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Obama's Myanmar trip reveals renewed focus on Asia

The White House's motivation for President Obama's historic trip to Myanmar? China, according to Morton Halperin.

US returns focus to Asia

Nov. 20, 201210:07

The White House's motivation for President Obama's historic trip to Myanmar? China, according to Morton Halperin.

"I think they see an opportunity to move Burma out of the Chinese orbit and into an American orbit," the foreign policy expert and senior adviser to the Open Society Foundation said on Morning Joe Tuesday.

Myanmar has just emerged from a decades-long military dictatorship and is attempting to transition to democratic rule.

Halperin, who served in the Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton administrations, suggested that the Obama administration has decided to pay more attention to Asia in the president's second term. Myanmar is the administration's starting block.

"As the troops are coming out of Afghanistan and, of course, now out of Iraq, they're moving more military forces into Asia and beginning an offensive to try to pull countries back from feeling they have to accommodate China because we're not going to be there to defend them," he said.

The White House is also concerned with human rights issues, Halperin added. Some in the international human rights community considered President Obama's trip to the still-struggling country premature. Myanmar opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi privately advised Americans against the president visiting, The New York Times reported.

"The most difficult time in any transition is when we think that success is in sight," Suu Kyi warned while appearing with President Obama on Monday. "Then we have to be very careful that we are not lured by a mirage of success."

The compromise that resulted was that the president would not visit Naypyidaw, where Burma's then-military government relocated the capital to in 2006, but instead travel only to Rangoon (Burma's previous capital) and to Suu Kyi's house, where she was imprisoned for nearly two decades before being released by the new civilian government in 2010.

In his Rangoon speech on Monday, President Obama gave what Joe Scarborough called a "tough talk," commending Myanmar on its progress but stressing the country's need for civilian-led government to control the military.

That was the "trade-off" when the White House decided to have the president visit the fledgling democracy, Halperin said. "He knew if he went, he was going to have to be very tough--and he was."

President Obama's reference to the country as both Myanmar and Burma is getting some attention. Myanmar is the preferred terminology of the former military government and currently nominally civilian government, while Burma, the former name of the country until 1989, is the nomenclature preferred by Suu Kyi and officially used by the United States. The president switched between the two names depending on who he was meeting with on Monday. The Associated Press reported:

Speaking aboard Air Force One after Obama's departure, U.S. Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes said the presidential phrasing was "a diplomatic courtesy" for Myanmar's reformist President Thein Sein."It doesn't change the fact that the United States government position is still Burma," he said. "But we've said we recognize that different people call this country by different names. Our view is that is something we can continue to discuss."The issue is so sensitive that Obama's aides had said earlier Monday he would likely avoid mentioning either politically charged name. But he used both during his six-hour trip - "Myanmar" during morning talks with Thein Sein, "Burma" afterward while visiting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The president is in Cambodia on Tuesday and will return to the White House Tuesday night.