Myan­mar is re­bal­anc­ing, not piv­ot­ing, for­eign re­la­tions

The Myanmar Times - - News - JONATHAN T. CHOW LEIF-ERIC EASLEY news­room@mm­times.com

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.

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