YANGON (March 12, 2014) – A panel at the East-West Center’s International Media Conference examined the United States’ role in Southeast Asia and its relationship with the other great powers in the region.
Much of the discussion centered on the U.S. relationship with China and the so-called “pivot” in American foreign policy toward Asia. Ralph Cossa, the president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Pacific Forum, said that American interests in the region were nothing new. He said George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton had similar interests in Southeast Asia, but “during the George W. Bush administration, we got somewhat distracted by 9/11, by Iraq, by Afghanistan.”
“Is the pivot about China?” he asked. “Yes. It’s about China. It’s about Japan. It’s about Australia. It’s about Myanmar. It’s about ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. It’s about the Koreas […] but it’s not certainly all about China.”
The more important question, Cossa said, is whether the pivot is against China. “And the honest answer is no—not yet,” he said. “Can it be against China? Absolutely, but that would be driven by Chinese actions, not American interests.”
Ni Siyi, a deputy director in the Editor-In-Chief’s office at Xinhua News Agency in Beijing, said that the increased attention on Southeast Asia acts as a regional counterbalance. “There’s two things I think the U.S. may have in mind, he said. “One is Japan; the other is Russia.”
U Moe Kyaw, the owner of Myanmar Marketing Research & Development Company, stressed the importance of China in helping foster further development in Myanmar. Although he said “China has been very quiet in Myanmar for the past three or four years,” largely due to disputes over the Myitsone Dam project in northern Myanmar, “China’s going to be the key in helping to develop Myanmar.”
Thant Myint-U, the chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, said he thinks China’s interests in the region mimic traditional American foreign policy. “[How] China is behaving now is not unlike how the U.S. behaves under the Monroe Doctrine,” he said.
He added that he thinks China feels left out of current discussions on what is happening around the region, which is a concern for them. “The Chinese are very reluctant to see the norms – new norms – being developed, or are uncomfortable with the norms that have already been set, without the participation of China,” he said.
Thant Myint-U also said it was hard for China and other regional powers to accept the U.S.’ intensified interest in the region under the Obama administration after the area was not a main focus under the George W. Bush administration.
– Reporting by Casey Morell & photos by Ninh Pham, Missouri School of Journalism