Why is Hillary Clinton in Myanmar?

December 1, 2011

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

As Syria’s Assad faces civil war, Egypt struggles to elect a new government, Iranian students storm the British embassy, and Israel’s Netanyahu worries over what it all means, it’s remarkable that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton just touched down in Myanmar. Rather than sending his chief diplomat off to the Middle East to fight fires and broker deals, President Obama appears intent on minimizing US exposure there and concentrating his attention elsewhere.

Clinton becomes just the second U.S. official of her rank to visit Myanmar, once known as Burma, a country run by an isolated, paranoid military regime that represses its people from a fortified enclave in the middle of the jungle. Clinton made the trip knowing that the Obama administration and her State Department might face accusations at home, from both left and right, that she is endorsing that country’s leaders. But in fact, Clinton’s boldness has proven to be a strength for the administration. And Obama’s foreign policy savvy benefits him politically relative the lack of a coherent Republican view of US foreign policy. (See Herman Cain’s newly published map of the world or my recent column on the lack of serious foreign policy in the GOP debates.)

The visit is all the more noteworthy because, following President Obama’s recent Pacific tour, it highlights just how much time the Obama team is devoting to Asia.

Obama sees an important new opening. For years, Asia’s powers have aligned their policies according to the moment’s defining trends: Cold War rivalries or opportunities for trade liberalization. Those debates are decided. Here is the region’s new defining question: What does China’s rise mean for everyone else? Anxiety is growing among the neighbors. Chinese officials were surely taken aback by widespread complaints from its neighbors during the recent ASEAN conference about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. From India to South Korea and Indonesia to Vietnam, Washington now has a chance to revive old friendships and build a few new ones.

It won’t be easy. Shifting public opinion and political calculations inside these countries will remind US officials that they are welcome as valued allies, not as saviors. But the key variable in Asia’s future—and for America’s future in Asia—is the fate of Beijing’s profoundly ambitious economic reform plans. Some economists argue that China’s economy is headed for a hard landing. The country’s coming leadership transition makes matters especially unpredictable.

China itself will make matters worse. Just as America’s economic populists love to demonize China, so Beijing’s patriots are about to indulge in a bout of anti-American nationalism. It’s a tried-and-true way to drum up support from hawks within the leadership as the next generation of leaders begins to hand out jobs. But any ostentatious display of national pride inside China will only make other Asian governments that much more uncomfortable—and more likely to turn to Washington to hedge their bets on China’s next moves.

The benefits for America are already obvious. Witness the spike in US exports to Asia as a growing number of US lawmakers embrace the idea that increased trade is an important antidote to the country’s long-term economic ills.

Obama and Clinton have shown that they get it, that they are following events in Asia closely, and that they are ready to seize new opportunities—even in a place like Myanmar.

This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pours water over a statue of Buddha at the Shwedegon Pagoda in Yangon December 1, 2011. REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool


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Credit goes to the west to put a sustained pressure on Burmese leadership to relax its stranglehold on its own peaceful people for a very long time.In the process violating human rights and trampling the growing aspirations of its young generation and indulging in shady deals with its neighbor China that did not enjoy local public support.
It was encouraging China to exploit the vast natural resources of this ancient kingdom and grow ever bolder to spread out and control the neighboring region and access to the deep waters of the Indian ocean.The increased US attention and desire to open Myanmar will help US and allies to a mutually beneficial relationships with the leaders and people of Myanmar based on principles and trust and that should counter the hegemonic Chinese tendencies in that part of the world.

Posted by cosmicinsight | Report as abusive

Mrs Clinton has a “thing” for Suu Kyi..

Posted by Bludde | Report as abusive

Burma’s biggest trading partner is India, the US wants to use India as a counterbalance to China in much the same way that Europe was used to suppress the Soviets.
So the US has been acting very friendly to India and removing sanctions from Myanmar is just one of the things the US has been doing to get the Indians onside.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

The key is agression. As we helped them in the 1930s and 1940s with Japan’s agression, today we hope to use Chinese Oil exploration and claims “agression” in the South China Sea as a “key for Admitance” or Strngthening our military presense. Australia last month was told it would get 2500 US troopsed based there and Indonesia just got some commitments. There fear of China is opening doors. China has made come comments and that must mean we have their attention.

Posted by Dijeau | Report as abusive

President Hu Jintao and the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, will be stepping down soon (next year?) – any comments on their successors?

Posted by TooEarlyToKnow | Report as abusive

Yes, let’s give them aid and technology and pretty soon more jobs will be lost to yet another Country. No doubt this area will be the next replacement for China workers as they begin to demand too much in wages. The World is always looking for that next desperate Country for slave labor. The US does not have a ray of hope of ever getting jobs back into this Country. Not unless you want to work for a Dollar a day.

Posted by jscott418 | Report as abusive

“Obama and Clinton have shown that they get it.” Yet another biased opinion from an academic that never had a real job. Burma, China, India… are you kidding me?

Posted by calexandre | Report as abusive

All I can see this Burma backroad leading to is more foreign aid going to yet another country. I would like to see foreign aid called for what it is, bribery. Then I want to know what we are getting for this bribery. And who is getting it. As jscott418 says, soon we will be the ones working at being a third world country, run by the rich and elite at a dollar a day. Or less.

Posted by TravelBackroads | Report as abusive

The US still has not managed to disengage from our disastrous war in Iraq and the end in Afghanistan is obviously years off, barring regime change in the US itself of course. We have not performed even at a “gentleman’s C” level anywhere important in Asia for over 50 years, and here we are opening up yet another can of worms.

We have failed over and over in Asia, and have proven our inability to tell the difference between hucksters and patriots. Why?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

This is a typical Obama playbook strategy: when times are tough, hide! This administration has been burying its head in the sand on major economic and political issues facing Americans! Now, Joe Biden and his big mouth are promising more of the taxpayers money to bail out irresponsible Greece and other “borrowing” countries! It’s truly a sad day for America!

Posted by tularockstar | Report as abusive

I don’t understand the apprehensions about the economic rise of China. China has never invaded any country in the last two thousand years with the exception of Vietnam (there was almost immediate withdrawal). The living standards of Chinese in mainland China are far below people in US and Europe. China cannot afford to go to war and jeopardise its development.

Posted by PenRumi | Report as abusive

Foreign adventures can distract the country from more than just domestic ails. They can distract the country from other foreign adventures as well.

On the international stage this is pure opportunism – taking advantage of Asian agitation over a rising China – as well as reasserting American hegemony in the Far East in what looks like on the cheap. On the domestic stage it’s an effort to distract the public from our expanding wars in the Middle East. Its efficacy internationally is yet to be seen but, given the caliber of the American public, it will almost certainly work domestically.

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive