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Myanmar’s shifting ties with big powers

Three key regional players in South-East Asia will have a direct impact on peace, stability and economic development in this Asean member state.

MYANMAR has made substantial shifts in its relations with major powers China, Russia and the United States.

Beijing has been able to sharpen its long-standing policy and make the necessary adjustments to ensure strong friendships and cooperation with countries in the region.

Myanmar President Htin Kyaw’s recent visit to China demonstrated the new dynamics of their bilateral ties, which have encountered different challenges over the years.

China has placed the highest value on Htin Kyaw’s week-long trip, knowing full well that this would be the most pivotal time to further strengthen their 67-year-old bilateral ties amid growing anxieties over the United States’ policy towards the region.

The joint press communiqué issued after his visit committed Beijing to helping Naypyitaw in its endeavours to promote both economic and political development at the same time.

China also expressed strong support for “Myanmar in realising domestic peace and national reconciliation through political dialogue”. In return, Myanmar thanked China for its assistance in domestic peace and national reconciliation, and welcomed its continued constructive role in this process.

“Most importantly, Myanmar reiterated its firm commitment to the One China policy and continued support for “China’s position on the questions of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang”.

The cosying up of the Myanmar-China friendship has been clearly manifested by the opening of their long-delayed oil pipeline, which will transport oil from the Bay of Bengal into China’s Yunnan province, some 800km inland.

With both the oil and gas pipelines now in operation, Myanmar has suddenly become a major connectivity route for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China’s efforts elsewhere, especially in Laos and Thailand, are still at the early stage.

During Htin Kyaw’s visit, he also received assurance that China would continue to play a “constructive” role in the peace process.

Myanmar’s National League of Democracy-led (NLD) government has been pushing for the much delayed second batch of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, which is now scheduled to be held in May.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi wants to have all armed ethnic groups sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement. As the NLD-led government enters its second year, the peace process and border security remain top priorities, but are equally elusive.

The link between domestic and external factors was discussed during the summit meeting in Beijing, but whether it would produce positive results on the ground remained to be seen.

To ensure Myanmar and China are on the same page and follow similar strategic plans, Suu Kyi has already confirmed her participation in the Belt and Road Initiative Summit in Beijing in May.

In comparison to China, Myanmar-Russia ties have been cordial, but they are still very much focused on military-related cooperation. The two countries will celebrate their 70th anniversary of relations next year.

Russia has been faithful to Myanmar, treating the strategic South-East Asian country as a gateway to Asean. Better Myanmar-Asean integration would also be beneficial to Russia.

Due to Myanmar’s external factors and unique political system and non-aligned diplomacy, its bilateral ties with Russia have special characteristics, focusing heavily on military and security-related matters. The international boycott imposed by the West since the late 1980s has further warmed their relationship.

Russia has been quite sympathetic to Myanmar prior to its dramatic transformation in 2011. During the 1980s-1990s, thousands of Myanmar officials and students were dispatched to Russia for training and study, especially in nuclear-related science and technology.

At this juncture, Russia is diversifying its cooperation with Myanmar to include economic, cultural and scientific fields. Although Russia does not have a big investment in Myanmar, its future interest in oil and gas exploration would increase its investment portfolio. Last year, Russia provided more than 300 scholarships to Myanmar students.

Finally, after years of optimism over the prospects of US-Myanmar relations, the harsh realities have kicked in and seriously damaged the once unshakable bilateral relationship.

Kudos must go to President Barack Obama, who invested in foreign policy efforts to ensure Myanmar moved towards a new era by working closely with the previous administration under President U Thein Sein. Without him, the current transformation would not have been possible.

The United States’ interest in normalising ties with Myanmar was aimed essentially at distancing the country from North Korea, to halt the former’s nuclear ambition and desired missile technological development.

Washington was extremely concerned that there would be quick knowledge transfer of this know-how between the two countries.

In late May 2011, the US Navy intercepted a North Korean ship carrying missile technology in the Andaman Sea destined for Myanmar and managed to force the ship to return home.

Fortunately, Myanmar-North Korea ties were quickly neutralised and their ongoing nuclear cooperation has subsequently been stopped ahead of US-Myanmar normalisation.

So far, the Trump administration has not yet made known its policy toward Myanmar. However, judging from the United States’ position and official comments on the Rakhine situation, Washington is pressuring Naypyitaw to do more over the communal conflicts.

Suu Kyi has already asked the international community for time and patience, as she is dealing with the issue through both domestic and international mechanisms.

Early next month, she is scheduled to visit key members of the European Union following her participation in the 30th Asean Summit in Manila. She plans to update her colleagues on the latest developments in Rakhine and remedial measures that have been instituted there since they last met on Dec 19.

It remains to be seen how her reputation and shuttle diplomacy will play out in coming months as Myanmar intensifies broader engagements with concerned major powers, while at the same time mitigating the adverse effects emanating from the Rakhine situation.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Thailand. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

ANN Asian Editors Circle