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U.S. POLICY ON BURMA, THE WEAK LINK IN CHINA'S REGIONAL HEGEMONY
February 22, 2017
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United States objectives for China are twofold. The first is economic - to bring manufacturing jobs home and otherwise to reduce its economic clout. The second is political. China has cultivated a number of different authoritarian neighbors, to bolster its own autocratic rule and to create what is effectively a dictatorship cocoon. Here, America's goal is to reduce Beijing's regional influence, and through this its ability to engage in territorial aggression.
Burma, to China's southwest, is one of its clients. Interestingly, the U.S. backed the country's first dictator, Ne Win, who seized power in 1962, to counter Chinese expansionism. It only reversed this support following a 1988 regime-perpetrated atrocity against popular protests. The U.S. then shifted its backing to the pro-democracy movement, including with sanctions, diplomatic encouragement for leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and a small amount of covert assistance for the country's ethnic resistance. (The last also suited neighbor Thailand's "buffer strategy.")
While it is true that China was able to exploit this shift, by building a strong relationship with Ne Win's successors, if America was going to stand for freedom and democracy it had no alternative but to change policy. Indeed, one can argue that the change never went far enough. Had the U.S. backed the people of Burma with sufficient vigor, it would now be free.
Most significantly for American security interests, starting in the mid-2000s Burma began a clandestine nuclear and ballistic missile program, with the direct assistance of North Korea and additional material assistance from China and Russia. (Dictator Watch broke the story in November 2006.) Washington subsequently acknowledged the program publicly, and in 2008 implemented sanctions against it.
The U.S. held its policy until September 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that it would be changed, meaning that the dictatorship would no longer be viewed so harshly (no matter its countless crimes against humanity). It is this writer's belief that the change was in fact motivated by the nuclear program, and that President Obama yielded to nuclear blackmail.
The first step in the policy change was actually a visit to the country the prior month by Senator Jim Webb, during which some sort of rough deal undoubtedly was struck. Then, in 2011, Suu Kyi ended her boycott of Burma's elections, following which Obama normalized relations with the regime and began to terminate the sanctions. Suu Kyi's American best friend, Secretary Clinton, visited later in 2011, and Obama himself followed in 2012. (The most significant sanctions which remain are the provisions concerning North Korea, and narcotics trafficking.)
The U.S. change of heart, a product of Obama's foreign policy inexperience, was - to put it politely - naive (as was Suu Kyi's own reversal, and which Washington certainly helped motivate). The Burma dictatorship, with its new international legitimacy, seized the opportunity and escalated its internal aggression, launching a major war against the ethnic resistance in the north, including with air attacks in recent months, and a genocide against a small, vulnerable group in the west. The current status of the nuclear program is unknown. The generals have also refused to yield any real power. All of this in turn has perfectly suited China.
The United States should end its reflexive support for Suu Kyi and her fake democratic transition, and instead take concrete steps to encourage the people to try to win their freedom. At present, America's only real ally in the region is Thailand. A truly democratic Burma would be a substantial addition, creating a two-country block at the crossroads of Asia's great powers, India and China. The U.S. could further cultivate relations with Bangladesh, which would be happy to see the end of its refugee problem from Burma. And the U.S. could improve its position with India as well, by backing its territorial claims relative to China. Finally, with allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia, the U.S. could engineer a new geopolitical situation such that China was no longer protected in a cocoon; rather, that it was encircled by democratic states. This structure, combined with efforts to promote the aspirations of the Chinese people for human rights and democracy (dormant since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, but never extinguished), would also put the Beijing dictatorship under threat internally. Indeed, the most straight-forward solution to one of the United States' most pressing security concerns would be to influence events in China such that it too became democratic, at which point what is probably the world's greatest and most unpredictable threat, North Korea, would be completely isolated and could be sued for peace.
It is a large and complex web, but the entry point to positive regional change lies with Burma, where with intelligent action real democracy will be most easily achieved. Ending the Obama policy's marriage to Suu Kyi is the appropriate place to begin, after which there are many different steps that can be taken to assist the people of the country, and at minimal cost.