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Strategic power play in Myanmar

The US Secretary of State Ms Hilary Clinton’s recent visit to Myanmar, the first ever of its kind in the last five decades, is likely to be a turning point in the estranged relationship between the two countries. And that could bring the US-China power play closer home to Myanmar.

Myanmar President Thein Sein had been taking many positive steps to establish the government’s democratic credentials. And as Ms Clinton’s visit comes after a lot of preparatory work by US representatives, Myanmar had high expectations from the visit. From news reports after her visit, the chances of the two countries resuming normal relations in the near future appear to have become brighter.

Extracts of official transcripts of Ms Clinton’s press conference indicate that her talks with President Thein Sein covered almost all concerns of the US. It said the Myanmar President, “laid out a comprehensive vision of reform, reconciliation, and economic development for his country, including specifics such as the release of political prisoners, an inclusive political process, and free, fair, and credible bi-elections, a rigorous peace and reconciliation process to bring to an end some of the longest-standing conflicts anywhere in the world, and strong assurances regarding his country’s compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874, [these related to UN arms embargo on North Korea] and their non-proliferation commitments with respect to North Korea.”

In short, she has appreciated Thein Sein’s sincerity in carrying out the democratic reforms and appreciated his efforts. But on lifting the US sanctions, she said: “…we’re not at the point yet that we can consider lifting sanctions that we have in place because of our ongoing concerns about policies that have to be reversed.” This would imply that while the US appreciated the efforts taken so far, normalisation of relations with Myanmar was possible when the reforms process is completed. She had set the following six preconditions for Myanmar to fulfil before the US can lift the sanctions:

1.       Release of political prisoners: The remaining political prisoners estimated by her as over 1000 have to be released. [This would probably include ethnic insurgent leaders in jail as well.]

2.        An inclusive political process: All sections of society [including ethnic minorities] should be able to enjoy equal rights.

3.       Free, fair and credible by-elections: Though the electoral laws have been amended to remove controversial clauses that excluded jailed political leaders like Aung San Suu Kyi, the US would be assessing the by-elections for 48 seats that are coming up for free and fair conduct.

4.       Rigorous peace and reconciliation process to end internal conflicts: Evidently this refers to progressing talks to end ethnic insurgencies to usher in permanent peace.

5.       Compliance to UN embargo on arms trade with North Korea: This refers to ending of Myanmar’s military links with North Korea, particularly to procure arms and missiles.

6.       Conforming to nuclear non-proliferation commitment: Myanmar should give up its reported moves to develop a nuclear weapon aided by North Korea and conform to Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

Thein Sein has already initiated action to resolve some of these issues. During his meeting with the US Secretary of State, he is reported to have expressed his “determination to sever military ties with North Korea.” However, some aspects might require amending the 2008 Constitution, which could take time. So we can expect the President to continue with the process over a period of time. And the US is likely to ease the restrictions on Myanmar step by step in keeping with its progress.

However, the President would require the cooperation of the army to carry through the process to its logical conclusion. The return of Myanmar to international mainstream will not only end its international outcast status but also vindicate of the government (and as a corollary the military leaders behind the scene) claim to legitimacy. For this reason, the army might continue with its support as it is running out of other options now. Geo-strategic implications

Normalization of the US – Myanmar could usher in irreversible changes the strategic environment not only in Myanmar, but also in the region. Opening up the country would mean entry of global players posing a threat to the China’s dominant role in investment, development, trade and commerce activities in Myanmar. In the long run Myanmar stands to gain by such competition.

Geo-strategically Myanmar bridges rest of ASEAN with South Asia. Even after Myanmar regains its international status its close relations with China are likely to continue; however, it would be conditioned increasingly by Myanmar public opinion. This was amply demonstrated when President Thein Sein suspended the construction of the Chinese aided Myitsone hydroelectric project. China will have to work harder and make its Myanmar policies more flexible to respond to the dynamics beyond its control. And by all indications, Chinese are not averse to do this.

In its Maoist ideological period, China supported Communist insurgents for long in Myanmar. Revival of such an option for China using discontented sections of ethnic minorities in a similar fashion is there. However, the historical situation that encouraged such exercises does not exist anymore. If Myanmar manages to bring ethnic groups back into political mainstream, China’s temptation to use them as pressure points would diminish.

China will have to recast its present strategic security perceptions in keeping with the dynamics of change in Myanmar. China will now be dealing with a government with greater accountability to the people, unlike the military-ruled Myanmar. This is unlikely to pose too many problems for China’s relations are firmly established, thanks to policy initiatives taken over the years to fully exploit its incomparable geographic, economic and communication advantages. However, as Myanmar opens up, China’s advantages are likely to be constantly challenged and tested in all aspects, including the strategic sphere, by other international players including the US and India.

Myanmar could become one more country vulnerable to US strategic moves in Southeast and South Asia to keep China’s power assertion in check. As US and India already have strategic security convergence in this region, China will have to leverage its advantages in Myanmar much more effectively. Such efforts of China would be facilitated with the completion of its pipeline and infrastructure projects linking Yunnan to Myanmar coast to gain direct access to Indian Ocean.

A democratic Myanmar is likely to strengthen its relations with India as a counterpoise to China. We are likely to see India’s long delayed land communication projects to and through Myanmar to gather momentum. Unlike China, India is yet to take full advantage of the geostrategic advantages it enjoys in Myanmar. To do this it has to shake off its lethargy in responding to the dynamics of change to increase India’s competitiveness.

China’s response

China had been investing over the years to build its multifaceted relationship with Myanmar to make it a strategic ally in its area of influence in this part of Asia. This was made possible because the military junta that ruled Myanmar since 1962 found in China a useful ally to ward off international pressures. And the international sanctions regime against Myanmar promoted by the West, in a way made it easy for China to make inroads into Myanmar.

After he assumed office as President, Thein Sein chose to visit Beijing first to affirm the Pakhpaw (sibling) relationship with China. However, some of his subsequent actions have caused some unease in China. His decision to go public on suspending the construction of Myitsone hydro-power project without consulting Chinese partners caused a lot of embarrassment. And Myanmar had to rush its foreign minister to assuage the Chinese.

In spite of this, Thein Sein has shown his readiness to take decisions in national interest without unduly worrying about Chinese sensitivities. For instance, last month General Min Aung Hlaing, who has succeeded the commander-in-chief of Myanmar armed forces, chose to visit Vietnam in mid-November even before he visited China. And the visit was made when tempers were running high in China over Vietnam chose to ignore Chinese objections and go ahead with the off shore drilling project in South China Sea. Undoubtedly, such an action by a Myanmar army chief would be unthinkable a couple of years earlier!

However, General Hlaing took remedial action to visit Beijing a fortnight after his Vietnam visit, and signed a memorandum of understanding on defence cooperation with Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) counterpart General Chen Bingde on November 29. On the occasion Gen Hlaing is reported to have assured the PLA chief of continued friendly relations between the two countries “no matter how the international situation changes,” according to Xinhua news agency. Apparently the Myanmar army chief’s assurance was yet another Myanmar effort to smoothen the ruffled feathers of China.

China’s reaction to Ms Clinton’s visit to Myanmar also has a larger strategic context of the China-US stand-off over China’s undisputable claims in sovereignty over South Sea. Though these claims have a long history, the progressive growth of Chinese Navy’s capability has given more form and content to Chinese claims now. The US has made clear of its national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and trade and has taken measures to cobble up its strategic security measures in this region. The decision of the US and Australia to keep 2,500 American troops deployed in Darwin, Australia taken after a meeting between the visiting President Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard on November 16, 2011 was a latest manifestation of this. Almost coincidentally, India and Vietnam have agreed to firm up their strategic defence cooperation.

Perhaps due to these developments, China has shown extreme sensitivity to foreign presence in these waters to buttress its territorial claims in South China Sea. This has once again brought the issue of contesting territorial claims of other countries including Taiwan, and four ASEAN members — the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam into the limelight. In particular, China had been irritated Vietnam’s equally assertive claim over Paracel Island.

These developments have increased Chinese security concerns. And despite initial fulminations, even in the case of Vietnam, China had signed an  agreement with Vietnam to contain the dispute in September 2011.  At the recent ASEAN security forum meeting in Bali China agreed to collectively discuss the new guidelines with ASEAN to ease tensions over claims of four ASEAN members in South China Sea. This was a clear departure from its stand of always resolving issues bi-laterally. China is likely to adopt the same conciliatory approach in the case of Myanmar also.

However, China’s concerns came out clearly in the party-owned Global Times. In an editorial article commenting on Ms Clinton’s visit titled “Myanmar tips the balance but not too far” on November 30, it conceded the US had many advantages over China in competing for influence over Myanmar. It said “China’s influence with any country will be difficult to keep in the long-term. China and Myanmar had bitter-sweet relations a few years ago. China’s ties with Myanmar were actually a result of Myanmar’s own desperation. The ties in the future will also be subject to various factors. China needs to have a bigger heart to support its broad diplomatic strategy.” It cautioned that while China was not averse to Myanmar seeking improved relationship with the West, “it will not accept this while seeing its interests stamped on.”

Chinese President Hu Jin Tao gave an overview of China’s views on security developments in the Southeast Asian region while speaking to naval representatives on December 9. He said “The rise of China is a major event for the world. The growing economic power has already brought about anxiety among some players on the world stage, and the concern about a possible ‘military threat’ comes as no surprise.”

“To alleviate this uneasiness requires efforts from both China and the outside world. It is difficult for either side to adapt to each other, but a sense of security must be mutual.

“China’s restraint is outstanding compared with the powerful countries of the modern era or in history, but some small countries have been taking an unusually strong stance towards China. As containment efforts by the US and some other Western countries pop up, factors governing security in the Asia-Pacific region begin to meld into each other.”

Cautioning about nations going overboard on security concerns, he said “Respecting the sense of security of others is the first step to ensure a sense of security for any country. China understands this and so should other countries. We are all concerned about our security. However, this concern should not go overboard.”

He claimed that China’s accelerating navy transformation and greater readiness for military conflicts was not only helpful for China’s national security, but also world peace. “The world needs an evenly developed China, whose capability to preserve world peace is comparable to its status as the second economic power in the world. China needs the power to handle any military challenges either against the country or the region as a whole.” So that is going to be the bottom line of China’s approach to emerging strategic security challenges. And Myanmar could become a testing ground of such challenge.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: Blog:

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