The Road to Mandalay


President Barack Obama paid a much heralded visit to Myanmar this week.  This first foreign trip abroad  since reelection magnified Myanmar’s freedom.


There seems little else to warrant giving Myanmar top priority. It is geographically remote from any place of strategic importance, it possesses no critical natural resources, it has no Islamic terrorists or even Islamic fundamentalists, and no social reformist movement that threatens American business investments since there is virtually no foreign investment. Indeed, measured by these criteria and accounting for population size, Myanmar logically should figure far down the list of countries deserving Presidential special attention.


But then there is China – and China is what it is all about. The Obama administration has launched a multi-pronged strategy to “contain” the expansion of Chinese influence in Asia. That is the spawn of the much ballyhooed “pivot” toward Asia. It is less than a year since the White House proclaimed that it was time to shift the weight and focus of our foreign policy from the greater Middle East to the East Asia. No stunning development demanding urgent action provoked that shift. Nor was there any dearth of unfinished business in the Middle East. The region is convulsed by the aftershocks of the Arab spring, Syria is in the throes of civil war, bloodshed is the order of the day in Gaza, the confrontation with Iran remains fraught with danger, Iraq has been a miserable failure, and our objectives in Afghanistan are as distant as ever despite the Obama surge and the large American forces still fighting there. “Pivot” or not, the Navy has three carrier battle fleets in the Persian Gulf.


The vacuity of the notion was glaringly exposed last week.  The President, having ‘pivoted’ to Asia, found himself ‘containing’ China by spending time in a country which has had no strategic bearing on anyone since the 13th century (Siam aside). For four days, the White House did little but loudly cheer on Netanyahu from its distant outpost on the Irrawaddy . Obama himself justified the air assault on Gaza on three occasions. Then, when matters looked to be getting out of hand, Hillary Clinton was pivoted back to the Middle East. The Mursi brokered cease-fire could now be declared a triumph for the U.S., for Clinton and for Obama that confirms our indispensability. The fact that we refused even to talk with one of the parties, Hamas, and therefore could not in fact have mediated, is downplayed by the press corps.


Within 24 hours of the cease fire, The New York Times already had a blow-by-blow account of Obama’s personal intervention with Mohamed Mursi to achieve what it labeled a stunning success. The story’s authenticity, as well as its source, was confirmed by telling details as to which Presidential calls to Cairo were made with the President in sweats and which when he wore shirt and tie.  The unhappy truth is that the press corps these days too often seems on the payroll of State’s and the White House’s public affairs offices.  The clear reality that the United States is the big loser in this latest display of America’s bankrupt Middle East policies, and of its inept diplomacy, is lost in the celebration.


“Pivot” clearly is nothing more than a public relations gesture that signals a belated recognition that the rise of China deserves more diplomatic “quality time” than it has been receiving during the long decade of our all-consuming “war on terror”.  The United States as a global power with self-defined interests at every point of the compass cannot afford to treat regions in serial fashion – interspersed with long periods of neglect. Foreign policy in high stakes international politics is not like the movements of a ballerina on point.  Not to keep constantly in view the compelling reality that world affairs in the 21st century will be determined mainly by the terms of accommodation between the U.S. and the P.R.C. is a grave act of non-feasance. And if the administration is simply incapable of handling multiple challenges simultaneously, it should get a new foreign policy team and/or scale back our ambition to exercise global dominion.


Washington is now vexed by what it sees as Chinese attempts to extract deference from its neighbors in East and Southeast Asia. Its extraordinary economic expansion is making it the hub of the world’s fastest growing region. That enables it to exercise a good measure of influence on the policies and overall  orientation of others. Concretely, it has made aggressive claims of suzerainty over disputed isles in the South China Sea located far from the mainland which are possibly rich in badly needed fossil fuels. China’s behavior has generated consternation in Jakarta, Hanoi, Manila, Singapore and Kuala Lampur.  A separate dispute with Japan also has stoked tensions.


The Obama response is something called “push-back.”  It entails taking steps to credit the idea that the United States will remain politically engaged in Asia – thereby firming up regional resistance to kow-towing to Beijing. That is reasonable. Unfortunately, though, we are taking the unproductive tack of making that statement mainly by trying to forge a series of military agreements with countries on China’s periphery –namely Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and ironically Communist led Vietnam. There is stale quality to this strategy of ringing China with American bases. It is a remake of the ill-fated 1950s SEATO project with the plot line borrowed from the Cold War.


China’s influence in the world will not be demonstrated by direct assaults on the independence of its neighbors. Anyone familiar with Chinese history will realize that this never has been their modus operandi. Certainly today, when the currency of world power is primarily economic, that should be evident. While the United States is playing the outdated game of balance-of-power, China is acquiring control over critical mineral assets in South America, Africa and even Afghanistan. It is investing heavily in petroleum leases and buying up energy companies. It also is acquiring vast agricultural tracts around the world (including Canada) the ensure its food supply while establishing a central place in  international markets.  As to monetary power, Beijing possesses enormous reserves of hard currency, close to $2 trillion – more than half in the form of Treasury bonds. It thereby insulates itself from American pressure and retains the means itself to play a growing role in managing the world’s financial system on terms acceptable to Beijing.


What is the American counter move?  The Obama administration devised a scheme for a proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership that would exclude China. This magical sleight of hand is grounded in the  imaginations of American policy-makers but not in reality. That was driven home on Tuesday in Phnom Penh where the ASEAN countries and China announced plans for a comprehensive trade agreement involving other major Asian trading nations (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership).This grouping will not include the United States. The announcement came the very day that Obama was in town attending an East Asia summit.


None of these hard truths will be qualified by Obama’s fleeting stop in Yangon.  Perhaps he should have booked a night in Mandalay where “the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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