Myanmar is rebalancing, not pivoting, foreign relations
MYANMAR’S new government is making its international debut. In mid-August, Beijing welcomed Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on her first visit to China since becoming Myanmar’s state counsellor and foreign minister. This followed her trips to Myanmar’s ASEAN neighbours Laos and Thailand and preceded President U Htin Kyaw’s landmark visit to India. On September 14 to 15, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will travel to Washington, DC. Myanmar’s busy diplomatic calendar carries special significance after the landslide electoral victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) in November 2015.
Myanmar’s reforms, which notably picked up speed in 2011, are related to Nay Pyi Taw’s recently strained relations with Beijing. A major factor propelling the political transition was concern for over-reliance on China. Since 1988, Myanmar faced international isolation and sanctions for violating human rights and repressing pro-democracy actors. China stepped in with trade, investment, military hardware and training, and diplomatic support to fend off UN resolutions. This assistance afforded China access to Myanmar’s rich natural resources and a strategic outlet to the Bay of Bengal intended to mitigate its “Malacca Dilemma”.
However, China’s extensive economic presence in Myanmar encountered popular resentment, particularly in extractive industries. Residents complained about environmental degradation, insufficient compensation for expropriated land, labour abuses, and that Chinese firms often hired workers brought in from across the border rather than locals. Meanwhile, Myanmar elites expressed reservations about ties between Chinese actors (particularly from neighbouring Yunnan province) and ethnic armed groups like the United Wa State Army.
After Myanmar shed its pariah status and began to diversify its diplomatic and economic relations, its new willingness to court partners like the United States, India and Japan raised anxiety in Beijing and Kunming that economic interests could be compromised and that Nay Pyi Taw could be integrated into a strategy of “encircling” or “containing” China.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to visit China before the US seems to have assuaged fears that Myanmar is seeking to pivot away from Beijing and toward Washington. A joint statement with President Xi Jinping reaffirmed the bilateral pauk-phaw (“kinfolk”) relationship and pledged cooperation on border security, trade, climate change, natural disasters and communicable diseases. China expressed support for Myanmar’s democratic transition and national reconciliation, while Myanmar welcomed the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and affirmed the One China principle regarding Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet.
Further strengthening ties, China and Myanmar inked a deal to build two hospitals in Yangon and Mandalay, as well as to construct a bridge at Kunlone in Shan State, a potentially important link for the proposed BangladeshChina-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor and OBOR initiative.
Even more significant was Chinese willingness to attempt to persuade several holdouts among Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups to attend the 21stcentury Panglong Conference aimed at building a permanent peace with the central government. Beijing has clearly communicated its strategic interest in maintaining good relations with Nay Pyi Taw.
In Washington, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will likely encounter a warm welcome from an Obama administration eager to solidify Myanmar as one of its foreign policy successes. To reward and help consolidate Myanmar’s democratisation process, the Obama administration is considering further reducing sanctions. However, Congressional and NGO concerns about the military’s enduring political role and the treatment of ethnic Rohingya – tens of thousands of whom have been displaced by communal violence – may limit further sanctions relief. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s assurances of Myanmar’s positive trajectory on human rights can influence US sanctions policy. However, the phased rather than expedited lifting of targeted sanctions may have political utility for the NLD as a bargaining chip with the Tatmadaw military leadership, and as domestic political justification to pursue further reforms.
Compared to human rights issues, US officials will be less concerned about Myanmar repairing ties with China or cooperating with Beijing on infrastructure projects. As former US ambassador to Myanmar Derek Mitchell recently said, the United States has not opposed China’s infrastructure projects in Myanmar so long as they are “transparent, acceptable to the people and environmentally sound”.
Washington and Beijing can avoid tensions related to zero-sum perceptions of Myanmar’s reform and opening by supporting international standards and greater transparency. What does this mean in practice?
In economic development, international firms in Myanmar should enhance corporate social responsibility; some have already adopted the ISO 26000 standard, for example. Nay Pyi Taw should increase democratic oversight of international economic agreements and state-backed development. Myanmar’s new commission on hydroelectric projects (including the Myitsone dam), represents a positive step and is expected to issue its first report in November. China and the United States should support Myanmar’s anti-corruption efforts as a way to increase predictability and reduce the costs of doing business for foreign investors and companies. Open-bid contracts for infrastructure projects would encourage productive competition and provide Nay Pyi Taw with political cover to pursue needed infrastructure improvements.
Myanmar’s peacebuilding efforts need greater transparency and legislation to bring laws and practices in line with international norms. More transparency is needed along the MyanmarChina border, where observers from the European Union and elsewhere could be helpful if they were allowed access. Finally, while the Tatmadaw seeks the ability to purchase arms from the US, Washington can reassure Beijing that mil-mil relations with Myanmar are focused on expanding best practices, including nonproliferation standards, not pursuing defense contracts or geopolitical advantage.
Myanmar’s reform and opening has begun to improve conditions for its people, who were long denied the benefits of international trade and exchange. The present flurry of diplomacy is encouraging, but human rights and economic development in Myanmar still have a long way to go.
Nay Pyi Taw is not pivoting away from Beijing; it is rebalancing its foreign relations to manage domestic pressures and pursue international opportunities. To avoid counterproductive perceptions of favouring business interests over public welfare, military interests over ethnic inclusion, or the interests of some diplomatic partners at the expense of others, Myanmar’s strategy should be to focus on meeting international standards of governance. Expect this to be a theme of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington.
– Pacific Forum CSIS PacNet
Jonathan T Chow is an assistant professor in the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Macau. Leif-Eric Easley is an assistant professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University and a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, South Korea.