Challenging China: Obama’s Asia tour starts in Myanmar

US President Barack Obama speaks as Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi listens following their meeting at Suki's residence in Yangon.(AFP Photo / Jewel Samad)
Barack Obama has become the first sitting US president to visit Myanmar. It is part of a pivot to the region, in which, critics say, America is challenging China in effort to gain hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.

­In pas 20-months Myanmar has transformed from an isolationist pariah state governed by a military junta and crippled by international sanctions into a praiseworthy example of a country transitioning towards democracy under elected President Thein Sein.

Myanmar has released some political prisoners, including Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and lifted the past restrictions on freedom of speech. It’s opened up for foreign investment and international trade, triggering a rush of capital into the country. It’s also welcomed foreign aid – something the previous regime was reluctant to do because its policies relied on self-sufficiency.

President Obama’s visit follows last year’s trip by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is the first-ever sitting US president to visit the country. And, as Obama said in his Rangoon University speech on Monday, he’s come to keep his promise and “extend the hand of friendship” to Myanmar.

In a move described as diplomatic couresy he even officially called it the new name, not the old Burma – which would have been impossible a few years ago, when the name-change was considered yet another instance of oppression by the military against their people.

In the wake of the trip, Washington lifted a decade-old ban on imports from the country. The move is meant “to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses,” the State Department said.

During his meeting with Thein Sein, Obama expressed hopes that the reform process in Myanmar “could lead to incredible development opportunities.”

“But this remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go,” the US President later stressed, echoing the Human Rights groups who dubbed Obama’s visit to Myanmar as ‘hasty’. The country still has many political prisoners and ethnic conflicts in country’s border areas are not yet resolved, activists say.

US President Barack Obama extends his hand to shake with Myanmar′s President Thein Sein (R) during their meeting at the regional parliament building in Yangon.(AFP Photo / Jewel Samad)
US President Barack Obama extends his hand to shake with Myanmar's President Thein Sein (R) during their meeting at the regional parliament building in Yangon.(AFP Photo / Jewel Samad)


Asian tour – a step towards containing China

The reason why human rights issues in Myanmar do not concern the US government as much as they used to, might be explained by Obama’s political course in the region, widely perceived by the media as strategic diplomacy. American ‘pivot’ to Asia, implies making new allies there.

Since Myanmar has long been a ally of China, Obama’s visit was closely watched by Beijing. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson reaffirmed his department was “fully confident about the relationship between Myanmar and China.”

But some critics say America’s keen interest in the region as means of curbing China’s growing influence has already sown the seeds of conflict between the two countries. According to Brian Becker, the National Coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition, China experiencing growing pressure from the United States, as well as its allies and “proxy governments” in the Asia-Pacific region.

“The US is trying to contain China, limit China, it’s trying to move in and compete aggressively with China. That’s what is happening with the islands dispute, that’s happening in terms of the missile shield in Japan, which is nothing other than a prescription for a potential first-strike attack against China,” Becker told RT’s CrossTalk.

While keeping-up a diplomatic façade, the US and the Western powers are challenging China at all levels, Becker says. At the same time, the Chinese are no longer appeasing US foreign policy ambitions and are “recalibrating” their own foreign policy because of the “lessons learned in Libya and the Middle East,” he adds. It is reflected in China’s refusal to go along with American plans to overthrow the government of Syria, the anti-war activist says.

America’s turn to Asia partly lies within its economic interests in the region, Becker says. “The US refuses to sign the Law of the Sea treaty, because it has designs for  Asia-Pacific mineral exploration and other energy exploration, which puts it on a direct collision course with the Chinese government’s interest not only for sovereign control over certain islands, but for the economic exploitation of the ocean bed,” the activist argues.

But in the long run, America’s pivot might mean a much more aggressive stance towards China, Becker claims, with the US trying to carry out an Arab spring scenario in the world’s second biggest economy.

“The China’s rise is being confronted principally by the US. The US’s real agenda, I believe, that even though they see China as a lush and expensive market where you can make mega-profits, the decades-old hostility to the rule of the Chinese Communist party by Washington policy makers is such that the US will form eventually a sort of disintegrating strategy in China to overthrow, replace the Chinese Communist party, ultimately trying to destabilize China, because they consider China’s rise to be a direct threat to world hegemony by the United States,” Becker told RT.

Meanwhile, the US President has headed to the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia, highlighting the shift in American foreign policy towards the focus on the Asia-Pacific.