Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's impending visit to Myanmar represents a dramatic shift in policy toward a state infamous for repression, an opening that demonstrates a new U.S. focus on Asia by building ties to a strategically important country bordering China.
When she arrives Wednesday for a three-day visit, Clinton will be the most senior U.S. official to visit Burma — as the country long was known — since generals seized power in 1962 and largely closed it to the outside world. Her trip comes two weeks after President Obama announced a pivot in foreign policy: reasserting American political and economic clout in Asia to counter China's growing reach.
Clinton must balance those strategic goals against the risk of rewarding one of the world's most repressive regimes with the international acceptance it now craves. She must move carefully to lure Myanmar's reclusive leaders out of China's political orbit, while prodding the regime to continue what Obama has called "flickers of progress" toward reform.
If the regime fails to deliver on its promises, the historic overture could turn out to be an embarrassing blunder.
"This trip is a huge gamble that only pays off if we see substantial progress," said Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch, a former official in President Clinton's White House. "The administration is very much aware of the risks."
Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to meet in the new capital, Naypyidaw, on Wednesday with President Thein Sein, who is a former general, Foreign Minister Wunna Maung Lwin and senior members of parliament. On Thursday and Friday, she will meet reform icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who blessed the trip during a phone call with Obama.
Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, spent 15 years in detention after leading a peaceful uprising that was crushed by the army. She announced this month that her political party would participate in coming elections.
Clinton also is scheduled to meet with other private citizens and visit an AIDS clinic run by Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy.
Clinton has promised that she will be blunt with officials about the need to release an estimated 1,600 political prisoners and improve human rights. She said she intends to test the regime's promises before offering any rewards, including any unwinding of economic sanctions that Washington and other governments and international bodies have imposed over the decades.
"We're not making any abrupt changes," Clinton told NBC News before she left. "We have to do more fact finding, and that's part of my trip."
But others, especially in the region, said the symbolism of her visit is hard to underestimate. Some believe Clinton's presence may spur national pride that could help build momentum toward greater reforms.
"The meeting is a real opportunity for both sides, even if reform and lifting of sanctions takes time," said Htun Htun, information coordinator with India's Burma Center Delhi.
Visiting Australia and Indonesia this month, Obama pledged to expand America's political and military engagement in Asia as the post-Sept. 11 wars wind down. He announced plans to deploy 2,500 Marines in northern Australia, and pressed for a free-trade architecture intended to unite the United States and regional allies.
The goal, aides said, was to help check China's growing ambitions in the region. A reformed Myanmar similarly would bolster the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations as a regional bulwark against China. In the last two years, Beijing has challenged ASEAN members over control of resource-rich areas in the South China Sea.
Douglas Paal, a former senior U.S. official and specialist on Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the 10-nation bloc's impact has been diminished in recent years by the appearance that Myanmar, an ASEAN member, "was almost a Chinese economic colony."
That relationship has shown signs of strain, however. In September, Myanmar abruptly suspended China's plans to build a $3.6-billion dam that faced strong popular opposition.
Setting aside the strategic competition between the U.S. and China, Myanmar suffers from an array of problems including tensions among ethnic groups, and among factions in the military. The economy is largely in the hands of a small number of people with close ties to the military.
A new U.S. relationship with Myanmar could create opportunities for American companies, which are eager to gain access to Myanmar's gas fields and abundant mineral resources.
If Washington moves toward lifting sanctions, "the question will be, what can the U.S. offer Myanmar in the meantime as a carrot?" said Bridget Welsh, a political science professor with the Singapore Management University.
The Obama administration could propose such confidence-building measures as an exchange of senior diplomats, access to United Nations organizations, or cooperation on regional issues such as drugs and human trafficking, U.S. officials say.
Human rights advocates said they are disappointed that the regime did not release political prisoners before Clinton's trip.
Activists say that if the regime doesn't institute reforms in the coming weeks and months, the trip must be judged a failure. Even if Clinton's visit comes off well, they worry that the regime could fear it is losing control and start backpedaling as it faces increased demands for change.
"We hope Clinton can convince the Burmese regime to release political prisoners and improve human rights violations," said Aung Khaing Min, an official with the Assistance Assn. for Political Prisoners, an advocacy group based in Thailand. "Any improvement depends on the actions of the regime."
Some analysts said events of the last year — including a new constitution, an elected parliament, a more reform-minded president and greater demands by political groups — may make it difficult for the regime to roll back the changes.
"I think [the genie's] out of the bottle, although it won't be a linear process," said Welsh, the political scientist.