US ‘looks East’ to break Burma deadlock

Washington will encourage India to increase pressure on the Burmese junta after the Obama administration acknowledged the shortcomings of its recent stab at engagement.

US assistant secretary of state Kurt Campbell told reporters yesterday that India’s “very important role in the international community” should be used to penetrate the tight military clique that runs Burma; Delhi, he said, should “encourage interlocutors inside [Burma] to embrace reform”, something that the US appears to have failed to do.

India’s response may well be tepid: whilst sporadically condemning the regime it is increasingly looking to the money-hungry generals to facilitate various investment schemes, largely targeted at Burma’s lucrative energy sector. The government in Delhi broke from decades of criticism of the junta in the mid-1990s to pursue its ‘Look East’ policy, which favours closer economic and political relations with East Asian countries over a reliance on the West.

Campbell said that while India was “beginning to play perhaps a more active role” in diplomatically pressuring Burma, “they’ve also been very clear that they have strategic interests. And we respect those”.

Bilateral trade between the two countries has jumped 26 percent in the past year and India is Burma’s fourth largest trading partner. Delhi is currently eyeing a US$5.6 billion investment in two major dam sites, while contracted investment in Burma in 2009-10 reached US$189 million.

The Asia-Pacific region’s other emerging powerhouse, Beijing, is rapidly becoming the Burmese junta’s key economic and political ally, and on top of its apparent indifference toward democratic reform in Burma, Washington is doubly concerned that its rise is steadily eroding US influence in the region as neighbouring states look to China’s swelling economy to boost their own.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is due in Hanoi next week to attend the ASEAN Regional Forum, the top security summit for Southeast Asia. Along with the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Clinton will be joined by China, and possibly North Korea.

Campbell said that there were “no plans” for Clinton to meet directly with either Burmese or North Korean representatives. Earlier this week there was speculation that Pyongyang’s foreign minister, Pak Ui Chun, would attend the talks after a visit to Burma, although nothing has been confirmed. Pak skipped the meeting in Thailand last year, which came shortly after North Korea was roundly condemned for its second nuclear test.

Clinton will however “not shy away” from discussing the human rights situation in Burma, particularly regarding the elections scheduled for later this year which the US, along with much of the international community not allied to the Burmese junta, has decried.

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