As the sham Nov. 7 Burmese elections near, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations East Asia Subcommittee, is calling for the Obama administration to be more active in Burma and engage the country's military junta -- in order to prevent China from making Burma its client state.
Despite all the numerous failings of the Burmese junta and the limited results from the Obama administration's early outreach, the United States should keep on engaging the Burmese government -- even after what most expect will be severely flawed elections rife with human rights abuses, said Webb.
"We are in a situation where if we do not push some sort of constructive engagement, Burma is going to basically become a province of China," Webb said Wednesday morning at a breakfast meeting with Washington defense reporters.
"It does us no good to be out of there."
Webb, a former Navy Secretary with decades of experience in Southeast Asia, has been a thorn in the side of the State Department's Burma policy ever since the Obama team came to power. Before the State Department issued its new Burma policy, Webb was already at odds with Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell about how strongly to engage the military dictatorship ahead of the upcoming elections.
Webb supported the administration's new Burma policy, which purported to mix engagement with pressure on the Junta to hold free and fair elections. But now, with Campbell admitting that the November elections will not be free or fair and with no real progress made on the engagement front, Webb is calling for a new push.
"The administration adopted a policy of smarter engagement with Burma… [but] I don't think the administration took advantage of the opportunities presented to it," he said.
Webb said there was a "big division" inside the State Department over whether to pursue more intensive engagement with Burma and that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was inclined to try but ultimately yielded to pressure.
When asked how the U.S. could increase engagement with a regime behaving so badly, Webb criticized what he sees as a double standard in the administration's approach toward human rights -- and pointed to Beijing.
"When was the last time China had an election? How many political prisoners are there in China? Does anybody know? What's the consistency here?"
Webb visited Burma in 2009 and is the highest-ranking U.S. official to meet with Gen. Than Shwe, Burma's leader. But Webb cancelled a planned 2010 trip at the last minute due to rumors that revelations about Burma's nuclear ambitions were about to come to light.
After the elections, the administration should take another run at dealing with the Junta, even if they don't release Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, he said.
"We all respect Aung San Suu Kyi and the sacrifices she has made," said Webb. "On the other hand… How does the U.S. develop a relationship that could increase the stability in the region and not allow China to have dominance in a country that has strategic importance to the region?"
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.