NLD to look West, but not ignore its tough neighbours


Revered in the West almost as much as at home, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may steer Myanmar’s foregin policy to a westward pivot to some degree, although the Nobel Peace Prize winner has already shown she understands the realities of dealing with powerful Asian neighbours.

The importance of relations with Beijing was emphasized when China’s Wang Yi became the first foreign minister invited to meet the new government, visiting his counterpart Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on April 5 and President U Htin Kyaw the next day.

“I think it [the invitation] is really symbolic, it is a significant gesture. It is more symbolic than substantial. It shows goodwill diplomacy,” said Tang Xiaoyang, analyst at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing.

As opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received a top-level welcome on her first formal visit to Beijing in June 2015 in anticipation of the National League for Democracy’s sweeping election win five months later. Her role in 2013 as head of a parliamentary commission in allowing the controversial Letpadaung copper mine project – a joint venture between a state-owned Chinese firm and the Tatmadaw – to continue deeply disappointed some of her loyal supporters, but it raised expectations in Beijing that she can be a pragmatic partner.

Still it was the personal rapport she has built with US President Barack Obama – and also with Hillary Clinton, his possible successor in the White House – which was on show when he called her and U Htin Kyaw on April 6 to convey his congratulations, commending her “determined efforts, over the course of many years and at great personal cost, to achieve a peaceful transfer of power and advance national reconciliation”.

Gregory Poling, analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, said the Oxford-educated leader with two British sons would be “more comfortable with the West” than her predecessors. But she has made clear that “Myanmar cannot change its geography” and she wants good relations with China as well.

“Myanmar will balance its foreign policy, but it will not do so between ‘east’ and ‘west’; it will do so between a plethora of different countries,” said Mr Poling. “I expect we will see a serious effort to balance Myanmar’s relations between China, India, Japan, the rest of Southeast Asia, and the West.”

Mr Tang doubts that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in her newly created position as state counsellor will embark on a major foreign policy shift toward the West. “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is also a nationalist. She supports the development of Myanmar, not Western nations,” he said.

For years to come China, Singapore, India, Japan, Thailand and others in Asia will most likely remain by far Myanmar’s largest investors and trading partners.

Japan has reportedly put aside more than 100 billion yen (US$910 million) in loans and grants as development assistance, apparently at the request of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Tokyo hopes to finalise its support by June, according to the Japan Times.

“The Chinese government does not give much development aid [to Myanmar], it is about commercial benefits. China sees Myanmar as a market place. For Japan there are geopolitical concerns,” said Mr Tang.

Priscilla Clapp, a veteran Myanmar analyst and a former head of the US embassy in Yangon, says that the US should respond to the support and investment flowing into Myanmar from across the world by gradually lifting all its sanctions, which are inhibiting US organisations and businesses.

Myanmar is likely to continue to experience human rights abuses, corruption and poor governance but sanctions may not always be the best solution, she said in a recent report for the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.

“In many cases, it may still be appropriate to address some of these issues with punitive measures, but they should not be enforced at the expense of US programs seeking to address the underlying causes of these abuses in Myanmar,” Ms Clapp wrote.

Mr Poling said that existing US sanctions against targeted individuals were not having the desired effect and agreed that they hampered US investment. “At this point, most of the remaining sanctions – those which prevent US companies from doing

business with individuals on the Specially Designated Nationals list – do little to pressure actors within Myanmar; they mainly limit the ability of US companies to effectively compete with counterparts from China, Japan, Korea and Europe in Myanmar,” he said.

China, one of the few countries willing to do business with Myanmar when it was still an international pariah, has maintained considerable leverage – even after the Tatmadaw and former president U Thein Sein began the process of prising Myanmar away from its dependency on its powerful neighbour and making eagerly awaited openings to the West.

The two countries share more than 2000 kilometres (1250 miles) of border, punctuated by trading posts but more defined by smuggling of natural resources and decades of civil war between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups. Some observers of the peace process suspect that Chinese interference is to blame for the failure of last year’s “nationwide” ceasefire agreement, which attracted the signatures of mostly minor armed groups.

Mr Tang rejects the view that the Chinese government has been directly involved in Myanmar’s ethnic conflicts but he says the peace talks are an important and closely observed part of relations with Myanmar.

“Beijing respects the sovereignty of Myanmar. Groups with more [ethnic] affinity and some scholars and businessmen support the Kokang, saying they are Chinese. But that is not the official view,” he said, referring to the corner of Shan State where an ethnic Chinese armed group launched an abortive comeback last year.

Ms Clapp, however, argues that the role of the Chinese is more than that of a mere interested party, with the government using the armed groups as a buffer between China and the nascent democracy next door.

“China will likely be a deciding factor in whether the Myanmar government can eventually reach a comprehensive peace agreement with its armed ethnic-minority groups,” she said.

Source: The Myanmar Times

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