n the middle of high-stakes negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at home and the worst violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip since 2008, Air Force One touched down at Yangon's Mingaladon Airport on the morning of Nov. 19. Although only spent six hours in the country, President Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Myanmar in history.
Obama's historic Myanmar trip highlights the U.S. strategic "pivot" from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific and testifies to the importance the second Obama Administration is placing on the once-pariah Southeast Asian state.
"For his first postelection trip," reports The Washington Post, "the president tellingly settled on Asia, a region he has deemed as crucial to U.S. prosperity and security. Aides say Asia will factor heavily in Obama's second term as the U.S. seeks to expand its influence in an attempt to counter China."
Beijing immediately responded to the U.S. President's Myanmar visit. In an editorial entitled, "Myanmar to deepen relations with China," Beijing's official month-piece, China Daily proclaimed, "The China-Myanmar bilateral relation is a special one. Myanmar cherishes the 'special' links it has had with China since ancient times and will further strengthen and deepen this 'time-honored and time-tested' friendship during the country's current reforms."
No foreign country is as deeply entrenched in Myanmar's economy as China. In Myanmar, there is a saying, "When China spits, Burma swims."
China is Myanmar's biggest trading partner and accounts for more than two thirds of Myanmar's total foreign direct investment (FDI). Myanmar has attracted over $20 billion in FDI since 1988, $14.14 billion of which came from China, according to statistics from Myanmar's Ministry of Commerce. In 2010 alone, China had pumped $8.17 billion into Myanmar economy and an additional $997 million in mining in the country. Chinese factories come up all across Myanmar's eastern border. Today, in cities like Mandalay and across Upper Myanmar, China's economic presence is overwhelming.
The Myanmar pathway also offers China the access to the Indian Ocean and a short-cut for oil deliveries from the Middle East, a vital route for China's huge appetite for energy, natural resources and food, which China desperately needs to sustain its economic growth and to feed a population of 1.4 billion.
But now, the 2 1/2 decades of Chinese dominance in Myanmar seem to have backfired on Beijing. Myanmar's recent decision to suspend the construction of a $3.6 billion Chinese dam on the Irrawaddy River is Myanmar government's shot across the Chinese bow.
"For decades now," writes Michael Sullivan of The Global Post, "the Chinese have had carte blanche in Myanmar, cutting sweetheart deals with that country's brutal and corrupt military leadership. Those deals allowed China to strip the country of natural resources, power and just about everything else at bargain basement prices. But in the aftermath of democratic elections in Myanmar earlier this year and a new opening to the West, it appears Myanmar's leaders -including President Thein Sein - have grown tired of an arrangement that favors only the Chinese. And President Obama's visit sharply underscores that point. Not that China is too happy about it."
The first sitting U.S. president's visit to Myanmar and the dramatic transition of the country to a quasi-civilian government constitute a historic turning point in the relations between the United States and nations in East, Southeast and South Asia - Myanmar constitutes the last missing link to connect America's allies and partners in the region.
And as Tom Donilon, President Obama's National Security Adviser, pointed out in a major U.S. foreign policy speech on Nov. 15, "The President's decision to travel to Asia so soon after his reelection speaks to the importance he places on the region and its centrality to so many of our national-security interests and priorities. Our approach is grounded in a simple proposition: the United States is a Pacific power whose interests are inextricably linked with Asia's economic, security, and political order. America's success in the 21st century is tied to the success of Asia."
President Obama's first foreign trip since winning reelection comes at a critical moment in Washington's overall strategy of rebalancing towards Asia. However, it has also ruffled many Chinese feathers. As China's traditional dominance in Myanmar is now being challenged by the United States, Beijing will fight back with its dual weapons of political muscle and checkbook diplomacy.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.