Barack Obama has become the first serving U.S. president to visit Myanmar, arriving on Monday for a trip that will attempt to strike a balance between praising the government's progress and pressing it for further reforms.
His plane landed in the former capital Yangon, where he will meet President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Obama's trek to Myanmar is meant to highlight what the White House has touted as a major foreign policy achievement -- its success in pushing the country's generals to enact changes that have unfolded with surprising speed over the past year.
Speaking in Thailand on the eve of his landmark visit, Obama denied he was going there to offer his "endorsement" or that his trip was premature.
Instead, he insisted his intention was to acknowledge that Myanmar had opened the door to change but there was still much more to do.
"I don't think anybody is under the illusion that Myanmar's arrived, that they're where they need to be," Obama told a news conference as he began a three-country Asian tour, his first trip abroad since winning a second term.
The Myanmar visit, less than two weeks after his re-election, is the centerpiece of a trip aimed at showing Obama is serious about shifting the U.S. strategic focus eastwards as America winds down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A senior U.S. official said Obama would announce the resumption of U.S. aid programmes in Myanmar during his visit, anticipating assistance of $170 million in fiscal 2012 and 2013, but this, too, would be dependent on further reforms.
"The president will be announcing that the United States is re-establishing a USAID mission, which has been suspended for many years," the official told reporters in Bangkok, declining to be named.
The United States has softened sanctions and removed a ban on most imports from Myanmar in response to reforms already undertaken, but it has set conditions for the full normalization of relations.
US shuttling through China's "soft belly"
By Li Hongmei, Special to Sina English
Before Barack Obama was sworn in for his new term, he and his powerful political colleagues Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta descended upon Asia-Pacific, shuttling through China’s “soft belly”.
Starting the weekend, Asia-Pacific will be witnessing an unprecedented rise in the U.S. diplomatic activity in the region which until lately was a "black spot" in Washington's foreign policy but has acquired new significance after the administration announced the "strategic pivot" towards Asia.
The diplomatic offensive begins with Washington’s triumvirate - President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta - visiting Cambodia. The agenda includes both bilateral talks with the respective counterparts and the participation in the East Asia summit in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.
Later, the US President and his men (as well as the woman) will also visit Thailand and Myanmar.
What makes the tour historic is not just the fact that never before had any US President visit Cambodia or Myanmar, but the attempt to establish substantial presence in what has for a long time been regarded as China's “diplomatic domain.” Both Myanmar and Cambodia are looked upon as China's close friends in the region.
But times are changing, and the "strategic pivot" announced late last year presupposes that the U.S. is going to exert efforts in order to not only limit China's expansion in the fields it is aiming to conquer, but also to press China out of the areas which it has long regarded as its “backyard.” (full story)