For these reasons, China long ago adopted a strategy of cozying up to and co-opting the internationally-isolated government in Napiydaw. As in many cases throughout the developing world, a close, resource-based relationship with China is not without complications, and the Burmese government has sought to avoid becoming a client state by seeking Western and, in particular, American involvement in its economy.
Western nations expected little change when a nominally civilian government replaced Burma’s military junta after elections in 2010, but President Thein Sein—a former general—has embarked on an ambitious reform agenda. Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, beloved in the West, has been released from house arrest, allowed to participate in politics, and met in August with President Sein; laws have been amended to allow her opposition party, the National League for Democracy, to participate in coming by-elections. Hundreds of other political prisoners have been released, censorship and media restrictions have been loosened, labor laws passed, a human rights commission established, and peace talks with ethnic minorities are underway to resolve decades-long conflicts.
Burma’s progress and geostrategic value are not lost on Washington, which has responded, albeit incrementally. The Obama administration has installed a special envoy, dispatched Secretary Clinton to meet President Sein (the first such visit in 54 years), announced its intention to normalize diplomatic relations, and eased restrictions on IMF and World Bank aid. Even Senators McConnell and McCain—ardent critics of the military regime—have lauded Burma’s progress during recent visits. But what the Burmese government really covets is U.S. investment.
For its own strategic interest, the United States should capitalize on this opportunity to counterbalance Burma’s relations with China and to cement America’s geostrategic foothold in the region. It can do so by moving swiftly to lift its ban on investment in Burma. As the success of Nixon’s historic trip to China demonstrates, U.S. influence is best achieved through bold engagement.
Jonathan Kurz and Douglas Jackson work at Jefferson Waterman International, a Washington, DC-based international relations consultancy that provides guidance to private sector clients doing business in emerging markets, as well as strategic advice and U.S. Government relations support to foreign companies, governments, and political organizations.