Mon, September 24, 2012
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Washington anxious to scramble for Southeast Asia

2012-07-13 01:10:03 GMT2012-07-13 09:10:03(Beijing Time)  SINA.com

By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina English

The U.S. was recently seen scurrying in its diplomatic shuttle in Asia-Pacific region, an area it intends to recalibrate its focus on. 

Washington took two symbolic steps aimed at further warming up its relationship with Myanmar. Then first US ambassador to that country in 22 years, 47-year-old Derek Mitchell, who formerly was Presidents Barack Obama's special envoy to Myanmar, arrived in the country in an ambassadorial capacity. On the same day, President Obama announced that US companies will now be allowed to "responsibly do business in Burma (Myanmar)".

The lifting of the sanctions, which excepts entities belonging to the army or ministry of defense, gives US firms a go-ahead to invest in projects with the state-owned Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise, reports the Associated Press. The move is regarded as controversial since Washington’s time-honored friend Aung San Suu Kyi last month explicitly urged foreign firms not to do business with the enterprise.

But surely, when the dominance in the north-western part of the Indian Ocean is at stake, the U.S. is always ready to forget about human rights. As expected, American politicians tend to be pragmatic, flexible and have a nice savvy in weighing the situation.

The fact that the stakes are really high is in no doubt. Myanmar is a pivotal country in the region, and not only because of its natural and mineral wealth, but also because it occupies a strategic place. For years, it has almost solely counted on China, which saw it as a bypass enabling it to avoid shipment of goods via the narrow Malacca Strait teeming with pirates and U.S .warships.

The US "strategic pivot" to Asia Pacific rim is clearly demonstrated by the new developments in US - Myanmar (although still stubbornly called Burma in the West) relations and by the current voyage of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who on Thursday arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where the ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting is under way.

Before coming to Cambodia, Mrs. Hillary had visited three other countries neighboring China- Mongolia, Vietnam and Laos, becoming the first US State Secretary to visit the latter country in 57 years (after John Foster Dulles who visited Laos in 1955). All three visits as well as her participation in the ASEAN forum had one specific goal in mind (although not always explicitly expressed) - that is, containing China.

In Mongolia, Ms. Clinton praised the country as a "democratic model for Asia". Vietnam has been in a territorial row with China. 

It is evident that all the latest US diplomatic efforts are directed at forging some kind of anti-Chinese alliance with even its former foe in the war of 1960s - 1970s - up to returning the navy and air force base at Cam Ranh to US control.

Laos, which is only beginning to open up for the U.S. diplomacy, occupies a strategic position under China's soft belly. Therefore, it makes a valuable addition to the U.S. policy of encircling China.

The acceleration of US diplomatic scramble for the region happens to fall on a fertile ground. Relations between China and its neighbors, most notably in the South China Sea, have seriously deteriorated in the recent months.

Earlier this week, the ASEAN ministers adopted a code of conduct for resolving conflict in the disputed waters. Now, they will be persuading China to abide by the code.

The US in its turn is increasing its military presence in the area, by positioning its warships in Singapore, increasing the number of marines stationed in Australia, working out plans to rebuild their naval and air force bases in the Philippines along with the above mentioned Cam Ranh base in Vietnam.

In fact, while the US strategic goals in the area are obvious, for the countries of the region the situation presents a choice between the two powers- that is, either risk confronting China, or relying on the assistance of a more powerful ally who is pushing for predominance over the region.

It is highly advisable for the regional counties to give it more than a passing thought that the U.S. help will never be unconditional. The price could be as high as, say, putting sovereignty and independence at stake. 

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