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A new US-China dance over Burma after release of Aung San Suu Kyi

Economic sanctions helped release Aung San Suu Kyi. That suggests the regime is ready for a deal. Does it want to take Burma (Myanmar) out of China's tightening orbit?

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In his tour of Asia last week, President Obama made sure to visit only democratic countries. It was a subtle message to Beijing that the US is building up a regional partnership of freedom-loving nations to counter China’s bully tactics and model of authoritarian rule.

Just as he finished his trip to India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan, Mr. Obama was faced with a fresh opportunity to bring one more nation to the long chain of democracies surrounding China. On Saturday, the military rulers in Burma (Myanmar) released Aung San Suu Kyi after seven years of house arrest.

By setting free the popular daughter of Burma’s founder to once again rally the people, the ruling junta may be sending a signal that it is ready for a new relationship with the United States and the West.

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Specifically, Burma might want to break out of China’s tightening grip – big Chinese investments in Burma’s natural resources, the rising border trade, a critical oil pipeline, and a key naval port. If that’s the case, Obama has difficult choices ahead.

Should he seek to lift Western economic sanctions on Burma? Should he not support a UN investigation of Burmese leaders for crimes against humanity? Will he negotiate directly with Gen. Than Shwe, the regime’s military leader?

Ms. Suu Kyi herself hints at compromising with the regime. She may ask the West to ease or repeal its sanctions. “If the people really want sanctions to be lifted, I will consider this,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner told reporters after her release.

While Obama could easily follow her cue on sanctions, the stakes are higher for the US. Burma, a nation of 53 million people under the boot of the military since 1962, has suddenly become the latest strategic battleground in a contest between the US and China for dominance in Asia.

Burma’s new political dynamic also represents a test for Obama’s willingness to promote democracy around the world – a mission that goes back to Woodrow Wilson but fell out of favor with Democrats when George W. Bush took that American cause to Iraq.

Just last week, after Burma’s regime held rigged elections Nov. 7 to keep the military in control, the US again reiterated that it will maintain sanctions until an estimated 2,100 political prisoners are released. In fact, it’s likely the sanctions forced the regime to release Suu Kyi. If that’s the case, then she and the US have every reason to use the prospect of reduced sanctions as a bargaining chip.

But negotiating with a regime that is so secretive, isolated, and often paranoid is not easy. The military competes with Suu Kyi for popularity and in claiming the mantle of legitimacy from her father, Aung San, a general killed in 1947 while fighting for independence from Britain. In fact, Suu Kyi said she wants to probe the widespread allegations of fraud in the recent elections.

Obama may be ready to deal with Burma more forthrightly.

He briefly met its prime minister last year at a regional summit. And he chastised India during his visit there for not being more outspoken on abuses in Burma – abuses that include the killing of protesting Buddhist monks and serious government neglect of victims of cyclone Nargis in 2008. Up to now India has competed with China for influence in Burma, but hasn’t been much of a champion for democracy or supporter of the sanctions.

Enlisting Asia’s democracies to come up with a new offer to Burma’s dictators would be Obama’s best response to the release of Suu Kyi. If the regime really wants to stay out of China’s tightening orbit, it may be open to a no-sanctions-for-democracy deal.

Better to join the club of Asian democracies than be stuck in China’s grip.

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