Washington’s un­tapped in­flu­ence

The Myanmar Times - - News - HUNTER MARSTON news­room@mm­times.com

ON October 7, US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der lift­ing nearly all of the re­main­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions on Myan­mar, fol­low­ing a meet­ing with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi dur­ing her Septem­ber trip to Washington. Amer­i­can busi­nesses are ea­ger to in­vest in “the last fron­tier” in Asia, fear­ing that China has al­ready dom­i­nated eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties there.

De­spite China’s en­dur­ing in­flu­ence over its neigh­bour, the United States en­joys sev­eral un­recog­nised – and un­der­utilised – ad­van­tages over the Asian gi­ant, flow­ing from its sub­stan­tial soft power, an as­set China has failed to cul­ti­vate.

Myan­mar watch­ers of­ten frame the coun­try’s demo­cratic open­ing as Nay Pyi Taw’s at­tempt to bal­ance the in­flu­ence of Chi­nese and Western pow­ers. Many credit the po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion to the for­mer junta lead­ers’ de­sire to pivot away from Beijing’s long-time dom­i­nance by lever­ag­ing US sup­port for sys­temic reforms.

With the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s eas­ing of sanc­tions on the coun­try, some now sug­gest that the US and China are locked in a com­pe­ti­tion for in­flu­ence in Myan­mar, which finds it­self at an his­toric cross­roads. Were it that sim­ple, Myan­mar would have been “lost” to China many years ago, given Beijing’s prox­im­ity, power and his­tory.

How­ever, Myan­mar is a coun­try, not a prize, and as events such as Brexit re­cently il­lus­trated, na­tion­al­ist im­pulses nearly al­ways trump more ra­tio­nal, eco­nomic mo­tives. De­spite the rel­a­tive ab­sence of US in­vest­ment in the coun­try, Myan­mar’s peo­ple still look to the West as a force for good.

Yet, as Mon­ish Tourang­bam and Pawan Amin note in a re­cent ar­ti­cle at Pol­icy Fo­rum, China still en­joys a strate­gic ad­van­tage. Given years of Chi­nese eco­nomic clout and Myan­mar’s chronic un­der­de­vel­op­ment, this sit­u­a­tion likely won’t change for some time. As Myan­mar scholar Ber­til Lint­ner said in a re­cent in­ter­view, “Myan­mar re­mains of huge eco­nomic and strate­gic im­por­tance for China.”

China is Myan­mar’s largest trade part­ner, with bi­lat­eral ex­change in goods reach­ing nearly US$10 bil­lion in the first 10 months of 2015-16. Seek­ing to es­cape that trade im­bal­ance, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s gov­ern­ment has courted the United States and most re­cently made the case that the time was right for lift­ing sanc­tions. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and the US Congress con­tinue to ad­vo­cate for Myan­mar’s demo­cratic progress as they seek to deepen co­op­er­a­tion with the coun­try.

But as Lint­ner ar­gues, “Nice words about en­dur­ing friend­ship and progress in im­ple­ment­ing democ­racy and re­spect for human rights may have been said dur­ing [Daw Aung San] Suu Kyi’s visit to Washington. But re­al­i­ties on the ground will not change. China is there, just across the north­east­ern bor­der. And the US, de­spite its ‘pivot’, is far away.”

Myan­mar’s mas­sive eco­nomic needs en­sure that Western in­vest­ment alone can­not fill the void. How­ever, the United States pos­sesses a few key – and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated – ad­van­tages that China should envy: a hugely pos­i­tive rep­u­ta­tion (com­pared to that of China); val­ues of democ­racy, rule of law and re­spect for human rights, on which that pos­i­tive per­cep­tion rests; and unique and de­sir­able busi­ness brands – th­ese in­clude glob­ally recog­nised prod­ucts such as Ap­ple’s iPhone and Pepsi soda – which pose op­por­tu­ni­ties for in­roads in Myan­mar’s rapidly growing mar­ket. When asked, Myan­mar peo­ple voice a clear pref­er­ence for democ­racy, the English lan­guage, Western cul­ture and busi­ness stan­dards.

De­spite its mas­sive eco­nomic lever­age in the coun­try, China suf­fers from a rep­u­ta­tional trust deficit. Chi­nese projects such as the My­it­sone dam have left a neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of the coun­try’s in­vest­ment strat­egy, with its lack of con­sid­er­a­tion for labour stan­dards, the en­vi­ron­ment and human rights.

Where Chi­nese busi­nesses have rushed to se­cure in­vest­ment deals, of­ten dis­plac­ing lo­cal peo­ple and wreak­ing havoc on the en­vi­ron­ment, Amer­i­can cor­po­ra­tions have com­mit­ted hefty sums of cap­i­tal to in­vest in ed­u­ca­tion, job train­ing, health and wa­ter in­fra­struc­ture, earn­ing good­will from the Myan­mar peo­ple.

How­ever, US com­pa­nies have been ex­tremely ret­i­cent to com­mit to the coun­try in the near term, wary of po­lit­i­cal risk and fear­ful of get­ting in­volved with “cronies” sanc­tioned by the US Trea­sury De­part­ment. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion hopes the re­cent move to ease re­stric­tions will boost in­vest­ment.

The United States, viewed as a re­spon­si­ble busi­ness part­ner and staunch sup­porter of Myan­mar’s democ­racy, wields enor­mous in­flu­ence over the coun­try’s lead­ers and peo­ple.

While China will con­tinue to hold an out­size pres­ence in the coun­try with its mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment, the United States has an un­tapped reser­voir of good­will. Myan­mar busi­nesses and con­sumers are ea­ger for ex­panded US trade and in­vest­ment in the coun­try. The re­cent lift­ing of re­main­ing sanc­tions will pave the way for ex­panded eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion.

At the same time, Washington should con­tinue to press Myan­mar’s lead­ers on democ­racy and human rights. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi val­ues US opin­ion and has a strong re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, his likely suc­ces­sor Hil­lary Clin­ton and the Amer­i­can Congress.

When Mr Obama first vis­ited the coun­try in 2012 – he again vis­ited in 2014 – he re­ceived a mas­sive show of sup­port, pass­ing by tens of thousands of cheer­ing peo­ple in the streets of Yan­gon. As sec­re­tary of state, Hil­lary Clin­ton was also in­stru­men­tal in US-Myan­mar pol­icy, trav­el­ling to the coun­try in 2011 and spear­head­ing Washington’s rap­proche­ment with Nay Pyi Taw as part of the US “pivot” to Asia.

In the long run, the US can ex­plore fur­ther mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary en­gage­ment with Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary un­der its In­ter­na­tional Mil­i­tary Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing (IMET) pro­gram. The US trained Myan­mar mil­i­tary of­fi­cers in the United States in the 1980s. Re­sum­ing US-Myan­mar mil­i­tary en­gage­ment is a sure­fire way to build links with the lat­ter’s most pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tion.

As the US and China com­pete for in­flu­ence in Myan­mar, it is im­por­tant to re­call that the “great game” may not have a clear win­ner. But there are a va­ri­ety of in­stru­ments avail­able for Washington to take ad­van­tage of the mas­sive sup­port it en­joys in the coun­try. – This ar­ti­cle is pub­lished in col­lab­o­ra­tion with New Man­dala, the premier web­site for anal­y­sis on South­east Asia’s pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety.

Hunter Marston is an in­de­pen­dent Myan­mar anal­y­sis based in Washington, DC.

Photo: EPA

US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama (left) and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping sit next to each other dur­ing the open­ing cer­e­mony of the G20 Lead­ers Sum­mit in Hangzhou on Septem­ber 4.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Myanmar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.