What China sees in Clinton's visit to Burma (Myanmar)

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says her visit to Burma (Myanmar) Wednesday is to gauge political reforms there. But China is concerned it could be part of a strategic plan to fence in Beijing.

Saul Loeb/Reuters
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks from her airplane upon her arrival in Naypyidaw, Burma (Myanmar).

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Burma (Myanmar) on Wednesday after President Obama said he saw “flickers of progress” toward democracy in the isolated and impoverished nation.

Many Chinese observers, however, see something else in the visit: another step in a strategic plan by Washington to fence Beijing in, as the United States increasingly turns its diplomatic attention to Asia.

US officials insist Ms. Clinton is in Burma to further political reforms by the new nominally civilian government. “It’s about … trying to seize an opportunity,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner earlier this week. “This visit to Burma is not about our relationship with China.”

The Chinese government says it welcomes this approach. “We believe that Myanmar and relevant Western countries should enhance contacts … on the basis of mutual respect,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Wednesday. “We hope these actions will be conducive to the stability and development of Myanmar.”

Masked concerns

Such statements, however, mask undoubted concerns. “As Washington shifts its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region, there is more than meets the eye to Clinton’s visit to Burma,” argued an article in Wednesday’s “Liberation Daily,” a paper published by the Chinese military that was circulated by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Clinton’s visit, the first to Burma by a US secretary of State since John Foster Dulles went to Rangoon in 1955, comes on the heels of Mr. Obama’s nine-day swing through the Asia-Pacific region. He used that journey to announce a US “pivot” away from winding-down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and toward east Asia.

“The US is here to stay,” he said bluntly.

That tour, and Obama’s announcement that US Marines will be based in northern Australia, were seen around Asia, and in Beijing, as aimed at countering China’s growing regional ambitions.

Those ambitions have worried some southeast Asian nations, especially those that have territorial disputes with China over islands and waters in the South China Sea thought to be rich in oil and gas. They have welcomed renewed US involvement, and Washington’s insistence that it has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation in waters that China claims.

Burma has no such dispute with Beijing, but its new rulers appear to be tiring of Beijing’s warm embrace and seeking to reduce the country’s economic and political dependence on its huge northern neighbor by cultivating ties with Washington.

Washington’s response to those overtures makes it “seem like the US is undermining China’s foundations in Asia one by one,” warned an editorial in Wednesday’s Chinese-language edition of the Global Times, an official paper that often voices opinions on the nationalist end of the permitted spectrum of public debate in China.

The paper’s English-language edition suggested in another editorial that “China has no resistance toward Myanmar seeking improved relationship with the West, but it will not accept this while seeing its interests stamped on.”

'To contain China?'

Meanwhile, the ruling Communist party’s official organ, the People’s Daily, published a strongly worded article on its website Tuesday by a prominent military commentator accusing the US of “positioning pieces and forces on China’s periphery, and the intent is very clear – this is aimed at China, to contain China.”

“China has not provoked US interests, so what are you doing running to Asia to encircle China?” asked Maj. Gen. Luo Yuan rhetorically in the article.

Such concerns are likely to be deepened by recent signs that the US, Australia, and India may be renewing efforts to create a security pact. Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd told the Australian Financial Review on Wednesday that he backed the idea, and that “the response from the Indian government has really been quite positive.”

China’s response to the suggestion was muted. “We hope that countries in the region will do more to promote regional peace and development,” was all that spokesman Mr. Hong would say on Wednesday. 

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