President Obama's tour of the Pacific Rim in late November, followed by Secretary of State Clinton's historic visit to Burma, could have unofficially kicked off a new phase in the Great Game between the U.S. and China. Though Clinton's high-profile visits with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were widely perceived as upstaging China's presence in the country, Burma is hedging its bets as to which country will come out on top. Odds are that it will benefit the small Southeast Asian nation to keep both the U.S. and China on its hook as long as possible. As this dynamic develops, let's take a look at the relationships among the countries in this new Burmese triangle.
US-Burma: The US has agreed to begin making certain political and economic concessions to assist Burma's government in correcting its recent lack of "democracy and openness," but emphasized that continued support would hinge on progressively more concrete reforms. "We will certainly consider the easing and eliminating of sanctions in this process," Clinton told reporters, while calling for the release of political prisoners and a peaceful resolution to ethnic conflict. She also said any illicit military, nuclear, and ballistic missile cooperations with North Korea must be stopped. Despite the list of demands on the developing country, Clinton insisted that US-Burmese cooperation needn't come in between the entrenched relationship between Burma and China: "We welcome positive and constructive relations between China and her neighbors," she said. "We think that being friends with one doesn't mean not being friends with others."
Burma-China: Relations between China and Burma are alive and well. Just days prior to Clinton's Burma visit, the Burmese military commander-in-Chief visited likely next-Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing as a reaffirmation of those two countries' relationship, anticipating that China might bristle at the new US presence in their backyard. China has happily filled the void left in Burma by western countries in recent decades, but mistreatment of both natural resources and the local population has led to discontent within Burma as China's presence accumulated. President Thein is seeking to diversify his country's international relations by recently exploring partnerships with nearby India and Vietnam. In light of Clinton's visit and the recent postponement of a Chinese-sponsored dam, China appears nervous about losing its grip on Burma's dependable economic and military cooperation.
China-US: Both countries publicly agree that a peaceful and engaged Burma is best for the region's interest. Behind the scenes there are certain economic and security concerns. "ASEAN countries' actions to balance China just show that China's influence is growing," writes one Chinese newspaper editor, who goes on to say that China should prepare for US attempts to undermine Chinese interests. "When necessary, we should make the US taste the bitterness." The US, well aware of China's escalating military presence across East and Southeast Asia, would be reassured to count Burma as a strategic partner in President Obama's new Asia-Pacific-focused security initiative that would balance China's influence in the region.
With China and the US saying one thing and thinking another, and Burma likely to enjoy its newfound popularity and international attention, this power struggle is unlikely to end any time soon. As far as US security goes Burma is just one piece in the larger Asian puzzle vis-à-vis China, but China is unhappy to see any infringement at all in the Asian neighborhood. Let the grand strategies unfold...