When Air Force One touched down at Yangon's Mingaladon Airport on Nov. 19, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit Myanmar. Though the visit only lasted six hours and was bookended by longer stops in Thailand and Cambodia, it was critical not only for maintaining Myanmar's momentum toward reform but also for solidifying its place in the U.S. regional strategy in Asia.
Despite the symbolism, the Obama administration insisted that the president's visit was not intended as a premature “victory lap” to celebrate Myanmar's reforms, as critics claimed it risked being perceived, but only to sustain a reform process that still has a long way to go. Though significant challenges remain, Danny Russel, Obama's top Asia adviser said the president was determined “not to miss the moment” to influence Myanmar's leaders to keep moving along the path of reform.
Beyond keeping up pressure for reform, the trip also cemented Myanmar's role as a key component of the U.S. rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific in several ways. First, the United States and its partners have been increasingly trying to boost economic ties with mainland Southeast Asian countries along China's periphery to balance Beijing's dominant influence there. In this vein, just a few days before Obama's Asian trip, the administration announced that it would allow Myanmarese goods to enter the United States for the first time in nearly a decade, part of a broader effort to ease sanctions. The lifting of the import ban will help the Myanmarese economy develop and offer opportunities for Myanmarese businesses. More importantly, it also intensifies economic linkages between the two countries to lessen the Southeast Asian country's dependence on China. Easing that dependence, experts contend, was at least part of the reason why the regime embraced reform and opened its doors to the West in the first place. U.S. partners have also been capitalizing on lucrative economic and business opportunities in Myanmar. For instance, shortly before Obama's visit, ministers from Myanmar and Thailand made a show of support for the multibillion-dollar Dawei economic zone between the two countries.