Why is Hillary Clinton in Myanmar?
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