Monday, September 7, 2009

Inevitable US policy shift on Burma: why and how

by Min Zaw Oo

Mizzima News - The recent visit of US Senator Jim Webb has stirred up speculation and criticism of what the visit could mean for Washington’s Burma policy, especially from traditional supporters of the opposition movement residing in the West. A common, critical sound bite belittles Webb’s visit as a personal trip. But all detractors and critics largely ignore the fundamental facts related to the visit and the inevitability of a US policy shift on Burma.

There are three major underlying reasons encompassing the US’s new policy towards Burma.

Strategic Paradigm Shift

Under President Obama the most fundamental deviation from the Bush administration’s foreign policy is the recognition of the limit of US power in the world. The Bush administration’s neo-conservative worldview called for the use of US power to bring about freedom and democracy. In contrast, Obama and his strategic advisors acknowledge that the extension of US power has reached a critical threshold.

The US has become a declining power in the face of a rising China, Russia and India. Although the US is still the most powerful nation militarily, the US economy is largely interdependent with the Asian economy. China holds the largest percentage of US debt. The combination of Japanese and Chinese ownership of US debt has reached 45 percent of US Treasury securities.

In addition, the military gap is narrowing. A recent study conducted by the RAND Corporation, an influential US think-tank, concludes the Chinese military could defeat US forces in the Taiwan Strait if the US attempted to deter a Chinese offensive to reclaim Taiwan. Meanwhile, Russia has fielded its latest S-400 air-defense system which it claims to be superior to the US’s second-generation Patriot missile system.

During this onset of US power decline the strategic goal of the Obama administration has become the restoration of US dominance in the world. But Obama realizes that the most effective approach to this end will be the utilization of ‘soft power,’ which calls for friendliness rather than coercion.

Under a new strategic paradigm, Obama will deliberately drop democracy promotion from the US’s major foreign policy agenda. He carefully avoided the word ‘democracy’ in his inaugural speech. In contrast, he explicitly proclaimed the US will reach out to non-democracies rather than preaching to them the merits of political transformation in the interests of the US.

This new strategic perspective will shape the US’s policy shift on Burma as well.

The Role of ASEAN

Another strategy shift from the Bush administration has been the US’s perspective on ASEAN. The former administration considered it a non-priority strategic region except in the case of the War on Terror.

The Bush administration refused to ratify the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC), requiring all signatories to refrain from using military force against other member states. Additionally, the issue of Burma used to be an obstacle between the US and ASEAN. The Bush administration promoted more bilateral relations with non-NATO allies such as Thailand and the Philippines, rather than multilateral cooperation with the region as a whole.

While the US kept its distance from ASEAN, China launched an efficacious charm offensive in the region. After ASEAN was hit by the financial crisis in 1997, Chinese economic assistance to countries in the region surpassed US aid, even to traditional US allies Thailand and the Philippines.

China’s ratification of the TAC pacified the fear of ASEAN countries concerning the rise of the dragon. ASEAN, as a consequence, has grown increasingly comfortable with China over the last ten years. China’s total trade with ASEAN has grown by 1,034 percent since 1995, whereas the same figure for the US stands at a mere 75 percent.

The new administration in Washington feels China’s heat in the region. Bilateral relations cannot simply preserve waning US influence in Southeast Asia, in the view of the new administration, with non-NATO allies; the US has to embrace ASEAN as a whole. As a result, Washington acceded to the TAC on July 22nd, 2009.

If the US aims to move closer to ASEAN, Burma cannot be allowed to be a stumbling block between Washington and rising Asian power blocs.

China Factor

The third reason is the strategic role of China in the region. The Burma-China relationship will enter a new chapter after China completes an oil pipeline connecting the Andaman Sea with China’s Yunnan province. The move is alarmingly strategic.

Past Chinese interest in Burma was less critical than many observers have speculated, with trade accounting for a fraction of one percent of overall Chinese exports, while China has failed to transfer any strategic weaponry to Naypyitaw.

However, the 2.9-billion dollar Chinese oil pipeline will drastically transform the role of Burma in China’s strategic calculus. China has been geographically vulnerable to a naval blockade, being confined by Japan to the east, Taiwan to the south and South Korea to the north of China – all US allies. In addition, China lacks a naval force capable of protecting its sea lines.

Chinese security analysts from the Energy Research Institute (ERI) and China Institute of International Studies (CIIS) have long been advocating the construction of overland transnational oil pipelines to China to overcome its energy insecurity in the face of a possible military confrontation with the US.

The projected oil pipeline from Burma will reinforce China’s long-term strategic energy initiative. The pipeline will be much more significant than any existing China-Burma engagements. China may even consider protecting its interest in Burma under a nuclear umbrella.

The pipeline in Burma will be a plausible reason for China to send its advanced submarines, China’s major naval assets, to the Andaman Sea to protect its strategic interest, simultaneously restricting the regional power projection of the US Navy’s 7th fleet.

Although the US is militarily capable of attacking China’s land-based pipelines and pumping stations in Burma, any military action involving a third-country in an event of direct confrontation between the US and China will be politically complicated – especially since the US’s recent accession to the TAC effectively limits Washington’s potential counter measures.

Burma used to be a moral issue for the United States. At this time, however, Washington’s renewed interest in Burma is derived from US security and national interests.

United States’ Policy Review on Burma

In recent weeks the CIA, Pentagon and Department of Energy have been ordered to intensify research on Burma with an aim of compiling a comprehensive report for policy review.

To this extent, Jim Webb is not a lone wolf. Senior senators such as John Kerry and Richard Lugar, a key figure in the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, acknowledge the shortcomings of the current US policy on Burma. Lugar previously broke ranks with his Republican Party on Cuba, calling for normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

As the moral dimension of the Burma policy still looms large in Washington, advocates of new initiatives prefer behind-the-scenes approaches. Although the official position of the State Department is still intact, analysts within the policy circle are busy calculating the pros and cons of the US’s policy on Burma.

The moral dimension of the current policy is set to fade, albeit not entirely dissipated. If US national interest becomes the backbone of its new policy on Burma, Washington’s policy shift concerning Naypyitaw will be unstoppable.

How will the US engage Burma?

Regardless of policy perspectives, the US’s engagement with Burma’s military government will be quite different from the way ASEAN does business.

Democratization and human rights will still be a part of US policy goals in Burma. But the US will drop some major preconditions for engagement, such as the release of Aung Sun Suu Kyi and all political prisoners.

In the near future the two countries will likely experience quid pro quo engagement, ranging from counter-narcotics to political prisoners. Among all initiatives, however, the focus of US policy will be on the 2010 elections.

This is a major shift from the Bush administration, which adamantly demanded that transition in Burma must come through a negotiated settlement between the government and the NLD. While the US’s new policy will hail any conciliatory settlement between the opposition and the government, Washington will no longer hold its breath on a dialogue-driven transition in Burma. The US, in the wake of successful elections, will very likely embrace a military-led transition in the country if the new government manages to free Aung San Suu Kyi and remaining political prisoners after 2010.

The most crucial aspect of the US’s policy on Burma will probably be the legitimacy of the 2010 election. Washington does not want to altogether abandon its moral code, and thus will need a plausible reason to facilitate its policy shift on Burma. The legitimacy of the 2010 election will be the best ticket for the US to move closer to Burma in the near future.

The international community, including the US, has asked the Tatmadaw government to hold an inclusive election. Inclusiveness calls for the political participation of opposition parties, especially the NLD. To legitimize the election the Tatmadaw government has to allow the NLD and other opposition parties to contest. On the other hand, the NLD’s voluntary boycott, per se, will not de-legitimize the election as long as the government formally allows it to participate. Historically, opposition boycotts to elections sponsored by ruling regimes, such as in Bangladesh in 1991 and in Ethiopia in 1995, have proved fruitless.

As long as the elected representatives reflect the actual vote, the 2010 election will be internationally perceived as legitimate.

The election will strategically alter Burma’s political landscape for decades to come. Concurrently, Burma’s relationship with the US will depend on the legitimacy of the election and civilian representation in the post-2010 government reflective of electoral results. If, then, the new government is capable of addressing international concerns on human rights issues, Burma’s relationship with the West will gradually strengthen.

(Min Zaw Oo is a PhD candidate writing a dissertation on the study of 115 transitions to democracy at George Mason University. He holds a MA in security studies from Georgetown University and MS in conflict analysis and resolution from George Mason University.)

Burma Newscasts - Inevitable US policy shift on Burma: why and how
7 September 2009

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