Hillary Clinton’s visit to Myanmar next month could do much more than finally end the country’s long isolation. The fact that she will be the first secretary of state of the United States of America to visit Myanmar in more than half a century gives the event enormous diplomatic significance. Obviously, both Myanmar and the US have their own perceptions of the importance of Ms Clinton’s visit. Myanmar’s new rulers would like to flaunt the visit as the ultimate recognition of the political reforms that they have initiated over the past few months. It is true that the new rulers, many of whom are former generals, have released hundreds of political prisoners, opened talks with the Opposition and relaxed some restrictions on the media. The reforms have prompted Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy to rejoin the political mainstream. Ms Suu Kyi herself has decided to contest elections under a system that had once deregistered her party. Ms Clinton has said that the aim of her visit would be to “test the true intentions” of the regime. Given the anti-democratic record of Myanmar’s generals-turned-politicians, hopes for political and economic reforms in the country must be mixed with a liberal dose of caution.
However, the more important aspect of Ms Clinton’s visit is its possible fallout on the strategic equations in the region. It has been no secret that Myanmar’s isolation drove it to complete Chinese control. Beijing’s influence on Myanmar’s economy and military practically reduced the latter to a Chinese satellite. Only in recent months, Myanmar’s new rulers have shown some signs of trying to break free from Beijing’s control. This too may have influenced the US’s decision to initiate a new engagement policy for Myanmar. An increased US engagement in the region throws up new possibilities not only for the US but also for other countries in Asia. New Delhi has a major stake in any change in the strategic equations in the region. Myanmar’s domestic problems often spill over to neighbouring Bangladesh and indirectly affect the entire region’s political stability. The Chinese control of Myanmar’s navy, in particular, has long been a source of anxiety for New Delhi. India should, therefore, be happy to see the Chinese influence in Myanmar reduced by a new US policy of engagement with the latter.