China ‚Ä¶ that there is no gap between its policy statements on China and its true intentions,‚ÄĚ Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai wrote in an article earlier this year.
Beijing is especially worried by the way in which neighboring countries involved in maritime territorial disputes with their giant neighbor, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have turned to Washington for support as China has turned up the heat on them. (Read more about the complex web of interests involved in the territorial disputes here)
‚ÄúUS influence in the region is rising, while China‚Äôs is decreasing,‚ÄĚ says Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run think tank. ‚ÄúWe should not further stimulate conflicts with our neighbors.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThere is tremendous demand and expectation of US leadership in the region,‚ÄĚ US National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said in a speech in Washington on Thursday. ‚ÄúThe demand signals, I think, at this point today, are unprecedented.‚ÄĚ
From Beijing, such comments sound as if Washington is seeking to drive a wedge between China and its neighbors. Policymakers here have not forgotten Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton‚Äôs remark in Cambodia two years ago, when she said: ‚ÄúYou don‚Äôt want to get too dependent on one country,‚ÄĚ responding to a question about Phnom Penh‚Äôs relations with China.
Strategists here say they are also concerned with the prominent military aspects of the pivot: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced earlier this year that 60 percent of US naval vessels are to be deployed in the Pacific by 2020; the US Navy and Air Force recently unveiled a new ‚Äúair-sea battle‚ÄĚ concept clearly designed to counter growing Chinese naval power; the Pentagon‚Äôs Strategic Guidance document, issued last January, put China and Iran at the center of US security concerns, and 2,500 Marines are due to be stationed in Australia by 2016.
Obama‚Äôs four-day trip to Asia will offer a chance for him to stress new dimensions of his policy. The journey ‚Äúmarks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort,‚ÄĚ Mr. Donilon says.
‚ÄúOur rebalancing is defined by far more than our defense posture,‚ÄĚ he adds. ‚ÄúIt will continue to be defined by deeper economic and political engagement.‚ÄĚ
Obama‚Äôs trip ‚Äď his first venture overseas since his reelection ‚Äď comes as China appears ready ‚Äúto push the reset button with Southeast Asia and to come in discussing trade and growth ‚Ä¶ but also bringing their checkbook along with them,‚ÄĚ in the words of Chris Johnson, until recently the CIA‚Äôs top China analyst, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
After a series of assertive moves in recent territorial disputes in the South China Sea, ‚ÄúI think China will try to tone down its territorial disputes with neighbors which might give the US more opportunities to get involved in Asian affairs,‚ÄĚ predicts Mr. Du.
Myanmar as testing ground
Against this backdrop, Myanmar may prove to be a testing ground for the cooperation that both Beijing and Washington say they want in the Asia-Pacific region, offering a chance for both powers to help develop the country.
Myanmar first signaled its move away from China with a symbolic decision last year to put the Myitsone Dam project, a giant Chinese hydroelectric project on the Irawaddy River, on hold.
At an ideological level, ‚Äúeach time that an authoritarian country democratizes, that is a loss for China and a gain for the United States,‚ÄĚ argues Scott Harold, a China analyst with the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank in Washington.
But economic and political realities mean that ‚Äúa lot will stay the same‚ÄĚ in Myanmar‚Äôs relations with its giant neighbor to the north, however much the government improves its ties with the US, Dr. Harold adds.
‚ÄúIts oil and gas will, by and large, go to China. And China‚Äôs role in building ports, roads, and pipelines will not change,‚ÄĚ he argues. ‚ÄúFor better or for worse, Myanmar will always be right next to a big, big market and a country that has substantial military and economic interests that any Myanmar leader will have to take seriously.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėLike all Asian countries, it just wants a balance‚Äô
Myanmar ‚Äúhad to open up to the US in order to be accepted by the international community,‚ÄĚ points out Liu. ‚ÄúBut I don‚Äôt think it will build up its relations with Washington at China‚Äôs expense. Like all Asian countries, it just wants a balance.‚ÄĚ
Mr. Green, the former National Security Council analyst, who visited Myanmar earlier this year, says he does not expect the country ‚Äúto align with the US to contain or limit Chinese power.‚ÄĚ
Instead, he predicts, ‚Äúthey will use us to strengthen and balance their economic development,‚ÄĚ putting American investment to work alongside investment from countries such as Japan, South Korea, and India, whose companies are already competing with Chinese firms for contracts.
That sort of competition could unfold within the ‚Äúproductive and constructive relationship with China‚ÄĚ that ‚Äúour friends and partners in the region expect us to maintain,‚ÄĚ as Donilon put it.
‚ÄúThe US and China are competing now for influence,‚ÄĚ adds Green. ‚ÄúBut none of the regional powers want to get pulled into a US-Sino confrontation and be forced to choose sides. I think they will make it very clear when one side or the other goes too far.‚ÄĚ