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Taking stock of Burma, Japan and ‘pivot to Asia’

by Curtis S. Chin

With virtually all major polls showing a significant drop in U.S. President Barack Obama’s approval ratings since his second term in office began, the American leader may well wish he were back in Burma (aka Myanmar). Last November, in a historic trip that was also the president’s first overseas trip since winning re-election, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Burma.

Unlike Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose own trip to Burma in May — the first by a Japanese leader since 1977 — was followed two months later by a landslide political win, strong approval ratings and growing domestic optimism, Obama is having a tough time going. Indeed, he may well wish he were back in Burma or already in the midst of his upcoming summer vacation in Martha’s Vineyard in the U.S. state of Massachusetts.

Reducing the attention paid to what has so far been a successful “pivot on Burma” would, however, be a mistake.

A recent Pew Research poll shows a six percentage point decline in approval, from 55 to 49 percent, since January for the U.S. leader, and like his predecessors, Obama may well find friendlier audiences and easier times going abroad than staying at home dealing with a divided government.

After having served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) under Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, I finally made my own first trip to Burma in April, to Mandalay, as a private citizen. This month I traveled to Burma’s largest city and one-time capital city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon. During my time on the ADB Board of Directors, U.S. sanctions and hundreds of millions of dollars in un-repaid loans to Burma from both the ADB and World Bank had made it inappropriate for me to travel to that nation.

How times have changed since then. Well aware of the commercial opportunities, Japan has led the way in writing off outstanding debt owed by Burma, and assisting with bridge loans that will help speed additional development assistance to the country by the multilateral development banks.

The U.S. president’s visit last November along with the lifting or suspension of a range of U.S. and European economic sanctions was intended to encourage change in this once pariah nation.

For me, the signs of Japan’s ongoing engagement as well as of the so-called U.S. pivot to Asia remain very visible more than seven months after Obama and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic visit last fall. Hope and change certainly remain alive in Burma, even as serious concerns continue about human rights violations and growing internal religious and ethnic tensions.

Today, it is not just Obama T-shirts hanging in storefronts, or somewhat faded banners featuring Obama and Clinton embracing opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, that underscore America’s policy pivot eastward. Though far from as ubiquitous as the Toyota vehicles that fill increasingly congested streets, growing U.S. engagement can now be seen in the form of Coca-Cola billboards, American teachers and volunteers, and numerous business leaders and delegations, hungry for the opportunity that beckons in the nation of some 60 million people.

And therein lies a critical insight for Washington that applies both in Burma and Japan. Given concerns about China’s growing assertiveness and questions about U.S. commitment and focus amidst the latest leaks, budget discord and scandals emerging from Washington, numerous countries may well quietly welcome stronger and new forms of U.S. engagement.

As with the U.S. pivot on Burma, the U.S. pivot to Asia — though “rebalance” is the preferred word these days — must go beyond defense and diplomacy and encompass business, education and culture as well. The United States is, and must be defined as, much more than military visits and diplomatic communiqués.

One recent example is the visit of the Battery Dance Company, a New York-based group on whose international advisory board I sit, to several Southeast Asian nations bringing U.S. innovation and culture to young people in a “dance to connect” initiative supported by the U.S. State Department and a range of U.S. and local partners.

A strengthened pivot to Asia would include policy changes and encouragement of public-private efforts and partnerships that would increase exchange programs and the visits of U.S. business, cultural and educational organizations, particularly smaller institutions, to the Asia-Pacific region.

To ensure a more lasting impact, U.S. engagement and follow-up will be critical at the everyday people-to-people and business-to-business levels. It remains time to take stock of the so-called U.S. pivot, and to rebalance the “rebalance.”

This will mean substantive policy efforts and investments. Yet, greater U.S. business, educational and cultural involvement in the region also can benefit Japan and others working toward a freer, and more peaceful and prosperous region.

Such efforts have begun in Burma. There will be inevitable setbacks there and elsewhere in Asia, and equally inevitable rises and falls in approval ratings and poll numbers of policymakers and politicians driving such change. That, however, is no reason to step back from a more robust and balanced strategy for U.S. involvement in Asia, whether Burma or Japan, that goes beyond defense and diplomacy.

Curtis S. Chin is a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC, and a member of the Board of World Education Services and Community & Family Services International. He served as U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (2007-2010) under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

  • tocharian

    “Pivot to Burma” is good but it should not be confused with “Pivot to Suu Kyi”. She is a rather self-centered opportunist willing to switch loyalties (just like what her father did at the end of WWII) to achieve her selfish goals (become president of Burma). Burma is still ruled by a small very corrupt and very rich oligarchy. This talk about reform, democracy and human rights is mostly smoke and mirrors to attract money from the West (most of it going to the very rich anyway, just check their Singaporean bank accounts!), since the junta generals got a bit scared of the greedy Chinese. In any case, it’s good for the West to try to keep the Chinese at bay (I didn’t say “contain China” ok!). We will have to wait and see how the Chinese react (controlling Burma is very important to China and they definitely have their “counter-offensives” ready!)