The Obama administration is taking a foreign policy gamble by sending Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on a historic trip to the isolated Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar this week.
The administration is betting that the first visit to the country, also known as Burma, by a secretary of state in more than half a century will pay dividends, including loosening Chinese influence in a region where America and its allies are wary of China's rise. But it will also gauge the Myanmar government's baby steps toward democratic reform after 50 years of military rule that saw brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy activists, including the detention of opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Clinton leaves Washington on Monday and will spend two days in Myanmar after a stop in South Korea. After talks with government officials in Myanmar's capital of Naypyitaw on Thursday, she will see Suu Kyi on Friday in a meeting that will likely be the highlight of the visit. Suu Kyi, who intends to run for parliament in upcoming by-elections, has welcomed Clinton's trip and told President Barack Obama in a phone call earlier this month that engagement with the government would be positive. Clinton has called Suu Kyi a personal inspiration.
The trip is the first major development in U.S.-Myanmar relations in decades and comes after the Obama administration launched a new effort to prod reforms in 2009 with a package of carrot-and-stick incentives. The rapprochement sped up when Myanmar held elections last year that brought a new government to power that pledged greater openness. The administration's special envoy to Myanmar has made three trips to the country in the past three months, and the top U.S. diplomat for human rights has made one.
Those officials pushed for Clinton to make the trip, deeming a test of the reforms as worthwhile despite the risks of backsliding.
President Thein Sein, a former army officer, has pushed forward reforms after Myanmar experienced decades of repression under successive military regimes that cancelled 1990 elections that Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party won. Last week, Myanmar's parliament approved a law guaranteeing the right to protest, which had not previously existed, and improvements have been made in areas such as media and Internet access and political participation. The NLD, which had boycotted previous flawed elections, is now registered as a party.
But the government that took office in March is still dominated by a military-proxy political party, and Myanmar's commitment to democratization and its willingness to limit its close ties with China are uncertain.
Corruption runs rampant, hundreds of political prisoners are still jailed and violent ethnic conflicts continue in the country's north and east. And, although the government suspended a controversial Chinese dam project earlier this year, China laid down a marker ahead of Clinton's trip by sending its vice president to meet the head of Myanmar's armed forces. China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Vice President Xi Jinping pledged to maintain strong ties with Myanmar and encouraged Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to push for solutions to unspecified challenges in relations.
Myanmar also remains subject to tough sanctions that prohibit Americans and U.S. companies from most commercial transactions in the country.
U.S. officials say Clinton's trip is a fact-finding visit and will not result in an easing of sanctions. But officials also say that such steps could be taken if Myanmar proves itself to be serious about reform.