America's pivot to Asia must go beyond defence

Curtis Chin notes the growing competition for economic opportunities in Burma, for one

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 August, 2013, 3:01am

With natural gas flowing this month through a controversial Chinese-backed pipeline project connecting resource-rich Burma with energy-hungry China, there remains a clear message to the US and others seeking to expand business relations with the once pariah nation.

Reducing attention on what has so far been a successful US "pivot on Burma" would be a mistake, despite continuing concerns over human rights violations and sectarian violence. Certainly, China has not paused.

Even as one controversial Chinese-backed hydropower project remains, at least for now, suspended, investment from China continues to flow in. According to the Chinese Companies Association in Myanmar, total investment between China and Burma has now reached US$20.7 billion, with Chinese businesses employing more than 15,000 local workers. It also said Chinese businesses in Burma have donated US$70 million to meet their corporate social responsibility.

The message is clear. Chinese businesses are here to stay and compete, even as other nations' companies play catch-up. In a landmark visit last November, US President Barack Obama included Burma on his first overseas trip after re-election. His trip, along with the lifting of US and European economic sanctions, was intended to encourage change and "responsible investment", and businesses have been quick to follow with visits of their own.

Last month, on my visit to Yangon, the signs of the so-called US "pivot to Asia" and pivot on Burma were evident.

T-shirts featuring the US president still hang in storefronts, while growing Western engagement can be seen in the form of Coca-Cola billboards, US teachers and volunteers, and numerous American and European business delegations.

And therein lies a critical insight. The US pivot to Asia must go beyond defence and diplomacy, and encompass a business, educational and cultural pivot as well.

While much of Southeast Asia may quietly welcome continued US defence and diplomatic engagement, follow-up will also be critical at the everyday level. It's time to look into policies that also encourage greater US business, educational and cultural ties in the region.

Whether American or Chinese, European or Japanese, businesses do not just compete on the products and services they provide. They also compete on how well they follow the rules, respect their employees and the local people, and affect the environment. Let the competition continue and the people of Burma decide where their best interests lie.

Curtis S. Chin is a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC, and served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007-2010