Myan­mar must tread care­fully as it leans to­wards the U.S and moves fur­ther away from China.

Southasia - - Contents - By S. M. Hali

Fol­low­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dec­la­ra­tion of the Asi­aPa­cific re­gion be­ing Amer­ica’s new pri­or­ity, US Sec­re­tary of State Hil­lary Clin­ton vis­ited Myan­mar on 1 De­cem­ber 2011. Her two-day visit to the recluse and sanc­tioned Myan­mar, the first by a US Sec­re­tary of State in 56 years, is viewed as an ef­fort to woo Myan­mar away from Chi­nese in­flu­ence. Myan­mar and China en­joy a long bor­der and an equally long his­tory. While the west chas­tised Myan­mar for its al­leged hu­man rights abuse and lack of democ­racy, Bei­jing held its hand. Myan­mar was treat- ed by the west as a pariah state but China pro­vided diplo­matic, ma­te­rial and eco­nomic sup­port while Western na­tions im­posed tough eco­nomic, trade and po­lit­i­cal penal­ties. China is Myan­mar’s largest eco­nomic part­ner, with $4.4 bil­lion in trade last year and nearly $16 bil­lion in to­tal in­vest­ment.

In the re­cent past, the US has com­menced an­other Great Game, this time in South-east Asia. It is try­ing to court China’s op­po­nents in the re­gion by stok­ing do­mes­tic dif­fer­ences pos­si­bly in an at­tempt to en­cir­cle China. An ex­am­ple is the South China Sea Is­lands, over which Bei­jing has an ap­par­ently gen­uine claim but is con­tested by Viet­nam, Philip­pines, Tai­wan, Malaysia, Brunei and Ja­pan. The US has openly en­cour­aged the con­tes­tants to stand up to China. One must first get the per­spec­tive from China’s out­look. Bei­jing’s strate­gic am­bi­tions in South­east Asia are real. From China’s per­spec­tive, South­east Asia is its south­ern doorstep—china has deep roots in the re­gion de­rived from ge­og­ra­phy (a com­mon bor­der with Viet­nam, Laos and Myan­mar), eth­nic­ity (large, eco­nom­i­cally pow­er­ful ur­ban Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties through­out the re­gion) and his­tory (the ‘trib­ute sys­tem’ that expressed South­east Asian def­er­ence to China over mil­len­nia).

From the stand­point of Bei­jing, South­east Asia is prop­erly un­der­stood as a nat­u­ral and right­ful Chi­nese sphere of in­flu­ence, a re­gion where China’s in­ter­ests are para­mount. When these are prop­erly ac­knowl­edged, China is pre­pared to adopt poli­cies that ben­e­fit South­east Asia as well as China—a do­min­ion of Con­fu­cian har­mony and benev­o­lence. Since the mid-1990s China has em­pha­sized the lat­ter with a so­phis­ti­cated diplo­matic ‘charm of­fen­sive’ de­signed to por­tray a good neigh­bor ded­i­cated to the eco­nomic ad­vance­ment of Chi­nese and South­east Asians alike.

Com­ing back to Myan­mar, de­spite China’s un­stinted sup­port, its lead­er­ship has been wary of the re­la­tion­ship and has tried to reach out to China’s ri­val in the re­gion, In­dia. The US had shunned Myan­mar in the past, es­pe­cially af­ter its 1988 mil­i­tary crack­down, but af­ter Myan­mar staged elec­tions last year that ush­ered in a gov­ern­ment of civil­ians, al­beit one dom­i­nated by a mil­i­tary struc­ture that had di­rectly ruled the coun­try since 1962, the US de­cided to change its stance. The new gov­ern­ment also freed and be­gan high-level talks with No­bel lau­re­ate and op­po­si­tion leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

One move, which is be­ing viewed by some an­a­lysts to be at the be­hest of the US is the decision made by the new gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Thein Sein to sus­pend work on a mas­sive, China-backed hy­dropower dam in the north­ern Kachin State that would have yielded ma­jor rev­enues from electricity ex­ports. Thein Sein said the project, which would have flooded an ex­ten­sive area and dis­rupted the flow of the na­tion’s main Ir­rawaddy River, was against the will of the peo­ple. His decision also sent a pow­er­ful sig­nal at a time the US was mak­ing en­er­getic ef­forts to en­gage Thein Sein’s gov­ern­ment: Myan­mar was not be­holden to China.

Bei­jing on the other hand, has put up a bold face at US over­tures. Sun Yun, an ex­pert on China’s for­eign re­la­tions at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion com­mented that: “Bei­jing un­der­stands Myan­mar’s as­pi­ra­tion to di­ver­sify its in­ter­na­tional en­gage­ment and im­prove re­la­tions with the United States. How­ever, Bei­jing doesn’t wish to see those goals achieved at the ex­pense of China.”

It should be clear that China would pre­fer to see a sta­ble Myan­mar as its neigh­bor as it too could have vi­o­lence and drugs spill across its borders. On the other hand, it is an ac­cepted fact that the South­east Asian gov­ern­ments fear be­ing forced to choose be­tween China and Amer­ica. No South­east Asian coun­try wants to make such a choice, but Sin­ga­pore’s widely re­spected am­bas­sador to Washington, Chan Heng Chee, has ob­served that, if forced, the South­east Asians would gen­er­ally opt for China. There’s a con­sen­sus in the re­gion that the Us-china re­la­tion­ship is vi­tal to all con­cerned. When asked what kind of re­la­tion­ship best pro­tects South­east Asian in­ter­ests, the an­swer is the prover­bial Goldilocks prin­ci­ple — “not too hot and not too cold.” A co­op­er­a­tive but not deeply col­lab­o­ra­tive re­la­tion­ship is just right.

Se­condly, as pre­vi­ously noted China’s in­flu­ence and strate­gic reach into South­east Asia is deep, pow­er­ful and grow­ing. This is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent in the eco­nomic sphere. As the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis weak­ened the cred­i­bil­ity of the US and Euro­pean economies, China’s econ­omy steadily rose.

An im­por­tant chess piece is Myan­mar’s pro-democ­racy leader as well as No­bel Peace Prize Lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi, whom Pres­i­dent Obama has hailed as “a hero.” Hil­lary Clin­ton met Suu Kyi, a meet­ing en­cour­aged by the Myan­mar lead­er­ship, since they view Aung San Kyi’s en­dorse­ment of re­la­tions with the US as im­per­a­tive. Last month, the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment amended elec­tion reg­u­la­tions to en­cour­age Suu Kyi’s party to re­turn to the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Suu Kyi has said that she backed U.S. in­volve­ment in her coun­try and that she would take a chance with the re­cent re­forms. “We hope that they are mean­ing­ful,” Suu Kyi told re­porters. “I think we have to be pre­pared to take risks. Noth­ing is guar­an­teed.”

Myan­mar would look to have the US sanc­tions on it re­moved but that would re­quire the ap­proval of the US Congress, which would need fur­ther proof of Myan­mar’s baby steps to­wards the restora­tion of democ­racy. It is im­por­tant to note that China may be wary of US over­tures to­wards Myan­mar, but pru­dence dic­tates that the US con­sid­ers China a part­ner in the re­gion rather than a ri­val.

Photo credit: Reuters

U.S Sec­re­tary of State, Hil­lary Clin­ton with No­bel Peace Prize Lau­re­ate Aung San Suu Kyi.

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