Wed 30 Jan 2013
Filed under: Opinion,Regional
(unofficial translation) As the leaders of Japan, India and the U.S. visited Myanmar one after another, South Korea is also sending the speaker of parliament to visit three Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar. It is obvious that Myanmar has become the new platform for games among powers. Meanwhile, the conflict between tatmadaw and KIA is not only threatening China’s border security, but also leads to a debate about whether China should intervene in the conflicts of northern Myanmar.
What does Myanmar possess to be the new target of great power games? Geographically, Myanmar has a critically important strategic location. It neighbors China on the northeast and borders India and Bangladesh in the northwest. With Thailand and Laos on its southeast border, Myanmar embraces the Indian Ocean in the south, which is a key sea transportation route. For China, Myanmar is China’s key strategic outpost, the continental corridor from its southwestern belly to the Indian Ocean, circumventing South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. Since Myanmar and China’s southwestern frontier are adjacent, the security and stability of Myanmar also affects China’s national security and the security of the energy transportation route. For the U.S., Southeast Asia region, including Myanmar, is an important target of the American strategic interests such as political, economic and security interests in the Asia Pacific. U.S. does not only have allies in the region (Philippines and Thailand), it also has security partners, including Vietnam and Singapore. In order to achieve larger influence and leadership in the Asia-Pacific, U.S. is certainly not going to “let go” of the geo-strategically important Myanmar. For India, it is pursuing a “Look East” policy to extend its security border from the traditional line of “Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait” to the South China Sea, even the whole West Pacific. Myanmar is the key continental cornerstone of India’s “Look East” policy. The strengthening of strategic relationship with Myanmar by Japan is rooted in profound economic and strategic considerations. Meanwhile, Japan is complementing the U.S. containment of China under Washington’s overarching theme of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific, while serving Japan’s goal of expanding influence in Myanmar for its own interest.
Finding a balance among powers is an important philosophy of survival for the Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar. For Myanmar to expand its international space, integrate into the international system, it has to actively enhance engagement with all major powers. Myanmar also should know that the “emphasis” U.S. gives to Myanmar is about China. There is no need to list of the details of Myanmar’s dependence on China. China, as a regional power and Myanmar’s largest neighbor, has a more direct and determining influence over issues in Myanmar including its politics, economics and refugees. So far, China has become the No.1 investor and the second largest trading partner of Myanmar. In 2010, the bilateral trade increased more than 53% to 4.4 billion USD, and rose further to 6.5 billion USD in 2011. By the end of 2011, Chinese investment to Myanmar had reached 20 billion USD. China’s investment in Myanmar focuses on energy, power industry and infrastructure, and makes more than 40% of the total FDI the country receives. In May, 2011, during President Thein Sein’s visit of China, China and Myanmar established a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. In September 2011, President Thein Sein had to suspend China’s Myitsone dam project out of internal and external policy needs, which caused loss to Chinese investment and cast a negative shadow over the bilateral relations. (With an investment of 3.6 billion USD, the project was the largest one stipulated by the 2009 Sino-Myanmar framework agreement on cooperation in developing Burmese hydropower resources.) However, Myanmar deeply understands the importance of China and will not be as stupid as to completely throw itself to the U.S.
Historically, since the tatmadaw took over power in 1988, the U.S. had started to adopt a policy of diplomatic insulation and economic sanction. It listed Myanmar as part of the “axis of evil” at one point and for the longest time supported the anti-government leader Aung San Suu Kyi against the government. The relationship between the U.S. and Myanmar at one point deteriorated to the lowest level. After Obama came into power in 2009, the U.S. changed its high-pressure policy on Myanmar because of the strategic need to return to Asia. It began to loosen the sanctions on Myanmar and adopt a dual track policy of engagement plus sanctions. In March 2011, President Thein Sein took office and ended the 23-year rule of the junta. He started major political and economic reforms, including loosening the control of the media, privatization, reducing restrictions on political parties and releasing political prisoners. These measures were welcomed by the U.S. From November 30 to December 2, 2011, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, paid a “historical visit” to Myanmar as the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the country for more than 5 decades. The historical visit by President Obama to Myanmar on November 19, 2012 also made him the first U.S. president to visit the country while in office. The importance the U.S. attaches to Myanmar primarily originates from its strategic needs in the Asia Pacific. Driving a wedge into Myanmar, a small Southeast Asian country of a key strategic position, will become a critical link in the eastward pivot of the U.S. strategic focus. Out of the desire to contain and encircle China in the Asia Pacific, curtailing China’s regional influence, and undercutting Sino-Myanmar relations, U.S. is bound to increase its “engagement” and “dialogue” with Myanmar in the future. In the long term, the strategic incision into Myanmar is only a small step in strengthening of its existence in the Asia Pacific by the U.S. The U.S. naturally has bigger ambition to reshape its leadership in the Asia Pacific.
Although the periphery has important geo-strategic implications for China, China won’t focus on building a sphere of influence. As long as the improvement of relations with Myanmar by U.S., Japan, India and other powers does not hurt China’s interests, we would be glad to see them. China’s influence over Myanmar is forged through peaceful development, and will not be easily lost simply because of the U.S. encirclement and containment. If Myanmar could push forward with domestic reform and maintain internal stability and development through engagement with the international community, it will also be conducive to China’s border security and reduce the pressure on China’s periphery.