On his just completed trip to Asia, President Barack Obama announced in Hanoi that he was ending the decades-old embargo on U.S. arms sales to Vietnam, one of the last regional policy relics of the Cold War.

Although he denied that the shift was part of any deliberate “containment” policy, as China has charged, Beijing certainly interpreted it as such. As rivalries over conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea continue to preoccupy the U.S., China and some Southeast Asian states including Vietnam, the lifting of the arms sales prohibition was seen by some as a further element of the Obama “pivot” — which was designed, as U.S. policy has been for a century and a half, to prevent the rise of any hegemonic power in East Asia.

In spite of Obama’s meeting with some human rights supporters in Vietnam, some overseas advocates protested this new, seeming endorsement of the Hanoi regime citing its undemocratic, authoritarian communist government, and its denial of major elements of free speech, assembly, and other human rights. Indeed, at least one person scheduled to meet Obama in Hanoi was arrested before the meeting could happen.

The U.S. president called for greater freedoms in Vietnam, arguing that it would enhance stability in the country. But Vietnam, perhaps exceeding even Laos and Brunei, is arguably the least democratic state in all of Southeast Asia, despite its impressive economic growth.

Even six or so years ago, that dubious honor would probably have gone to Myanmar. Since then, however, the changes that swept Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy into office have been nothing short of remarkable. Although Myanmar’s military still retains quite considerable power through the provisions of the constitution that it promulgated in 2008, the country now has an opposition party that controls the legislature, and almost 90% of all cabinet positions.

While she is barred from the presidency by the military-sponsored constitution, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Laureate and prominent symbol of democracy, is state counsellor, minister of foreign affairs and minister of the president’s office. As state counsellor, she ranks herself above the two vice presidents and the commander-in-chief of the military, and only below the president, whom she personally chose as a loyal acolyte. The press is virtually free, opposition parties exist, and although some anomalies in human rights certainly continue, governance has been transformed. The military-backed ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party was soundly defeated in a free and fair election in 2015; political pluralism is alive and well.

The contrast between Myanmar and Vietnam is more than simply apparent; it is ludicrous. In mid-May, the White House published its annual statement that Myanmar (still called Burma in the announcement) was a threat to U.S. security and foreign policy, which is required each year if remaining executive sanctions are to be maintained. Military sales and almost all training, as well as economic assistance and anti-narcotics programs to Myanmar, have been prevented since the demonstrations and the subsequent military coup of 1988 to replace an inept military-run socialist government. Military training is severely circumscribed, and sanctions — although extensively cut back — still exist against military individuals, military-run institutions and others with connections to military-run businesses. Congress has built into the 2015 U.S. budget various restrictions against most military training and assistance (while encouraging inter-military contacts) to Myanmar, and included extensive reporting requirements on their aid program and any proposed changes to bilateral programs.

The sanctions conundrum

One might have thought that Aung San Suu Kyi, who has held Congress in her thrall and who, until the Obama administration, essentially controlled U.S. policy toward Myanmar, would have called for the removal of sanctions. To do so would have provided an opportunity both to develop trust with the military, an element singularly lacking in the past, and to assist in her economic development program. She has not done so, but she needs military cooperation to govern and improve conditions in that country.

One small step toward that goal could be endorsing a U.S. military training program, which many members of the armed forces would like to see revived. In its absence, China has hosted two-thirds of all Myanmar soldiers and officers who have trained overseas since 1990, accounting for 615 of 942 military personnel who trained abroad between 1990 and 1999 alone, according to author and scholar Maung Aung Myoe. Such civilian-military trust building is an essential element of a successful long-term transition from military to civilian rule in Myanmar, and in the short term the solution to the internecine ethnic conflict that has ravaged the country for decades. Ethnic tranquility is cardinal to state stability, but has proved an elusive goal since independence in 1948.

Is this discrepancy in policy simply because Myanmar has no littoral zone along the South China Sea? China has also regarded the Obama administration’s carefully orchestrated improvement in relations with Myanmar as part of U.S. containment efforts, claiming in the Chinese state-controlled Global Times that the U.S. was “undermining the [Chinese] wall in Myanmar.” China, more than the U.S., perceives a rivalry in Myanmar as less obvious than a potential confrontation in the South China Sea, but seemingly remains determined to prevent U.S. influence or troops along any of its frontiers — either in Myanmar or with North Korea.

The military has led Myanmar directly or indirectly for most of the years since independence. Whatever government is in power, its influence in that society will continue to be profound. The U.S. should reconsider its position on relations with the Myanmar military, especially military training and perhaps eventually on providing some types of equipment. More broadly, it should consider carefully how the development of a stable, unified, and democratic country might be best achieved. Such moves however would require that Aung San Suu Kyi recognize them to be in the interests of her country. That recognition is now being tested.

David I. Steinberg is distinguished professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University, and visiting scholar, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Link: http://asia.nikkei.com/Politics-Economy/International-Relations/David-I.-Steinberg-US-moves-on-Vietnam-and-Myanmar-highlight-glaring-discrepancies