ABC The Drum

The change in the relationship between the US and Burma is nothing short of miraculous, writes Adam Lockyer.

This week, US president Barack Obama made his first trip abroad since being re-elected. It was a coincidence that it was made to the East Asia Summit. But it was a deliberate choice for the president and the secretary of state Hillary Clinton to visit Burma as part of the trip.

Over the past two years, the United States' foreign policy towards Burma has been a master class in diplomacy. It has been a textbook case in what can be achieved by speaking softly while carrying a big carrot.

Three people can take a bow: Obama, Clinton and ambassador Derek Mitchell.

At the highest level, the most enduring foreign policy legacy of Obama's first term will be the "Pivot to Asia". This new grand strategy was dictated by economic, demographic and military realities. Since the industrial revolution, Europe has been the engine of the world's economic growth and, consequently, where its greatest concentration of military power has been. The 21st Century looks likely to see a shift in the world's economic and military power away from Europe to Asia.

The military aspect of the "Pivot to Asia" has received undue attention. It is true that there have been new US deployments to Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and Guam, but these have been modest if not token. The increased diplomatic attention the region has enjoyed is both underreported and more significant. Enter Clinton.

Hillary Clinton has spent considerably more time focussed on Asia than any of her predecessors. She has developed deep personal relationships with most of Asia's leaders, having visited almost every country in the region at least once. It is this level of attention that allowed Obama's senior policy team to identify very early that things were changing in Burma.

In March 2011, Burmese president Thein Sein took office and began making positive noises about democracy, human rights and liberalisation. It was only a month later that President Obama appointed Derek Mitchell to be first US special representative and policy coordinator for Burma. He was charged with negotiating directly with the rulers of Burma on how the US could assist the transition.

Two things are clear. First, had Obama's foreign policy team not been focusing as intently as they were on the Asia-Pacific, they may have either missed the opportunity Sein's election presented or been late to the party. Second, had they not immediately appointed a very senior official to the full time job of Burma, the following two-years would not have been as smooth and successful as they have been.

Looking back, the change in US-Burma relations over the past two years has been nothing short of miraculous.

The US has two aims in Burma. The first is to promote democracy and human rights. The second is geopolitical and involves managing the rise of China.

Burma has only taken its very first steps towards democracy. Thousands of political prisoners remain incarcerated. Its elections are still rife with voting fraud and other irregularities. And the military continues to brutally suppress revolts in the country's northern provinces.

The advances towards democracy have, nonetheless, been tremendous. Several hundred political prisoners have been released. These include the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous freedom campaigner. The regime even allowed her political party to compete and win seats in parliament. Human rights commissions have been established and restrictions on the media have been relaxed.

The United States has responded to each one of these positive steps with its own set of rewards. These have varied from diplomatic visits (Clinton has visited twice now and Sein and Suu Kyi have visited the White House) through to economic aid. For instance, on this trip, President Obama announced $170 million in economic aid over two years on the provision that the country remains on a course towards democracy. In response, President Sein announced the establishment of a "United Nations Commission of Inquiry" into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.

Besides promoting democracy and human rights, the United States' second aim in Burma is geopolitical. Until recently, Burma was China's closest ally in the region. Indeed, over the past decade there had been rumoured moves to build a Chinese naval base in Burma. Although this never eventuated, Chinese naval vessels had been welcome in its ports. The countries also shared close diplomatic and economic ties. Until 2011, if analysts had chosen to play the old Cold War game and paint the map red and blue, Burma certainly would have fallen on the Chinese side of the ledger.

Furthermore, Burma's admission to Asean in 2008 has been a sticking point for deeper American engagement in the region. Between 2008 and now, Washington has been trying to navigate between politically isolating Burma and engaging with Asean. Now that this hurdle has been removed, we should expect even greater US engagement in the region.

The United States does, however, only have finite resources to devote around the world. Devoting ever greater attention to the Asian region does have its trade-offs. These were out for the world to see this week in America's underwhelming response to the Gaza crisis.

This article was originally published by ABC The Drum