“This isn’t a revolution like in Tunisia or Egypt,” he said. “It’s been a series of small steps by a regime that until seven months ago was one of the most ostracized in the world, and for good reason.”
Others interpreted the visit as part of the Obama administration’s pivot toward Asia to counterbalance China’s rising power and influence in the region.
Burma, wedged between China and India, has relied heavily on China for investment in the face of international sanctions for its human rights violations. But, in recent months, Burmese leaders have shown signs of unease about the relationship, most notably in suspending an unpopular Chinese-funded dam project.
“There is anxiety about how much China will push back or demand concessions because of the cancellation of the dam,” said Aung Din, director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma.
The visit by Clinton could be a chance to capitalize on that emerging rift, but administration officials disputed suggestions that China was a factor.
“This is a decision about Burma, of human rights, and it’s in response to measurable, concrete progress that the Burmese leaders are making,” said one senior administration official traveling with Obama.
Regardless of intention, however, the perception that the United States is playing a power game against China could cause problems, said Michael Green, who was a senior official on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration. “We can’t be seen as putting that ahead of our values on human rights and democracy. The other danger is if others in the region, like India or Japan, misinterpret this as a sign that it’s now okay to turn on the spigots of aid to Burma.”
In interviews Friday, U.S. officials emphasized that they wanted to see more from Burma’s leaders, including a full release of political prisoners, an end to the government’s violent repression of ethnic groups and greater transparency in its weapons trade.
“There certainly does seem to be an opening,” Clinton told CNN. “How real it is, how far it goes, we will have to make sure we have a better understanding than we do right now.”
To explain his decision to Capitol Hill, Obama sent officials to brief congressional staff members Friday.
“They said the trip could be an opportunity to get something even bigger, though they weren’t willing to drill down on the specifics of what that was,” said one House staff member, who attended the briefing but was not authorized to speak on record. “I think people are willing to give them a bit of room to offer one-offs, like this visit to see if the reform is real.”
Many members of Congress voiced support for Clinton’s planned visit but echoed Obama’s caveat that more needs to be done.
Burma, the Hill staffer and others noted, still seems far from winning more-permanent gestures, such as the lifting of economic sanctions, which could require congressional approval.
“With this visit, there are some worries and some risk,” said Aung Din, a former student leader who was detained for four years. “There is also hope more will happen, like the release of all those remaining political prisoners.”
Wan reported from Washington.