Obama’s visit to Myanmar an exercise in ‘soft power’


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.

“And we’re not yet prepared to trust them,” he said, referring to the leaders at the top in Burma and China and throughout the region who too often shape the future for the people live and work there with an indifference to how government policy can directly affect their lives.

Another prominent businessman in Mandalay seems encouraged by the pace of reforms, but is waiting to invest in any business that caters to foreigners and tourism until he is sure that the reforms are irreversible. And he says he is keeping his American green card in case he needs to bolt.

Despite some wariness about what all this means by the Burmese, the American president can’t really lose on this trip. Not in Myanmar anyway. President Obama is likely to spend his short visit lauding the accomplishments of President Thein Sein, who didn’t get the same love Aung San Suu Kyi did when she visited Washington in October.

Ensuring that the reforms initiated by Thein Sein continue is goal number one, as National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon suggested last week at a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“In becoming the first US president to visit Burma, the president is endorsing and supporting the reforms under way giving momentum to reformers and promoting continued progress. The president’s meetings, as well as his speech to the people of Burma will also be an opportunity to reaffirm the progress that still must be made,” Donilon added.

Progress, Donilon continued, that must also include the unconditional release of remaining political prisoners, an end to ethnic conflict and the use of child soldiers, and steps to establish the rule of law. It’s a tall order, especially given the continuing ethnic violence in Myanmar’s Northern Rakhine State that still has the potential to spread to Myanmar’s heartland. Yangon, Mandalay and other areas in between.

Democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on the issue suggests — at least to some rather cynical observers — that she has come into her own as a politician. Unwilling to alienate a potential Burman voting block in the 2015 elections by defending the rights of minorities many ethnic Burmans consider second class citizens, at best. If the government doesn’t get a handle on the escalating violence soon, Myanmar risks scaring off foreign governments and investors before the party even gets started.

President Obama is also making a courtesy visit to longtime ally Thailand, but the most substantive — and potentially combative — part of his trip will be the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh. There, the contentious issue of the South China Sea will almost certainly dominate proceedings.

In July, an acrimonious ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting concluded without agreement on the issue. China considers most of the South China Sea as its own. Its neighbors —particularly Vietnam and the Philippines — disagree. And numerous low level confrontations in the past several months have left many analysts skittish — and wondering whether it will become the region’s next flashpoint. Donilon addressed the issue last week.

“Our renewed commitment to Asia — and this is an important point — also flows from the demand for US leadership from nations across the region. The fact is today there is a tremendous demand and expectation of US leadership in the region. Indeed, the signals, I think, at this point today are unprecedented,” Donilon said.

Or, to put it another way, the little fish countries in the South China Sea are afraid the big fish of China will swallow them up unless they get some political cover. That could come in the form of either a binding joint communique from the East Asia Summit or the establishment of a strong US naval presence in the region, something the US has already hinted at. In other words, a form of US ‘hard power’ to complement the economic efforts at ‘soft power.’

Georgetown’s David Steinberg, however, urges the ‘soft power’ approach in dealing with China on this sensitive issue.

That, he explains, is “because the Chinese regard all our views and actions in the region as a second containment policy.”

“The first containment policy was the Cold War, which was certainly true. And the second is these alliances. The South China Sea. The Marines in Darwin (Australia). The pivot toward Asia. The Chinese view is that all of this is to control or contain China in Asia,” he added.

What neither side realizes, Steinberg said, is that the competition in the region need not be a zero sum game. He says there’s plenty of economic potential and geopolitical positioning to go around for everyone, as long as the South China Sea issue gets settled amicably.

Steinberg explained, “This is a region of Chinese soft power historically and that’s not going to change. The Chinese minorities in the whole of Southeast Asia control the economies of all those countries essentially, and that’s not going to change either. So the idea that you would try to change these people into an American orbit is a mistake. But you have to reassure the Chinese, who are paranoid about this. I’ve talked to Chinese who’ve said the US is interested in preventing China from controlling the South China Sea because they (the US) want to control it. And I’ve told them, the US wants no one to control it. That’s been our position historically.”

But it’s a tough sell. And the Chinese are none too happy about the Obama visit to Myanmar, either. His time there will be brief — but the symbolism is unmistakable. As part of the administration’s pivot toward Asia, Myanmar looms large sitting as it does at the crossroads between China and India.

The Chinese can’t help but view this trip with suspicion. Which is why Professor Steinberg is urging President Obama to tell China both publicly and privately that the US pivot is not aimed at China, that this is not a ‘zero sum game.’ Hopefully the two sides can find some common ground. The first test may come at the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh.