US President Barack Obama paid a six-hour visit to Myanmar yesterday. Some have suggested that Obama's visit was aimed at weakening China's influence. Such assumptions regarding contests between great powers and the political changes in Myanmar over the past year added special meaning to Obama's visit.
China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn't express any displeasure with the visit, but said it believed that Sino-Myanmese relations would deepen. This shouldn't simply be dismissed as diplomatic-speak, but shows China's confidence.
Myanmar's democratic reforms and opening up to the West not only satisfy Washington but are also in China's long-term interests. Most ASEAN countries have democratic elections and relations with China are not hindered due to differences in political systems. Myanmar won't become alienated from China simply because of domestic political adjustments.
Myanmar's opening-up was unavoidable. Sino-Myanmese relations must undergo some changes to adapt to this. But the changes will be limited.
There is no possibility that bilateral relations will be overturned entirely. China is the biggest neighboring country of Myanmar and has irreplaceable influences on it. More importantly, such influences are based on equality.
Myanmar is becoming open to the West in order to maximize its national interests. But it's unwise to replace China with the West. Both the current leadership of Myanmar and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi well know this.
That said, Obama's visit may still have an eye toward challenging China's influence. But the actual effect will be difficult to tell. Obama likes to be applauded for his efforts in promoting democracy in Myanmar and this merits some reward. However, the US can't squeeze China out of Myanmar.
Southeast Asia doesn't face the imminent danger of war. The worst case scenario predicted for the South China Sea dispute is a low-level military clash. Washington is selling its military and political influence in the region, which is a difficult business. The countries in the region are more concerned with economic growth. They care about which country - the US or China - can bring them more benefit.
Economically, Southeast Asian countries are depending on China more than the US, and this tendency is on the increase. Obama is bringing $170 million in aid to Myanmar. Unless he can ensure aid is delivered to Myanmar every month, such small amount of money won't be a significant bargaining chip to change the China-Myanmar relationship.
China needs to adjust to the US's increasing diplomatic actions in the region, but it doesn't have to overreact. China's fast economic growth and growing domestic market will translate into a stronger economic driving force in the region. This is the biggest leverage China has in diplomacy in Southeast Asia.