Clinton’s Burma Verification Mission

As Hillary Clinton begins her historic trip to Burma, The Diplomat speaks with leading China analyst Elizabeth Economy about how Beijing sees things.

The Diplomat speaks with Elizabeth Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Burma.

With Secretary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma, how much is about the U.S. “pivot” to the Pacific? Does the move correspond directly to an attempt to balance off China in the region?

I think that this visit has very little to do with China and everything to do with an historic commitment on the part of the United States to encourage repressive, authoritarian states to move toward democracy and better protection of human rights. The Burmese government has taken steps toward political change, and Secretary Clinton’s visit is a means of helping the United States understand the precise nature of this change and how best it can encourage and help this process of political reform. The timing certainly accords with a firmer and more explicit U.S. commitment to economic growth and security in the Asia Pacific, but the visit wouldn’t have occurred without very clear signals of change from both the Burmese government and leading opposition figures, such as Aung San Suu Kyi.

How do you believe Chinese government officials look at the U.S. visit to Burma? Do they feel it’s directed towards them?

Opinion in China over Secretary Clinton’s visit to Burma is divided. Some clearly realize that it isn’t about China, but rather about attempting to ascertain the depth and breadth of the Burmese leadership’s commitment to political and economic change, as well as an opportunity to assess whether the time is drawing near for the U.S. to lift its economic sanctions.

Others, of course, view the visit as part of a broader effort on the part of the United States to encircle China and isolate it from its neighbors. Some of these conspiracy -focused analysts also see the United States behind Burmese President Thein Sein’s decision to stay the construction of the Chinese-supported Myitsone Dam. That view, of course, ignores the significant opposition to the dam within the population of Burma.

Finally, there’s also concern expressed in some Chinese media that China’s effort to secure trade routes to the Indian Ocean and fuel routes to the Middle East and Africa may be jeopardized by growing ties between Burma and the United States. Of course, if China’s engagement with Burma is genuinely the “win-win” proposition that it proclaims it is, there shouldn’t be any real cause for concern. 

What do you feel the United States must show from the trip in order for it be a success? Does the U.S. have a specific agenda? What would Burma need to gain from the visit in order to judge such a visit a success?

In terms of a tangible outcome from the Secretary’s visit, I think that both sides are very much hoping for the same thing, namely a positive appraisal by Secretary Clinton of the reform steps that Burma has taken to date, and a pledge on both sides to work toward further opening, both within Burma and between Washington and Rangoon.

Secretary Clinton needs to return to the United States with the ability to convince the U.S. Congress that further change is coming on the political front if there’s going to be any significant shift in the bilateral relationship. Some progress on understanding the relationship between North Korea and Burma/Myanmar would also be very useful. 

Does China feel it has to react to the visit?

Thus far, Chinese official response has been rather muted, as it should be.

If relations between the United States and Burma expand and Burma continues to reform, China may face some new political and economic challenges in its relations with Burma. In most respects, however, these challenges will arise as a result of the steps Burma takes at home rather than anything that the United States does. Nonetheless, there’s no advantage to be gained for Burma by alienating China. The worst thing that China can do at this point would be to respond with the type of rhetoric that some commentators are evincing.

Global Times commentator Ding Gang, for example, wrote, “No ASEAN country can develop without China's growth. We should be careful in case the US hurts China's interests by underhand moves and prepare for it. When necessary, we should make the US taste bitterness. China has the ability.”

This is precisely the type of thinking and rhetoric that has caused so many Asian countries to turn away from China despite the country's important economic role in the region. Once again, China may prove to be its own worst enemy.   

Looking more generally at U.S. policy in Asia, what adjustments will China make in its foreign policy to the U.S. pivot? Do you see China maybe lessening any of its demands in the South China Sea or on Taiwan?

How China will respond is anyone’s best guess.

I’ve been surprised at the inability or unwillingness of Chinese officials over the past few months to temper their assertive rhetoric or demonstrate a genuine willingness to recalibrate their policy in the Pacific.

From my perspective, it seems clear that Chinese foreign policy has gone seriously off the rails. When most of your neighbors and important economic partners repeatedly raise concerns over your assertive – even bullying – behavior, it’s time to take a step back and review what you are doing. (This is a lesson that the United States, unfortunately, has had to relearn on many occasions.)

Among Chinese scholars there’s a vibrant debate over whether China has made some serious foreign policy missteps over the past year, but it’s unclear who is listening and learning in the Foreign Ministry and within the PLA and, particularly the PLA Navy.

Thus far, we haven’t seen any real change emanating from China’s foreign policy; the easiest and most obvious step would be for China to move forward on talks on resolving the South China Sea dispute and jointly developing the resources of the East China Sea with Japan. Of course, it will also have to rein in its navy and fishing vessels that have been the source of so much concern throughout the region. That, in my opinion, would be the smart thing to do.

Whether China can actually reverse course and moderate its behavior remains to be seen. It wouldn’t make much sense for China to become more aggressive: it would have no support from any significant actor in the region and would only provoke a much more militarized regional response in return.