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How China views Obama's trip to Myanmar

China is watching Obama's trip to neighboring Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia this weekend with a wary eye. But Myanmar could offer an opportunity for China and the US to work together, say analysts. 

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Obama’s trip – his first venture overseas since his reelection – comes as China appears ready “to push the reset button with Southeast Asia and to come in discussing trade and growth … but also bringing their checkbook along with them,” in the words of Chris Johnson, until recently the CIA’s top China analyst, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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After a series of assertive moves in recent territorial disputes in the South China Sea, “I think China will try to tone down its territorial disputes with neighbors which might give the US more opportunities to get involved in Asian affairs,” predicts Mr. Du.

Myanmar as testing ground

Against this backdrop, Myanmar may prove to be a testing ground for the cooperation that both Beijing and Washington say they want in the Asia-Pacific region, offering a chance for both powers to help develop the country.

Myanmar first signaled its move away from China with a symbolic decision last year to put the Myitsone Dam project, a giant Chinese hydroelectric project on the Irawaddy River, on hold.

At an ideological level, “each time that an authoritarian country democratizes, that is a loss for China and a gain for the United States,” argues Scott Harold, a China analyst with the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit think tank in Washington.

But economic and political realities mean that “a lot will stay the same” in Myanmar’s relations with its giant neighbor to the north, however much the government improves its ties with the US, Dr. Harold adds.

“Its oil and gas will, by and large, go to China. And China’s role in building ports, roads, and pipelines will not change,” he argues. “For better or for worse, Myanmar will always be right next to a big, big market and a country that has substantial military and economic interests that any Myanmar leader will have to take seriously.”

‘Like all Asian countries, it just wants a balance’

Myanmar “had to open up to the US in order to be accepted by the international community,” points out Liu. “But I don’t think it will build up its relations with Washington at China’s expense. Like all Asian countries, it just wants a balance.”

Mr. Green, the former National Security Council analyst, who visited Myanmar earlier this year, says he does not expect the country “to align with the US to contain or limit Chinese power.”

Instead, he predicts, “they will use us to strengthen and balance their economic development,” putting American investment to work alongside investment from countries such as Japan, South Korea, and India, whose companies are already competing with Chinese firms for contracts.

That sort of competition could unfold within the “productive and constructive relationship with China” that “our friends and partners in the region expect us to maintain,” as Donilon put it.

“The US and China are competing now for influence,” adds Green. “But none of the regional powers want to get pulled into a US-Sino confrontation and be forced to choose sides. I think they will make it very clear when one side or the other goes too far.”

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