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Estadao, Brazil

Obama Takes a Risky Step

The White House makes no secret of its intentions. By drawing closer to Myanmar, other South Asian countries and countries of the Pacific region, the United States offers them an alternative in relation to China, normally guided by the Chinese presumption that these countries are their backyard.

Translated By Jane Dorwart

25 November 2012

Edited by Gillian Palmer


Brazil - Estadao - Original Article (Portuguese)

Barack Obama became the first American president to visit Myanmar (formerly Burma), the poor Asian country which until very recently was considered a pariah and is now practicing political and economic openness. This historic event is the strongest indication so far of a change in U.S. strategy under the Obama administration, which focuses American attention on Asia to counter the immense power of China in the region. There are signs, however, that Obama, in his eagerness to fly the American flag in China's neighborhood, may have acted precipitously — an American president appearing in person lent relevancy to a country with an incipient and still uncertain process of democratization.

The Obama visit coincided with a transition of power in China, which amplifies possible tensions between Beijing and Washington. The White House makes no secret of its intentions. By drawing closer to Myanmar, other South Asian countries and countries of the Pacific region, the United States offers them an alternative in relation to China, normally guided by the Chinese presumption that these countries are their backyard. The proximity goes much beyond diplomacy.

The Department of Defense reported a few days ago that the Americans intend to deepen military ties with Southeast Asia. "The focus of the United States in the Asia-Pacific region is real, substantial and will be sustained for a long period of time," said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.* The American military presence is expected to grow in the Philippines; there will be more exercises in conjunction with Australia and New Zealand, countries whose relations with China have grown considerably in recent times. Moreover, American warships are docking in Vietnam, indicating a possibility of cooperation.

In the political field, the U.S. has declared itself in favor of multilateral organizations to resolve territorial questions in the South Sea of China, a sensitive issue in Beijing. Obama's current tour, including his presence at the East Asian Summit in Cambodia, is a way of showing Washington's support for countries disposed to challenge the Chinese. From an economic view, the American offensive translates into what is called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a series of regional free-trade treaties stitched together without Chinese presence.

The coming together with Myanmar can be seen in this context, but also ought to be read as a way that the United States reaffirms its historic commitment to promote democracy. The image of the people of Myanmar welcoming Obama with American flags and large smiles was a clear demonstration of the country's longing for liberty, after decades of a ferocious dictator and stimulated by American diplomacy. However, even the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, confided to friends that Obama’s visit may be precipitous. The "democratic process" in Myanmar is totally controlled by the military, which continues to violate human rights and find ways to subject its interests on economic openness. Moreover, there are a series of bloody ethnic and religious conflicts which make the organization of Myanmar into a feasible state not viable for the foreseeable future.

Obama, however, defends his decision to visit Myanmar, saying that it is not an endorsement of a regime, but rather the acknowledgment that there is a process of opening in a country which was unthinkable not long ago, which needs to be supported by the West — in the hopes of influencing other closed nations in the region, such as North Korea. Nevertheless, by extending a hand to the generals in Myanmar - ending the American policy of isolation of that country - Obama inaugurated the diplomacy of his second term by getting closer to a regime whose commitment to democracy is very far from being established. As was shown in the "Arab Spring," the road to a democratic transition, particularly for countries with a long history of authoritarianism, is not a straight line.

*Editor’s Note: The original quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.



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