Top Obama Officials Make Historic Trip to Burma in the Wake of Easing SanctionsJuly 16, 2012
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Francisco Sánchez is the Under Secretary for International Trade
As Under Secretary for International Trade, I have the privilege of working every day to expand opportunities for U.S. businesses, and strengthen the connections between different countries through trade and commerce.
Case in point: this past week, I accompanied Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cambodia to speak at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) business forum and then traveled to Burma to address a U.S.-ASEAN Business Council business mission as well as announce the first U.S.-Burma business deal since the U.S. government eased restrictions on doing business with Burma last week. I also had the unique opportunity to meet many of Burma’s government reformers and opposition politicians, including Nobel Peace Prize winner, opposition leader, and (now) member of Parliament Aung San Suu Kyi.
These were important efforts because, as President Obama has said, the Southeast Asia region offers incredible potential for increased trade with the United States. Most notably, it is home to a rising middle class, which means more potential customers for U.S. products and services.
In fact, trade between the United States and ASEAN member nations has increased substantially in recent years. With a combined GDP of $1.5 trillion, the ASEAN region is our fourth largest export market and home to some of the world’s most important trade routes. In 2011, U.S. exports to ASEAN nations broke records – exceeding $76 billion for the first time.
It’s critical that we keep this momentum going. One way is through deepening our commercial engagement. This marks my fifth trip to the region in just over a year. Secretary Clinton herself was involved in the business forum from its onset. And President Obama traveled to the region just last November. Clearly, stronger commercial and political ties between the United States and ASEAN member nations are of utmost importance to this administration as we implement a much-discussed strategic “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region.
My trip to Burma came at an especially historic time. In fact, this weekend’s visit marks the first time U.S. government officials have participated in a high-level economic and business mission to the nation in decades. And, last Wednesday, two days before we arrived in Cambodia, President Obama announced that the U.S. would be easing restrictions on investment in the country, allowing U.S. companies to responsibly do business in Burma.
Discussions on energy, supply chain efficiency and infrastructure were among the most prominent at the forum in Cambodia, with important discussions happening between the private and public sectors. As an illustration, I witnessed American company General Electric (GE) announce a partnership with the SOMA Group, a leading Cambodian industrial company while we were there. The SOMA Group selected GE’s Waukesha gas engine technology to power a new rural, rice husk biomass-energy project designed to supply renewable electricity. So the opportunities for U.S. companies here are already starting to bear fruit.
Indeed, much was accomplished during this trip. Ties between the U.S. and all ASEAN nations are now stronger than ever and we were able to personally commend Burma for its ongoing reforms and make clear that we expect further rapid progress on its path to democracy and economic inclusion. The partnerships that were created and strengthened over the weekend will pay dividends—including the creation of good-paying, export-related American jobs–for years to come.