WASHINGTON (AP) — America’s warming relations with one-time adversary Myanmar should demonstrate to North Korea the benefits of opening up to the world, a top White House official said Thursday.
National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon was speaking ahead of a historic visit to Myanmar next week by President Barack Obama, the first by a sitting U.S. president. Donilon said the trip is intended to “lock in” and encourage further democratic reforms.
The U.S. has ended diplomatic isolation of Myanmar and has suspended tough economic sanctions as the country also known as Burma has shifted from five decades of oppressive military rule. Its government has reconciled with its famed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner who is now a lawmaker.
Donilon said those reforms, and U.S. support of them, has allowed Myanmar to re-enter the international community, with the economic opportunities that confers.
“That is a path that if North Korea would address the nuclear issue would be available to them. We have said that from the outset. It’s an important example for them to contemplate,” Donilon told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
But he said the U.S. sees no sign Pyongyang has decided to go the same way. He said it needs to demonstrate serious intent on ending its nuclear weapons program.
North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests, and recent commercial satellite imagery suggests it has continued to develop long-range ballistic missiles since it attempted to launch a rocket into space in April, in defiance of a U.N. ban. That launch scuppered an Obama administration effort to give the impoverished country food aid in exchange for nuclear concessions.
Obama, who departs at the weekend, will first travel to Thailand. After Myanmar, he is to attend a summit of East Asian leaders in Cambodia to show his continued focus on the region despite instability in the Middle East and acute political challenges at home in tackling the national debt.
“There’s a tremendous demand and expectation for U.S. leadership in the region,” Donilon said, referring to its military presence, economic ties and support of rule of law and human rights.
Donilon said U.S. alliances in the region, with countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia, are “stronger than they have ever been,” but he also stressed the importance of constructive ties with China, with whom he said U.S. relations were both cooperative and competitive.
The Obama administration has built the channels of communication with Beijing to allow the two powers to manage their differences and looks forward to working with China’s new leadership team, Donilon said. China announced new leaders Thursday after a congress of the ruling Communist Party.
China, however, has taken a less positive view of Obama’s strategic “pivot” to Asia, viewing it as an attempt to contain its rise, which challenges the long-standing U.S. military predominance in the region. The U.S. outreach to Myanmar may also serve to blunt Chinese influence in Southeast Asia.
China’s neighbors welcome greater U.S. engagement in the region, but they also want to maintain cordial ties with the region’s largest economy, notwithstanding China’s assertive behavior in staking claim to disputed islands in the resource-rich East and South China Seas.