WASHINGTON—President Obama's historic visit to Myanmar, marking his return to Asia only days after his re-election, is rooted in a strategic move to shape new relationships as part of a larger shadow-boxing match with China over influence in the region.
Mr. Obama's trip to Asia, which also will include visits to Thailand and Cambodia, comes in the immediate wake of a change in China's top leadership, which has added an element of uncertainty to relations between the superpowers. For Mr. Obama, the trip represents a fresh effort to make good on his promise to shift U.S. attention toward Asia, as the administration seeks to serve as a counterbalance to China's rising clout.
U.S. officials have emphasized that the visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting U.S. president, is meant to encourage that country's recent reforms and emergence from a rigid military dictatorship less than two years ago. And administration officials reject complaints from human-rights critics who say that a presidential visit is too big a reward when so many problems remain.
But Myanmar, also called Burma, is also a big prize in the regional tug of war with Beijing, and some see the visit as a strategic attempt to move the country closer to the U.S. and away from China, which was one of the old regime's few global friends.
"China is looking to dominate its neighbors, including Burma," said Patrick Cronin, senior adviser at the nonpartisan Center for American Security. "Providing a new relationship with Burma not only counters that easy, uncontested access with China, but it also lets China know it has to deal with all of Southeast Asia in a way that's going to be respectful of each country."
The Myanmar engagement is just one piece of the larger U.S. strategy of deeper engagement in the region politically, economically and militarily.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. will increase its military cooperation with Southeast Asian nations. He said the U.S. military would participate in more and larger exercises in the region, including three next year.
"The United States' rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region is real, it is sustainable and it will be ongoing for a long period of time," Mr. Panetta said.
A year ago, Mr. Obama announced the U.S. would begin rotating Marines to Darwin, Australia, for regular training exercises. The U.S. is also in talks with the Philippines to allow a more regular presence of American military forces in that country. U.S. ships have made stops in Vietnam's Cam Ranh Bay in what could be a lead-up to closer military cooperation. And the U.S. has begun training exercises with New Zealand, a one-time ally that has developed strong economic ties to China.
The U.S. continues to support some of those countries in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. In Cambodia, Mr. Obama will attend the East Asia Summit for the second year in a row, and continue to press the U.S. view that the issue should be resolved through multilateral forums and that the shipping lanes, among the world's busiest, remain open to all.
China prefers to address conflicts through one-on-one talks. Over the summer, at a meeting of foreign ministers, Cambodia, as the host nation, blocked discussion of the South China Sea, a move widely seen as acting at China's behest.It was unclear whether any discussion of the issue would be allowed to go forward next week.
Economically, the U.S. is also working toward a regional free-trade agreement, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that involves many regional players but excludes Chinese participation absent significant economic reforms. Mr. Obama plans to meet with leaders in those talks when he is in Cambodia. And Thailand, where Mr. Obama stops first, is expected to join the talks.
Meanwhile, relations between the world's two largest economic powers are in flux as both fill out the roster of officials.
In China, many of the main players in international economic relations—the central banker, commerce minister and vice premier for economics—are due to retire or switch jobs. In the U.S., similar major positions, including the Treasury secretary, U.S. Trade Representative and secretary of state, are also likely to change hands. Subcabinet officials in both countries also will be filled with new faces.
"Every time we change our leadership and China changes its leadership, it takes time for leaders to get to know one another," said U.S. Undersecretary of State Robert Hormats. Despite all the change, he said, "one of the remarkable things is the continuity of the relationship."
But the role of China can be overemphasized as part of the U.S. engagement in Asia, some analysts say.
"I think that the administration understands now that the Burmese don't want what we're doing there to be part of some titanic struggle with China," said Christopher Johnson, who was the CIA's top China analyst before joining the Center for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year. "The primary motives are to reward the Myanmar government and to send some subtle signals to the North Koreans that this is what can happen if you open up and reform."
Human-rights advocates have complained that the visit is premature and unwarranted given ethnic violence against minority Muslims in the country, political prisoners who remain jailed and other issues. White House officials say Mr. Obama will draw attention to the continued challenges during his visit.
"This is not a victory celebration; this is a barn raising," said Danny Russel, senior director for Asia at the National Security Council. "This is a moment when we believe that the Burmese leaders have put their feet on the right path, and that it's critical to us that we not miss a moment to influence them to keep them going."