A repressive military junta has ruled the country of Burma (Myanmar, as the junta prefers) since 1988, when it put down a democratic uprising. Brutal crackdowns have marked the recent history of the country. In 2007, mass protests by Buddhist monks were silenced with automatic weapons. In 2008, when a tropical cyclone killed an estimated 14,000 Burmese, the military junta refused international aid workers into the country leading voices in the international community to call for forced humanitarian intervention.
The previous U.S. Administration chose to isolate Burma with sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Recently, the Obama Administration has reversed US policy and pursued direct talks with the military government of Burma. The junta has scheduled elections for 2010, and US envoys to the country hope to use direct talks to push for free and fair elections.
Myanmar has become a client state of China, which has sheltered Burma from international sanctions and made the country dependent on Chinese investment and aid. But Western activists have overstated the role of China in supporting human rights abuses in developing countries.
This is true as well in the case of Burma, but that statement needs to be clarified. U.S. unwillingness to engage repressive regimes has allowed China to push its "Beijing Consensus" as an alternative to Western aid, allowing China to brand Western aid as interventionist because of its demands for improvements in human rights from recipient countries.
As Washington ignored tyrannical regimes, China has been allowed to fill that diplomatic vacuum and pursue a quiet expansion of economic and diplomatic power without needing to "play by the rules" of the international system, tacitly supporting regimes that violate human rights.
The United States, China, and other developed and rapid developing countries are very busy probing the globe to ink new trade deals and gain access to finite resources. Just as the West has created an international presence by expanding and opening markets, it should be expected that China will do the same to satisfy its burgeoning middle class.
By isolating despotic regimes and allowing China the breathing room to expand its influence without concern for international pressure, the US has allowed the Chinese government to gain inexpensive victories. It should be expected that China will continue to press its advantage by embracing isolated states, especially when it is cheaper for them to avoid market competition with the West in other (more mature) frontier/ emerging markets. Therefore, blame US failure to engage globally as the direct source of support for despotic regimes, rather than China's indirect role in pandering to pariah states.
President Obama is continuing to practice a nuanced diplomacy that attempts to re-engage the world and return credibility to U.S. support for international law. The President might be slowly returning popularity to the United States, but popularity is fleeting. By re-engaging Burma and other despotic regimes that have profited from U.S. preoccupation, the Obama Administration is also returning legitimacy to the diplomatic efforts of the United States and pressuring China to conform to international norms and promote respect for human rights. Engagement with Burma is a good place to start.
Reese Neader attends Dennison University where he is a Defence and Diplomacy Strategist with the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network. He is majoring in Political Science and recently completed a summer internship with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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