In contemporary international relations, the first official visit of a country's newly elected president or prime minister is an indicator of its foreign policy direction. When the visit is by the president of the world's only superpower, then obviously it is even more significant.
After his reelection, Barack Obama is going to visit Myanmar on November 19 during his four-day tour of Southeast Asia. It clearly demonstrates that the Obama administration has a special foreign policy goal in relation to Myanmar. There are a number of reasons why the Obama administration has focused on Myanmar in recent times.
First, the Obama administration realises the geopolitical and strategic significance of Myanmar, especially in the current dynamics of international politics. Geopolitically, Myanmar is of strategic importance in at least four ways: i) land border with India, often termed as the regional hegemon of South Asia; ii) land border and stable relationship with China, often called an upcoming superpower; iii) direct access to the Indian Ocean, frequently identified as one of the centres of future world politics; iv) land and maritime borders with other Southeast Asian countries, which have some of the world's most important Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs). The Obama administration could not, therefore, overlook the importance of maintaining a sound relationship with Myanmar.
Since 2008, the US and its allies in Europe have made a number of withdrawals of economic sanctions from Myanmar and inspired the country to open its doors for democracy. Given the historical antagonism, Myanmar also responded to the Western initiatives through freeing Aung San Suu Kyi and holding national election in April, 2012. Tatmadaw (Myanmar's army) has perhaps realised that the perpetuation of peace and stable relationship with the outer world could no longer be maintained by keeping itself isolated, or even depending on a single power, China. The November 2011 visit of US Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton to Myanmar, therefore, proved fruitful to the development of bilateral relationship between the two countries.
Second, geographically as well as historically, Myanmar has a sound relationship with China, which is perhaps the strongest economic and military contender of the US in world politics. China is now the third-largest trading partner of Myanmar with wide-ranging military and aid support. In 2007, for instance, bilateral trade between the two countries crossed $1.4 billion. For decades, Beijing has been giving strong diplomatic support to Nypidow when the international community abandoned Myanmar after the advent of autocracy in the country. China has given strong military and strategic support to Myanmar.
Through this relationship China has also gained a lot. For instance, through Myanmar, China has got an important strategic access to the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. China has been able to reduce its import costs by using the road link from Myanmar sea ports to Chinese territory. A close monitoring of SLOCs in Southeast Asia has also become easier for China through Myanmar. In addition, Myanmar serves as a regular market for Chinese products for long. Realising the geo-strategic importance of Myanmar as well as its relationship with China, the US moved towards developing bilateral relationship with Myanmar through some ice-breaking initiatives, like removing sanctions and initiating top-level visits.
Third, though the process of improving bilateral relationship started long ago, I would say, Arab Spring contributed greatly to speeding it up. Arab Spring and its aftermath have caused a great shift in American foreign policy towards the Middle East region. Along with the US, China and Russia are now projecting equal or even more influence over the Middle East. Monopoly of US foreign policy visions and power projection in the region has already been reduced dramatically. The US has most likely realised the possibility of a future multi-polar world order. Therefore, Obama has put great emphasis on the Asia Pacific region, so that the US does not lose its influence over the region as did in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. The recent Chinese initiatives and power projection regarding the proclamation of South China Sea has also been considered seriously by the US.
In response, the US has also taken a number of counterbalancing initiatives, such as the planned deployment of at least 60% of its naval strength in the Asia Pacific by 2020 and deployment of US Marines in Australia. The clear linkage between the Arab Spring experience and the contemporary US initiatives towards the Asia Pacific is, thus, likely to prevent China from being more influential in international politics. The gradual improvement of bilateral relationship of the US with one of China's closest allies, Myanmar, may, therefore, be considered as master strategy by the US.
The reelection of Barack Obama has demonstrated the support of the American people for the Obama administration's pragmatic foreign policy. In the line with containing the growing Chinese influence over the world, the improvement of bilateral relations between the US and Myanmar is considered as one of the biggest foreign policy achievements for Obama. The forthcoming visit of the US president to Myanmar, therefore, is of importance to future world politics. The future will show whether China or the US will be the powerhouse of the Asia Pacific region.
The writer is Research Assistant for International Affairs, Bangladesh Institute of Law & International Affairs (BILIA). E-mail: [email protected]