19 March 2012
February 2012 marked the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China. In hindsight, Nixon’s decision to open relations with China is seen as one of the major diplomatic achievements of the latter half of the 20th century. Forty years later, a generation of Millennials is learning Mandarin, working and studying in China, and thinking deeply about the prospect of American decline in an Asian century. To mark this milestone, members of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP), each with unique perspectives on China and East Asian affairs, gave their views on China's role in today's world. This is the second in a four-part series.
Forty years ago, U.S. President Richard Nixon made history when he touched down in Beijing to meet Mao Zedong, becoming the first U.S. Government official to recognize the People’s Republic of China in its 23-year history. Not without controversy at the time, his groundbreaking trip is now widely viewed as a master stroke of statesmanship that allowed the U.S. to maximize its influence in Asia as it continued to confront the Soviet Union around the globe. Today, as the Obama administration undertakes a “Pacific pivot” to maintain American influence concurrent with China’s rise, its relations with a different country once again demand bold diplomacy from Washington.
As it did with communist China until 1972, the United States previously sought to isolate the government in Burma, which has been criticized in the past as an authoritarian regime that has stifled democracy, marginalized ethnic minorities, censored and imprisoned dissidents, and drastically weakened civil society. But Burma also holds great geostrategic significance. Wedged between rising powers China and India, it has plentiful natural resources, provides China’s nearest access to the Indian Ocean, and is a potential passageway for trade between India, Japan, and Southeast Asia.
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.