BEIJING (Reuters) - The United States is not looking to undermine China’s stake in Myanmar now that Washington’s ties are improving with the once-reclusive southeast Asian nation, a U.S. envoy said on Tuesday.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi this month on a landmark visit which saw Myanmar’s new civilian government vow to forge ahead with political reforms and re-engage with the world.
Clinton’s trip followed a decision by President Barack Obama last month to open the door to expanded ties, saying he saw the potential for progress in a country until recently seen as an isolated military dictatorship firmly aligned with China.
Derek Mitchell, the newly-appointed special U.S. envoy for Myanmar, said at the end of a brief visit to Beijing that improved ties with the country once known as Burma were not aimed at undermining China’s strong links with its neighbor.
“There is no intent of the United States in its relationship with Burma to have any certainly negative influence on Burma-China relations. It is not meant to come at the expense of any country,” he told reporters.
“It is not in the interests of the United States that Burma have tense relationships with its neighbors; in fact the contrary.
“China and Burma have a long history as well as a long border. They have deep economic relations in the past and it’s between the two nations to determine their future.”
Myanmar’s new leadership hopes the United States will eventually ease or remove the sanctions, opening the resource-rich but poor country to more trade and investment.
For Washington, improved ties could underscore Obama’s determination to up U.S. engagement in Asia and balance China’s fast-growing economic, military and political influence.
Mitchell said in his meetings with Chinese officials he wanted “to gain perspectives about how China is thinking about things and see if there might be opportunities to coordinate, cooperate and work together in the interests of regional stability as well as the interests of the Burmese people.”
During her visit, Clinton said U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, imposed because of rights abuses and the suppression of democracy, might end if reforms continue.
Clinton has praised Myanmar’s new army-backed civilian government for moving ahead with reforms after elections last November that ended some five decades of unbroken military rule.
But Western governments have also expressed caution that more must be done for Myanmar’s reforms to be considered credible.
“Obviously there’s a long way to go. There are a lot of questions about the future,” Mitchell said. “As they continue to reform, then the United States will be responding in kind with increasing assistance, increasing partnership in the process.”
With sanctions blocking Western investments, China has emerged as Myanmar’s biggest ally, investing in infrastructure, hydropower dams and twin oil-and-gas pipelines to help feed southern China’s growing energy needs.
But the relationship has been strained, with a long history of resentment of China among the Burmese population and fierce public opposition to a Chinese-built dam at Myitsone that prompted Myanmar President Thein Sein to shelve the project in September, a move that stunned Beijing.
While China is wary of greater U.S. influence in the region, especially in countries on its border, a stable Myanmar is also in China’s interests. China has long worried about violence and drugs in Myanmar spilling into its territory.
Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Ron Popeski