The last time Burma really mattered to the United States, Imperial Japanese forces were marching on Asia. Vinegar Joe Stillwell built a road through the Burmese jungle to resupply China during the Pacific War, a backbreaking project that cost the lives of some 1,100 US soldiers before its completion in 1944. The Stillwell Road was pivotal then, but just like American interest in Burma, it soon fell into disrepair.
Burma matters to US strategy again. Human rights concerns about the military grip on the region’s poorest country are overshadowed by geostrategic concerns about the regime’s ties to China and North Korea. China’s desire for strategic real estate and hunger for natural resources are turning Burma into a proxy state, while North Korea’s weapons export business shifts Burma into a potential nuclear weapon state. Beijing has recently reconstructed the old British and American Burma Road.
The Obama administration has responded by naming an ambassadorial-level coordinator: Derek Mitchell, presently acting assistant secretary of defence. But what’s next? US Burma policy is notoriously feckless. Well-intentioned support for the iconic Aung San Suu Kyi, the last democratically elected leader, makes for a photo opportunity, but is failing to affect Burmese bad behaviour or constrain Chinese encroachment. In the past, an almost exclusive focus on human rights has done little to change Burma, but a great deal to isolate the United States from its allies and friends in South and East Asia.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
A new approach is needed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the essential first step last month in Bali by giving further definition to the policy of principled engagement. She demanded compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, a reference to the regime’s nuclear ambitions. She also called for releasing 2,200 political prisoners and opening dialogue with the opposition and ethnic minorities. But given the administration’s determination to reenergize US influence in a vibrant region, it’s noteworthy that Clinton put the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on notice not to bestow on Burma chairmanship for 2014 unless it earns it. At the same time, she in effect dangled the carrot of international legitimacy should Burma embrace change.
The gap between Burma and the United States yawns. We therefore need a road map for navigating between the Scylla of human rights and Charybdis of realpolitik. The original Burma Road overcame gnarly mountainous terrain; a new road map must traverse seemingly intractable machinations emanating from the new palatial capital in Naypyidaw. The first road linked Burma to China; this pathway must provide both an alternative to Chinese domination, as well as greater freedom for all Burma’s people. Gen. Stillwell built the first road; Clinton must connect this one.
There’s precedent for building US ties with an adversarial, autocratic state: Vietnam. In fact, some of the same voices who would like to test Burma’s seriousness about a new relationship have experience with this kind of challenge. Senators John McCain and John Kerry helped to convert a former enemy into a flourishing economic and security partner, despite nagging differences over human rights. If a US Navy destroyer can make a port visit to Da Nang, Vietnam (as USS John S. McCain did last year), then finding a gradual opening to Burma must be possible.