Here’s the opening line of a Reuters report on America’s cosying up to Myanmar: “President Barack Obama will walk a fine line between fostering a U.S. ally in China’s backyard and trying to defend human rights when the president of Myanmar becomes the first head of his country to visit the White House in 47 years on Monday.”
That, to be undiplomatic, is absolute bollocks. President Obama isn’t walking a fine line at all; he is doing business. And making sure US companies have a good chance of getting some of the lucrative deals on offer as Myanmar opens up to the world after half a century of isolation and military rule.
As Ernest Bower, senior adviser for Southeast Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says all the fuss being made of Thein Sein fits right into US priorities. “Myanmar is the keystone state that links China, Southeast Asia and India, and if we didn’t get it right, we wouldn’t be able to play the chess game that is required in order to deal with China,” he said.
Who mentioned human rights? The killings in Rakhine? Walking a fine line (in the words of the Reuters report)?
Today, the US and Myanmar are expected to announce plans to work out a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement that would lead to regular talks on boosting trade, labour standards and investment.
Particularly in focus as Myanmar President Thein Sein meets Mr Obama is a $1 billion contract to upgrade and operate Yangon’s airport. A US consortium that includes Boeing and McKinsey is bidding against a powerful Chinese state company.
It is significant that the US hasn’t lifted all sanctions – this gives it more leverage over Myanmar’s reform process (and presumably makes it more likely that US companies will win more favour – and contracts).
As Jennifer Quigley, head of the US human rights group Campaign for Burma, says, things are looking up a bit there but not enough to justify today’s developments. Myanmar’s most coveted resources – natural gas, minerals, gems and timber – lie in ethnic areas that have been war zones for decades and remain largely untouched by reforms, she points out, adding that her “biggest concern about welcoming Thein Sein to the White House is that it reinforces this positive impression of him and of what is going on in Burma, while we have serious misgivings that he is not interested in pursuing critical reforms”.
Perhaps. But Mr Obama isn’t walking any fine lines right at the moment.
The only other entity that isn’t “walking a fine line” on Myanmar is the European Union. It has moved faster than the US, lifting its last sanctions on trade, the economy and individuals last month and leaving no more than an arms embargo in place.