AUSTIN, Texas — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s landmark visit to Burma this week heralds the potential for breakthroughs on two fronts — accelerating democratic reforms in one of the world’s worst tyrannies and realigning the strategic order of Asia. Accomplishing both of these objectives is possible and represents a best-case scenario. Yet optimism should be tempered, and it would be prudent to recall previous such gambits that failed, such as then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s champagne toast with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang in 2000. Eleven years later, the North Korean regime remains ensconced in power, and that country remains as despotic, irresponsible, and isolated as ever.
Clinton’s visit might produce a more agreeable and substantive outcome, especially considering that the Burmese government has already taken some notable steps, including lifting many restrictions on Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who welcomed Clinton’s visit and met with the Secretary of State. Yet the aftermath of the trip should be evaluated not just by the optics emanating from Naypyidaw and Rangoon, but also by other less visible but potentially more revealing indicators. Burma experts such as Jean Geran and Joshua Kurlantzick have already highlighted some of the most salient ones, such as the release of the estimated 1500 remaining political prisoners, an end to the ongoing brutalization of ethnic minorities, and a substantial reform in civil-military relations so that the military becomes genuinely accountable to the civilian government. Any of these would represent significant steps, and whether or not they are taken will reveal much about the capability and intentions of President Thein Sein.
Burma is not merely a humanitarian concern or a regional problem confined to Southeast Asia. It is in the crucible of the emerging “great power” maneuvering of China and India. It is an ally and client of North Korea, whose opaque weapons trade with Burma raises profound security concerns. And it stands at a pivot point for the global economy, sitting on considerable natural gas reserves and at the maritime crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where the Malacca Strait serves as transit route for one-quarter of all global traded goods and one-quarter of all sea-borne petroleum.
Clinton’s visit therefore demonstrates a convergence of interests and democratic values. Burma’s tentative steps to come in from the cold also offer an intriguing insight: sometimes a shifting balance of power can induce democratic reform. This was partially the case in 2005 when Vietnam’s concerns over growing Chinese hegemony in the region prompted the Vietnamese government to make significant improvements to its treatment of religious minorities. Vietnam took these steps to improve its relationship with the United States, which it perceived as a potential balance to China. It is possible that a similar dynamic is at play in Burma today. While some in the Burmese leadership might have genuine democratic sympathies, the main impetus for the democratic reforms comes from a calculated desire to distance Naypyidaw from China’s increasingly restrictive orbit and energy mercantilism, and to forge new partnerships with the democracies of the Indo-Pacific and the Western world. In short, if the Burma opening works, it will be a success for balance-of-power realists and human rights advocates alike, and might suggest a new paradigm for international relations theorists and policy practitioners in which maintaining a stable balance of power can serve as a lever for promoting human rights and democracy.
Burma’s opening may have other geopolitical ramifications. If it continues on a path of adopting political and economic reforms in tandem, it will also demonstrate the limited appeal of authoritarian capitalism of the kind embraced by Beijing and Moscow. India is also taking notice. Given the erratic swings in its Burma stance, New Delhi may still be internally conflicted over whether to privilege material interests or democratic ideals in its foreign policy. A reformed Burma would help resolve these tensions in Indian policy by serving a reminder that, in the long run, the sacrifice of ideals can also undermine a nation’s interests. Finally, Burma’s steps toward greater liberty may offer a small encouragement to the transatlantic community, dispirited by the eurozone’s travails, that democratic capitalism retains its vitality and enduring appeal.
William Inboden is a Distinguished Scholar and Assistant Professor at the University of Texas and a non-resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.