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Myanmar: Growing Interface with U.S, Japan & India- Impact on China

After re-election of US President Barrack Obama for next four years, he visited Myanmar in November 2012. It is extremely significant because that presidential trip was after many decades. United Kingdom Prime Minister also visited Myanmar in the same year and Indian Prime Minister also visited the country in the same year. President Thein Sein is an elected President of Myanmar and he is intended to implement reforms after many decades. He has even accommodated Nobel prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the legendary opposition leader and now she is the leader of the opposition in the Myanmar’s parliament. Her party has been sustainable denied the right of rule and ever after electoral victory in 1990 election she was not allowed to enter into power despite landslide victory. During President Bush regime (2000-2008), Myanmar was classified with North Korea, Iraq and Iran as the pariah state. The US pursued the policy of Isolationism against Myanmar from 1988 to 2008 under President Bush. Many sanctions have been imposed subsequently. In the meanwhile the Chinese seize the opportunity and defended Myanmar’s ruling junta both within the United Nations and outside too. It has extended military as well economic support to the regime and for years Myanmar remains dependent on China for its survival on many counts.

The post 9/11 global scenario and American preoccupation in Iraq and Afghanistan gave another ample opportunity to China to cement the all weathered ties between both countries. This preoccupation has also encouraged China to dominate its surroundings. This has led an alarm well with Southeast and East Asian countries. The Chinese attitude on South China and East China Sea as its own lake has further aggravated the situation. Economically China has become significant not only in Asia but at the global level as well. Interestingly this new economic Chinese aura has not been translated into strategist level therefore despite more than $ 200 billion bilateral trade with Japan tension between both are increasing. With ASEAN the China’s bilateral trade is over $ 400 billion and growing but this again has not been translated into the strategic domain and the issue of South China Sea has put both China and ASEAN on two different pages. This deepening tension between China and ASEAN has pushed ASEAN to welcome other regional and global forces to participate actively in their domain. Many among us have probably forgotten that ASEAN came into being in 1967 as a common platform to safeguard its interests from expanding China. At the outset of 21st century when second decade is in progress the revival of the baggage of history teaches us that geography is determining the foreign policy of many countries.

Asian security architecture is changing rapidly. In due process of time, Myanmar has realized that it is required to diversify its foreign policy and not to be dependent over China. The cancellation of mega hydro power cum infrastructure Chinese Project in 2011 by Myanmar is vindicating this line of argument. Historically Myanmar’s foreign policy has been diversified and it was never dependent on any single country. It has an excellent geo-strategic situation which connects South and Southeast Asia. We are aware about the fact that geography is extremely important and Napoleon had stated that geography is determining the foreign policy of any country. One of the earliest examples of this is Kautilaya’s Arthshastra, an instruction for a king to survive and conquer the world, written more than two thousand years ago. In this book, there is something that is called now alliance theory, based on a given geographic constellation of a certain states. Myanmar’s unique geo-strategic location promoted western powers to engage it. President Obama has changed previous regime’s policy and adopted a dual track policy, engaging the Myanmar’s leaders in a senor level dialogue while continuing with sanctions. India has already realized Myanmar’s importance in 2000 only and initiated all rounds of engagement process although this process was started by Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao government (1991-1996). For India it is of utmost importance as India share over 1600 KM boundary with Myanmar and it is only land gateway for India for Southeast Asia. Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has announced during November 2012 ASEAN Summit that by March 2016 land and rail link between India and Southeast Asia will be established. Economic relation between India and ASEAN is mushrooming. In 2011 the bilateral trade between both was $ 57.7 billion which was slated to touch 70 billion by 2012 but it has touched $ 80 billion dollar. Myanmar could be pivotal for India’s strategic move within Asia-Pacific. President Thein Sein has visited Washington in reciprocal visit in May 2013 and inked many agreements despite many divergences. Both countries have pledged for better coordination in future. In May 2013 only the most significant is that Japanese PM Shinoz Abe visited Myanmar. It was the maiden visit by any Japanese PM during last many decades.

The fact remains that Myanmar has already decided that in fast changing security architecture of Asia-Pacific it is supposed to play a comprehensive role. As realist theory right from Kautilaya to Walsh indicates that convergences of interests are the basic determinates of foreign policy. As many pundits of the international system are claiming that Asia-Pacific will be representing over 50 % of the global GDP therefore security architecture is changing. America, Japan and India have also realized these changing winds. They have a common agenda to engage Myanmar for their larger interests. With its excellent geo strategy, Myanmar has abundance of natural resources which are of great use particularly for India due to its expanding economy. Beside this cooperation with Myanmar will be fruitful for India for the realization of its look east policy. It will also be pivotal to contain northeast India insurgency.

President Obama has adopted engagement policy with Myanmar and sent her Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton there in November 2011. The visit, the first by a US secretary of state since John Foster Dulles in 1955 has raised the hope of normalization of relationship between both countries. In the year 2012 and up to May 2013 America, United Kingdom, Japan, Indian Prime Minister or Presidents have visited Myanmar. It is vindicating the growing clout of Myanmar within Asian balance of power, which is bound to resent due to prevailing events in Asia and the globe as well. India has to play a comprehensive role to act as a link between Myanmar and the western block. It is in their national interests of India and western countries too. Sustainable development of Myanmar with democracy as a mode of governance will be panacea of all prevailing backwardness of this sick man of the ASEAN. But western block and India need to understand that democracy could not be exported. They must leave this challenge on the mandate of the people of Myanmar. India is all set to enhance its strategic and economic status as well while deepening its relationship with Myanmar.

Impact on China

As far as the impact of this emerging bonhomie among United States, India and Japan with Myanmar on China is concerned some new indications are emerging. We have to keep in our mind that China’s roots are very deep in Myanmar but incoming indications are not positive for the Chinese. As vindicating by the Indian PM visit and declarations to Japan in May 2013 , Japan is equally interested to enhance strategic relationship with India along with deepening of economic aspect to sustain its profile in Asia-Pacific. May 2013 Indian Prime Minister’s Tokyo visit was reacted harshly by leading Chinese official daily, Global Times ;it is vindicating that growing deepening Indo-Japan is not acceptable to China. In this context Japanese Prime Minister’s May 2013 Myanmar visit is significant. The United States has already shown its inclination towards Myanmar and willing to ready to support Myanmar for her all round developments. Japan has shown its willingness to take on China in the larger chess broad of Asia-Pacific. In East China Sea dispute the tension between China and Japan has compelled Japan to reshape its strategy to cope with the emerging situations in Asia-Pacific. The Japanese PM visit to Myanmar in May 2013 is a clear indication that Japan will pursue this agenda in foreseeable future too.

India has to play a coordinating role among all these countries and need to convince them that their policies should not be temporary but must be sustainable to cope with the emerging challenges in Asia-Pacific. This high profile countries’ engagement policy with Myanmar is bound to deepen their bonhomie with Myanmar. It is bound to make an impact on China as China has evolved a policy of developing her landlocked south-western parts while using Myanmar as platform. Myanmar has not adopted any new policy but just revived its old policy of diversification of its foreign policy. If America, Japan and India with the tacit understanding of ASEAN will sustain this process China will be losing its stake in Myanmar gradually and America, Japan and India are bound to gain. Myanmar has gamut of concerns as well at par with its ASEAN brethren against China. The Chinese thesis of peaceful rise is under stake in changing situation between China-ASEAN relationships. Needless to say that it will have positive impacts for America, Japan and India on larger security architecture of Asia-Pacific and be slated to put China under Prisoner’s Dilemma on Myanmar front in particular and on Asia-Pacific in general.

(The writer, Dr Sudhir Singh, teaches at Dyal Singh College, New Delhi. Views expressed are his own.

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