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The Burma Road serves as the gateway between Myanmar and the rising empire on its border. It is the central trade route feeding China’s voracious appetite for the resources — including energy, natural resources and food — it desperately needs to sustain its population of 1 billion people. Here China’s pervasive presence, its sophisticated exertion of soft power, is evident at every turn.
The first visit to Burma by a sitting US president is laden with political and economic implications, and China is watching very closely.
BANGKOK — For decades now, the Chinese have had carte blanche in Myanmar, cutting sweetheart deals with that country’s brutal and corrupt military leadership.
Those deals allowed China to strip the country of natural resources, power and just about everything else at bargain basement prices. But in the aftermath of democratic elections in Burma earlier this year and a new opening to the West, it appears Myanmar’s leaders — including President Thein Sein — have grown tired of an arrangement that favors only the Chinese. And President Obama’s visit to the region sharply underscores that point. Not that China is too happy about it.
Obama’s historic trip began Saturday when he boarded Air Force One, stopping here in Thailand and arriving in Myanmar on Monday. His purpose may be weightier issues of ‘hard power,’ such as the potential flashpoint of the South China Sea. But the symbolism of his trip to Myanmar, the first in history for a sitting American president, is unmistakably focused on ‘soft power.’
His brief stop in Thailand is more an acknowledgement of the staunch ally Thailand has been over the years. In Cambodia, he will be attending his second East Asia Summit where the focus will be on the ‘hard power’ issue of China’s dominance of the South China Sea.
David Steinberg, Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University and a frequent visitor to Myanmar, said that China’s influence in the country also known as Burma has historically been all about ‘soft’ power,’ to borrow the phrase coined by retired Navy Admiral and current Harvard University Professor Joseph Nye, which refers to a nation’s use of economic cooperation to achieve its geopolitical goals rather than the ‘hard power’ of military might.
Steinberg said Obama’s visit offered a great deal of diplomatic opportunity in the area of ‘soft power.’
“It’s an opportunity for Thein Sein, it’s an opportunity for us, I think it’s a good thing that will benefit us and I don’t think Obama is taking a chance. I think his Burma policy is the most, the only successful foreign policy of Obama’s administration in East Asia in his first term,” Steinberg said.
Obama’s first foreign trip since winning re-election will also be a powerfully symbolic moment for Myanmar, whose leaders have suddenly — and enthusiastically — embraced political and economic reform unthinkable just a few years ago. The decision to suspend a major dam on the iconic Irrawaddy River was the Burmese regime’s shot across the Chinese bow in the continuing struggle for ‘soft power.”
Analysts believe the suspension of the dam project offers evidence the Burmese were trying to lessen their dependence on their powerful neighbor to the north, whom they have historically treated both with suspicion and resentment.
Enter the US, first with Secretary of State Clinton’s trip earlier this year, and now President Obama’s. The active American diplomacy is evidence of the administration’s self-professed ‘pivot’ toward Asia in diplomacy.
And while the US may be coming to the party late, at least in Chinese terms, it’s not likely to leave empty handed. And neither are other players in the region. Japan, for instance, scored a major coup a little over a month ago with a massive and deftly organized package of economic aid and other reforms that caught almost everyone by surprise.
To regional observers, it serves as a reminder the Japanese have been playing the game of ‘soft power’ in Southeast Asia almost as long as the Chinese.
Sources in Myanmar developed through years of reporting there say they view all of this jockeying for position among powerful nations of the East and West with a great deal of amusement, and a healthy dose of skepticism.
They want to believe the changes, particularly the democratic reform and the investment dollars it may bring, is all real. But they’ve also been burned too many times. A businessman I've know for nearly a decade says he’s still ’50-50’ on whether this all is real and will work.
"We know how these people work,” says this businessman, who like many Burmese is still too suspicious and perhaps fearful of the government to allow his name to be used.