17.11.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Myanmar’s Balancing Act between the Leading Players

120918_aung_san_suu_kyi_croppedA series of remarkable events occurring over the past weeks leads us to pay attention to the issue of the complex political game that is emerging around Myanmar between the leading global players. In general, it boils down to the struggle for acquiring various positions in Myanmar that are more advantageous than those of the competitors. However, should the serious nature of the game intensify, the “prize” may take on an uncompromising nature, where the winner gains complete control over Myanmar and its global competitor loses it entirely. In such cases, this is called a zero-sum game.

The struggle for influence in Myanmar is taking place due to its strategic position, which is crucial for the leading players. Among other countries of South-East Asia, similar strategic importance is primarily attached to the Philippines.

As for Myanmar and the Philippines, and similar countries that find themselves to be more objects than subjects of the political game in South-East Asia, their affiliation to this very important region has both advantages and potential disadvantages. While the struggle between the “big guys” remains fairly tame, there is considerable benefit to be obtained by using a little skill: it is possible to glean different kinds of attention from each of them. Those of a financial nature are, of course, the most advantageous.

However, when the serious nature of the game reaches a certain level of intensity, the recent beneficiary might easily find itself in a position akin to that of a grain between the grindstones.

It would seem that the situation in South-East Asia has allowed Myanmar and other countries in the region to maneuver between the forces formed by the leading players quite successfully so far.

This is what the flamboyant politician, the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, is doing while successfully playing the role of “simple guy”. Myanmar’s de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi (a member of the well-educated elite) is, in fact, doing the very same albeit in a different form.

The entire mechanism of balancing the “weak” players among “strong” players manifests itself in the course of various negotiations between them.

Earlier, we highlighted the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi’s first official foreign visit (in fact, her very first appearance on the global stage as the leader of Myanmar) was to China on August 17-21, 2016. The significance of this fact is that she has become the head of her country largely due to many years of US effort to overthrow the China-oriented military administration.

However, in an effort to avoid a break-down in relations with its greatest neighbor (who remains Myanmar’s key foreign investor and trade partner), Suu Kyi responded positively to the clear message sent by Beijing to continue economic relations after the change of power in the country.

Moreover, an incredibly important fact was apparently taken into account: that the long-term internal conflicts that tormented Myanmar (including armed ones) had been under China’s “jurisdiction”.

In response to China’s clear proposals regarding economic cooperation, Aung San Suu Kyi expressed support of the “One China” principle thus recognizing the legitimacy of Beijing’s actions taken to suppress the “separatist manifestations” in the ethnic border regions of China, including Tibet.

It seems important to note that the current Dalai Lama currently in exile from Tibet, is the spiritual leader of all Buddhists, including Suu Kyi herself. But as they say, “Paris is worth a mass.”

Thus, she greatly distressed her many sympathizers – professional human rights activists, including their (self-proclaimed) leader represented by the US government. Washington begun to assert that “Suu Kyi had started speaking the language of the military junta.”

However, similar emotions have not influenced the current US policy, whose aim consists of attempting to block China’s efforts to regain the influence it had in Myanmar during the military administration.

In the first half of September, Aung San Suu Kyi made an official visit to the USA with the aim of getting a promise from B. Obama to lift the rest of the economic sanctions introduced in 1991 by Washington after the military coup d’état in Myanmar. After hearing the cliché censure regarding the continuing “violations,” she obtained such a promise and the US sanctions were finally lifted in Early October.

In mid-October, Myanmar’s leader went to India, whose role in the regional issues and on the global stage is rapidly growing. The reason for this visit was the previous session of the regional organization BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) that includes seven countries adjacent to the Bay of Bengal. In addition, Myanmar’s leader had the opportunity to visit the 8th BRICS Summit held at the same time.

During the bilateral negotiations held between Aung San Suu Kyi and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, special attention was paid to the security and defense issues.

This can be explained by the fact that various insurgent groups are often active on the both sides of the 1,600-kilometer long border that separates Myanmar from India. One of the largest volumes of drug trafficking crosses this border.

It is important to note that the cooperation with Myanmar in the defense field is a key element in the implementation of India’s long-standing “Look East” foreign policy. By strengthening its position in Myanmar, India intends to develop relations with other countries of South-East Asia, primarily with Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

Aung San Suu Kyi made an official visit to a further leading player, Japan, on November 1-4, 2016. The main result of this visit was the promise made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to provide “its friend, Myanmar” with state and private investment worth the substantial sum of 8 billion dollars over the next 5 years.

These funds will be invested in various sectors of Myanmar’s economy and used to solve serious social problems, including ethnic and religious conflicts.

One of the leading Japanese newspapers, Mainichi Shimbun made a particularly interesting comment on the results of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit. They asserted that they reflect the competition between Japan and China for influence in South-East Asia countries.

In general, it is easy to acknowledge the efficiency of the policy of balancing modern-day Myanmar (as well as other South-East Asian countries) amid the complex situation emerging in the region. This is a sign that the situation developing in South-East Asia has not yet reached the stage where these balancing efforts are not worth the effort.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

 


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