In a historic opening to isolated Myanmar, President Barack Obama finally found a taker Friday for his Inauguration speech offer to extend a hand to rogue states "if you are willing to unclench your fist."
The U.S. sees Myanmar as responding to the three-year-old offer of engagement, a major shift for the former military-run dictatorship long under China's protection and influence. Sealing better relations, Obama announced he would send Hillary Rodham Clinton for what would be the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state in more than 50 years.
China immediately responded with a veiled warning to its smaller, weaker ally not to get too close to Washington.
Obama said of Myanmar, "After years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress in these last several weeks." He announced Clinton's trip on the sidelines of a summit in Bali, Indonesia, of East Asian leaders, including Myanmar's President Thein Sein.
The U.S. president noted the release of political prisoners, the easing of media restrictions, a tentative opening of the political system and a dialogue between the government and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, whose political party has agreed to register and participate in elections.
For Myanmar, also known as Burma, better relations with the United States may mean much-needed investment and market opportunities. It is also likely to boost Myanmar's credibility with its neighbors in Southeast Asia, many of whom view China as a growing threat.
Obama's trip to Asia this week was dominated by questions about China's changing world role, both as an economic power and an increasingly assertive military one. In Bali, Obama heard directly from participants in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations about worries over the South China Sea, where Beijing is increasingly asserting disputed territorial claims.
Reform in Myanmar will not come overnight or easily, and many remain skeptical about a commitment to democratization. But after decades of repression and isolation under the military regime that ruled for more than half a century, leaders there seem eager to come in from the cold. Clinton will test that proposition during her Dec. 1-2 trip to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, and Myanmar's capital, Naypidaw, officials said.
Myanmar has been harshly criticized and penalized by the U.S. and its allies for widespread human rights abuses, and remains a target of sanctions.
U.S. officials denied suggestions that engagement with Myanmar is related to countering Chinese influence. Yet China reacted with apparent suspicion after questioning the appropriateness of greater military cooperation between the United States and Australia earlier in the week.
"We are willing to see the U.S. and other Western countries improve contacts with Myanmar and make better relations," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at Friday's daily media briefing in Beijing. "At the same time, we hope that both the domestic and foreign policies of Myanmar are conducive for the peace and stability of Myanmar."
The Obama administration hopes the Clinton trip encourages broader change by a newly elected civilian government that appears to be hedging its geopolitical bets by opening up to the West.
The cautious outreach to Myanmar also makes good on Obama's promise that he would try to talk with adversaries or disagreeable regimes when it was in the U.S. national interest. That realpolitik approach was aimed primarily at containing potential nuclear threats from North Korea or Iran, but made little headway with either of those governments.
Myanmar is in an uncertain middle passage _ no longer under full control of a junta but far from a free society.
Although he stressed that Myanmar needs to do much more, Obama called its first moves "the most important steps toward reform in Burma that we've seen in years" and worthy of recognition in the form of a visit by his top diplomat. Further rewards, including upgraded diplomatic relations with the return of a U.S. ambassador _ Washington has been represented by a charge d'affaires since 1990 _ could follow as could an easing of some of wide-ranging travel and financial U.S. sanctions if further progress is made, officials said.
The U.S. has been laying the groundwork for Clinton's visit for months, beginning with a visit in September by the administration's special Burma envoy, Derek Mitchell, who returned in October and again earlier this month with the administration's top human rights diplomat, Michael Posner.
In every encounter, they stressed Obama's readiness to respond to positive changes such as freeing imprisoned members of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy and other dissidents and ending sporadic but fierce violence against ethnic minorities in the north and the east, the officials said. Alleged cooperation on sensitive weaponry with North Korea is also a cause for concern, they said.
A surprise move by Thein Sein in late September to halt work on a controversial $3.6 billion China-backed dam project because it went "against the will of the people" and the release last month of as many as 250 of Myanmar's more than estimated 2,000 political detainees encouraged the administration and sped up planning for Clinton's visit.
The final decision came after Obama spoke to Suu Kyi _ a fellow Nobel peace laureate _ on his way to Indonesia from Australia, officials said. She encouraged U.S. engagement with the successor to a regime that imprisoned her and launched crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters that left hundreds, maybe thousands dead in 1988 and again in 2007, and refused to hand power to her party when it overwhelmingly won elections in 1990.
U.S. officials said Suu Kyi told Obama it is "valuable and important" for the U.S. and Myanmar to have direct and clear communication and that she would welcome a Clinton visit as part of the effort to enhance dialogue between her party and the government.
Ben Feller reported from Indonesia.