As President Obama heads to Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand on Saturday, China is keeping a wary eye on the latest US move in the sometimes bruising tussle between the two giants for influence in the region.
Myanmar (also called Burma) is Exhibit No. 1 in the case for such fears. A nascent civilian government has recently stepped out of neighboring China’s orbit and leaned toward the West with liberal political and economic reforms there.
But Myanmar, an impoverished and ramshackle country, despite its wealth of natural resources, could offer an opportunity for China and the US to work together, suggest analysts in both countries. (see map here).
“The US is trying to compete with China to make friends with Asian countries, but this does not have to be a zero-sum game,” argues Liu Feitao, an expert on US policy in Asia at the Chinese Institute for International Studies, a think tank linked to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing.
“Burma could be one area where we can get beyond the idea of strategic competition,” agrees Michael Green, head of the Asia desk at the National Security Council during the Bush administration. “US-China relations with third countries could be healthy.”
The Chinese government has not yet reached a final judgment on the US policy of rebalancing its security emphasis toward the Asia-Pacific region, Chinese scholars say, nor has it developed a strategy to deal with it.
“They tell us that rebalancing is not aimed at containing or encircling China and we would like to believe it,” says Dr. Liu.
But officials have expressed serious reservations. “The United States must … convince China … that there is no gap between its policy statements on China and its true intentions,” Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai wrote in an article earlier this year.
Beijing is especially worried by the way in which neighboring countries involved in maritime territorial disputes with their giant neighbor, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, have turned to Washington for support as China has turned up the heat on them. (Read more about the complex web of interests involved in the territorial disputes here)
“US influence in the region is rising, while China’s is decreasing,” says Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-run think tank. “We should not further stimulate conflicts with our neighbors.”
“There is tremendous demand and expectation of US leadership in the region,” US National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon said in a speech in Washington on Thursday. “The demand signals, I think, at this point today, are unprecedented.”
From Beijing, such comments sound as if Washington is seeking to drive a wedge between China and its neighbors. Policymakers here have not forgotten Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s remark in Cambodia two years ago, when she said: “You don’t want to get too dependent on one country,” responding to a question about Phnom Penh’s relations with China.
Strategists here say they are also concerned with the prominent military aspects of the pivot: Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced earlier this year that 60 percent of US naval vessels are to be deployed in the Pacific by 2020; the US Navy and Air Force recently unveiled a new “air-sea battle” concept clearly designed to counter growing Chinese naval power; the Pentagon’s Strategic Guidance document, issued last January, put China and Iran at the center of US security concerns, and 2,500 Marines are due to be stationed in Australia by 2016.
Obama’s four-day trip to Asia will offer a chance for him to stress new dimensions of his policy. The journey “marks the beginning of the next phase of our rebalancing effort,” Mr. Donilon says.
“Our rebalancing is defined by far more than our defense posture,” he adds. “It will continue to be defined by deeper economic and political engagement.”
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.
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.”