Barack Obama pledged at the start of his presidency that he would reach out to those countries “willing to unclench your fist.” The words appeared aimed most conspicuously at Iran. Yet the country that has responded most favorably has been Myanmar, or Burma, its military leadership having given way to an emerging democracy, moving to end the country’s long isolation, freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace prize winner, to play an active political role.
That was the context for the president’s visit over the weekend. Suu Kyi and other human-rights activists cautioned against the stop, noting that many political prisoners still remain in custody. Yet here is an example of what the president has meant since unveiling last year the concept of a “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region. He wants to engage, reflecting both the region’s importance and its complexities, positioned as neither naive nor resistant to applauding incremental progress.
Myanmar presents a larger opportunity as long in the orbit of China and now looking to the wider world. One of the most effective aspects of the Obama strategy has been the embrace of China emerging regionally and globally. There has been no talk about somehow containing the Chinese carrying an echo of the Cold War. Neither has the White House ducked the reality of competing interests. It has looked to construct a framework for managing well a most important relationship.
Thus, the visit to Myanmar involved a message of endurance, recognizing the steps forward yet also that Washington would be watching as events unfold there, whether institutions take hold to secure and advance the gains. So it was stopping in Thailand and attending the East Asian economic summit in Cambodia, the president highlighting the intention to sink deep roots.
The past year, the higher profile steps have involved a greater military presence, Marines deployed to Australia, the likelihood of the inevitable defense cutbacks sparing the Pacific mission. Yet the main play must be economic, in many ways reflected by the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a bid to dismantle trade barriers in the region.
No doubt, all of this, along with the muscle-bound rhetoric of the campaign, makes Chinese leaders uneasy, even more as the leadership has changed, Xi Jinping rising to the presidency. What deserves emphasis is the interdependence.
China needs American markets for its export-driven economy, not to mention American know-how. The United States needs China to fill a constructive role involving the Middle East, Iran, North Korea and climate change, eventually. Both have a deep interest in stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region. That translates into respecting and navigating differences.