How China Views Obama's Trip to Myanmar

By Ford, Peter | The Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

How China Views Obama's Trip to Myanmar


Ford, Peter, The Christian Science Monitor


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.

Beijing is nervous that Mr. Obamas pivot to Asia, a drive to strengthen old US friendships and forge new ones, is a strategy designed to hem China in.

Myanmar (also called Burma) is Exhibit No. 1 in the case for such fears. A nascent civilian government has recently stepped out of neighboring Chinas 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).

The US is trying to compete with China to make friends with Asian countries, but this does not have to be a zero-sum game, 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.

Burma could be one area where we can get beyond the idea of strategic competition, agrees Michael Green, head of the Asia desk at the National Security Council during the Bush administration. US- China relations with third countries could be healthy.

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.

They tell us that rebalancing is not aimed at containing or encircling China and we would like to believe it, says Dr. Liu.

But officials have expressed serious reservations. The United States must convince China that there is no gap between its policy statements on China and its true intentions, 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)

US influence in the region is rising, while Chinas is decreasing, says Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run think tank. We should not further stimulate conflicts with our neighbors.

Wedge issue?

There is tremendous demand and expectation of US leadership in the region, US National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said in a speech in Washington on Thursday. The demand signals, I think, at this point today, are unprecedented.

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 Clintons remark in Cambodia two years ago, when she said: You dont want to get too dependent on one country, responding to a question about Phnom Penhs 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 air-sea battle concept clearly designed to counter growing Chinese naval power; the Pentagons 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. …

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