Yesterday Secretary Clinton stepped down onto the tarmac at Nay Pyi Taw, marking the first visit to Burma by a US Secretary of State in more than half a century. Accompanying her are Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell and a team of other Burma experts.

NAY PYI TAW, Burma (November 30, 2011) Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Nay Pyi Taw to begin her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Scott Weinhold]

Secretary Clinton arrives yesterday in Nay Pyi Taw.

Today the Secretary met at length with Burmese President Thein Sein, his Foreign Minister, other senior Ministers, and the Speakers and Members of both houses of Parliament. In the Secretary’s words, “We had candid, productive conversations about the steps taken so far and the path ahead for reform.” A background briefing just posted online provides interesting insights on how the discussions went.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is greeted by Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Myo Myint as she arrives in Nay Pyi Taw to begin her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Scott Weinhold]

The Secretary is greeted by Burmese Deputy Foreign Minister Dr Myo Myint.

After meeting with President Thein Sein, Secretary Clinton engaged with Burmese reporters and other media to answer questions about the objectives and progress of her trip.

Although her 48 hours in Burma are packed with meetings, the Secretary fortunately had a few minutes today to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the great jewels of Southeast Asia. I spent an afternoon at Shwedagon in 1985, marveling at the architecture and dodging the tourist police.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon during her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Kay Itoi]

The Secretary enters Shwedagon with her hosts.

Located on Singutarra Hill in Rangoon, parts of Shwedagon Pagoda, aka the Golden Pagoda, are more than 2,500 years old. Archaeologists believe that the original stupa was built during the lifetime of Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha, around 580BC.

Shwedagon Pagoda. Please click through for image source.

Shwedagon Pagoda.

The temple dominates the city’s skyline and has been a rallying point for civil protests since the 1920s. Over several days in September 2007, tens of thousands of monks, nuns, and other citizens marched at the Pagoda in protest against the military regime and in support of Aung San Suu Kyi.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon during her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by Kay Itoi]

The Secretary at a ceremonial planetary post at Shwedagon Pagoda.

The Secretary had a productive dinner this evening with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and will meet with her again tomorrow. While in Rangoon, the Secretary will also consult with a broad, diverse group of civil society and ethnic minority leaders about their views on developments in Burma.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Daw Aung San Suu Kyi for dinner in Rangoon during her historic visit to Burma. [State Department photo by William Ng]

The Secretary dines with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Secretary Clinton’s visit is an historic opening, laden with promise. As she said earlier today:

“These are beginning steps, and we are prepared to go even further if reforms maintain momentum. In that spirit, we are discussing what it will take to upgrade diplomatic relations and exchange ambassadors. Over time, this could become an important channel to air concerns, monitor and support progress, and build trust on both sides.

“The last time an American Secretary of State came to Burma, it was John Foster Dulles, and this country was considered the jewel of Asia, a center of higher learning and the rice bowl of the region. In the last half century, other countries have raced ahead and turned East Asia into one of the world’s great centers of dynamic growth and opportunity. So the most consequential question facing this country, both leaders and citizens, is not your relationship with the United States or with any other nation. It is whether leaders will let their people live up to their God-given potential and claim their place at the heart of the 21st century, a Pacific century.

“There is no guarantee how that question will be answered. If the question is not answered in a positive way, then once again, the people could be left behind. But if it is answered in a positive way, I think the potential is unlimited.”

The November 2011 issue of Foreign Policy carries an insightful article by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on America’s policy and place in the Pacific and Asian regions. It is an excellent read. I won’t reprint it in its entirety, but you can access the piece by clicking here.

In her usual direct and nuanced way, the Secretary articulates the mutual benefits of an active and engaged America, and clearly lays out the tenets of US strategy. She grounds her points in historical context often overlooked in much of today’s sound-bite-driven, faddish popular discourse:

Secretary of State Clinton.

Secretary of State Clinton.

“Just as Asia is critical to America’s future, an engaged America is vital to Asia’s future. The region is eager for our leadership and our business — perhaps more so than at any time in modern history.

“We are the only power with a network of strong alliances in the region, no territorial ambitions, and a long record of providing for the common good. Along with our allies, we have underwritten regional security for decades — patrolling Asia’s sea lanes and preserving stability — and that in turn has helped create the conditions for growth.

“We have helped integrate billions of people across the region into the global economy by spurring economic productivity, social empowerment, and greater people-to-people links. We are a major trade and investment partner, a source of innovation that benefits works and businesses on both sides of the Pacific, a host to 350,000 Asian students every year, a champion of open markets, and an advocate for universal human rights.”

The Secretary then proceeds to discuss in detail the Administration’s “multifacted and persistent effort to embrace fully our irreplaceable role in the Pacific, spanning the entire US government.” She notes that “[i]t has often been a quiet effort. A lot of our work has not been on the front pages, both because of its nature — long-term investment is less exciting than immediate crises — and because of competing headlines in other parts of the world.”

In the Secretary’s rubric, the strategy is one of forward-deployed diplomacy, which means engaging actively on the ground throughout the region and adapting in real time to the rapid and often dramatic shifts occurring in today’s interconnected world.

She reviews in detail the six key lines of action in American strategy: strengthening bilateral security alliances, deepening working relationships with emerging powers, engaging with regional multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment opportunities, forging a broad-based military presence, and advancing democracy and human rights.

The Cloud. Please click through for image source.

Auckland's Cloud, the site of several Pacific Island Forum events.

The views that the Secretary expresses are not theoretical or philosophical. They are practical, tangible, and operational. Just one excellent example was the nature and scope of US participation in this year’s Pacific Island Forum in Auckland.

The US sent its largest and highest-level delegation ever to attend the PIF’s Post-Forum Dialogue. Led by Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides, the contingent included senior officials from the Department of State, USAID, White House, Department of Commerce, Peace Corps, Department of Defense, and Coast Guard.

L-R Jimmie Rodgers, Nisha Biswal, David Sheppard Director General Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), Dan Clune U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of Oceans, International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, Thomas Nides.

Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides at the Pacific Island Forum.

Playing key roles along with Deputy Secretary Nides were Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, making his third visit to New Zealand in the past 12 months, and the Governor of American Samoa, the Honorable Togiola Tulafono, as well my fellow American Ambassadors from Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Palau, and Australia.

Our visitors came to work. The delegation split into several teams based on subject matter focus, and almost two dozen of my colleagues from the Embassy and Consulate General provided support and squired the teams through more than 110 separate meetings with their counterparts from the Government of New Zealand and/or other PIF attendees.

Thomas Nides U.S. Deputy Secretary of State with NZ Foreign Affairs Minister, Hon Murray McCully.

Deputy Secretary Nides and Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully meet the press after a productive bilateral meeting.

Our visitors also came to pony up, commit, and execute. Progress was made on a variety of matters including disaster preparedness, climate change, sustainable development, and fisheries. Several MOUs and agreements were signed.

For example, we signed partnership agreements with the Secretariat of the Pacific Community and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme to advance climate change adaptation in the Pacific Small Island States. Those agreements are part of a larger, two-year US$ 21 million package to address climate change impact in the region.

We also signed ship-rider agreements with Nauru and Tuvalu, bringing the total number of those agreements in the Pacific to eight. Under those successful agreements, the US Coast Guard extends the reach and power of island nation law enforcement officers by hosting them on our vessels and aircraft to patrol national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). Such joint activity is essential to the economic health as well as the security of partner nations, given the large amount of illegal commercial fishing in the EEZs.

Dr. Jimmie Rodgers Director General Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) and Thomas Nides, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.

Deputy Secretary Nides signs an agreement with Dr Jimmie Rodgers, Director of the General Secretariat of the Pacific Community.

Such collaboration is a natural part of our uninterrupted, generations-long engagement in the region. The United States is itself a Pacific nation with deep, enduring, and historic ties to our Pacific friends and neighbors. And that isn’t going to change. On that note, I’ll give the Secretary the final word:

“I’m well aware that there are those who question our staying power around the world. We’ve heard this talk before. At the end of the Vietnam War, there was a thriving industry of global commentators promoting the idea that America was in retreat, and it is a theme that repeats itself every few decades. But whenever the United States has experienced setbacks, we’ve overcome them through reinvention and innovation.

“Our capacity to come back stronger is unmatched in modern history. It flows from our model of free democracy and free enterprise, a model that remains the most powerful source of prosperity and progress known to humankind … So there should be no doubt that America has the capacity to secure and sustain our global leadership in this century as we did in the last.”

DH Sig

Following up on my prior post … I am happy to report that our delegation had a very productive visit to Samoa. Despite having had an exceptionally long day in Kiribati, Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell, Admiral Patrick Walsh, USAID Assistant Administrator Nisha Biswal, Brigadier General Richard Simcock, and the rest of the team hit the ground running upon arrival in Apia.

Kicking off the visit with dinner with the Deputy Prime Minister and other Samoan leaders.

Launching the visit with a toast at dinner with the Deputy Prime Minister and other Samoan leaders.

I met the team at Faleolo Airport when their plane touched down at 6:30 pm, and we drove directly to Tanoa Tusitala Hotel for cocktails and dinner. The distinguished guests in attendance included the Deputy Prime Minister Honorable Fonotoe Pierre Lauofo Meredith, Minister of Environment Honorable Faamoetauloa Faale Tumaalii, other Members of Parliament, Ministry and agency CEOs, civil society leaders, and a few of our Aussie and Kiwi friends.

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