Burma: a small yet increasingly geopolitically important country to the South of China. Little has been made in recent years of this reclusive military junta until it surprised the world with its democratic by-elections this past Sunday. The National League for Democracy (NLD), the pro-democracy party in Burma, won nearly all of the seats it contested in the legislature. Though elated with the results, the Burmese people maintain a modest posture. One citizen said, “we can’t say we are on the democratic path yet… but over the next few years, under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, I think there will be more changes.” Daw leads this incipient Democratic movement, and having won herself a seat in the national elections, takes on huge expectations in a country still dominated by men who served under the autocratic regime.
In response to these elections, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced the Obama administration would ease sanctions against Burma, however; this move falls short of what the Burmese government expected. The harshest sanctions against Burma are targeted at the military and current government. They forbid international banks from conducting transactions with the country, rendering Burma unable to use credit, and, to make matters worse, they may only be repealed with Congressional approval. The administration plans to bypass Congress on national security grounds to repeal some of the lesser sanctions. Additionally, the U.S. plans to name an ambassador to Burma, establish a USAID mission and United Nations development program, allow non-profits to start initiatives focused on democratic movements, health, and education, and begin issuing visas to select government officials.
On its face, this sounds like a genuine response to humanitarian progress in Southeast Asia. Surely, this is all a consequence of Obama’s much touted approach to engage with authoritarian regimes and “meet action with action.” Not so fast, says George Friedman, geopolitical analyst and owner of the private intelligence analysis agency Startfor. Other, grander motives are at play here. Many, including Friedman, believe this is a smaller move in the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to Asia.
The Chinese have courted not only Burma, but Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Kenya over the past decade or so, building state-of-the-art port facilities in hopes of obtaining, as much as they possibly can, something China will never have: a border on the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean is an epicenter for global, commercial sea-lanes, and of increasing importance are those sea-lanes that carry oil and gas from the Middle East to fuel Asia’s profound economic development. Having been distracted by events in the Middle East for over ten years, the U.S. left China ample room to expand its reach threatening U.S. domination of the South Pacific region both economically and militarily. Now that the U.S. is turning its eyes towards Asia, it is reacting to China’s increased strength. Cozying up to what remains a very authoritarian regime in Burma is one such example.
China-hands will continue to watch this fascinating match-up between two geopolitical heavy-weights unfold, which undoubtedly will raise both political and legal issues concerning free access to international sea-lanes and ports, territorial sovereignty, and global influence in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.