THE ASIAN VOICE

Emerging nexus of Myanmar-Thailand-China: The Nation columnist

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (left) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing of agreements ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Aug 18, 2016.
Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi (left) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing of agreements ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Aug 18, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Aung San Suu Kyi’s five-day trip to China confirms the emergence of a new triangular strategic partnership involving Myanmar, Thailand and China. The three share a more than 4,605-kilometre border (Thailand-Myanmar 2,401; China-Myanmar 2,204 km.)

Existing cross-border issues - especially ethnic armed conflicts, drug and human trafficking used to be the major sources for violence and mistrust. However, today these vexing issues could potentially serve as catalysts for the next phase of the neighbours' strategic engagements.

A careful assessment of Suu Kyi's latest trips to China last week and Thailand last month showed Myanmar is quickly becoming a game changer in the regional security dynamic, serving as a lynchpin for a broader cooperative framework with our two eastern neighbours.

Together, the leaders of China, Myanmar and Thailand have pledged to enhance their new economic and security cooperation in ways that would strengthen their interdependence and common pathways.

For the first time, Myanmar has adopted a holistic diplomacy approach with the non-aligned principle the country holds dear. Suu Kyi's China trip has created three broad regional trends, which place all three countries within the same strategic circle.

First, the trio has given strong endorsement to peace and stability - their leaders pledging to uphold all efforts to maintain them. This is important because such assurances in the past were taken with a pinch of salt.

Now they are taken seriously by all concerned parties. Myanmar needs a peaceful border and regulated cross-border trade with China and Thailand. In addition, the peace process requires further commitments by these two neighbours.

Truth be told, some Myanmar officials in private have confided to the Thai side that they hoped China would be as sensitive to them as Ayodia had been—the Burmese word for Ayutthaya (the old capital of 17th century Siam), which Burmese troops captured and burned down. Yet, the Thai leaders have managed to build new relationships with the current Nay Pyi Taw government.

Thailand has helped the ongoing peace process in Myanmar, facilitating behind the scenes meetings of armed ethnic groups straddling the Thai-Myanmar border. Both the government and ethnic groups have praised the role Thailand played in the current peace process. The armed ethnic groups that signed the nationwide ceasefire in October last year, were mostly based along the Myanmar-Thai border.

It remains to be seen how Suu Kyi's latest visit will impact on the armed conflicts with the Kokang group along the China-Myanmar border, which has fuelled allegations and mistrust from both sides. The provincial authorities in Yunnan are powerful when it comes to cross-border trade and security issues.

Secondly, this new triangle nexus has been the direct outcome of Nay Pyi Taw's fresh strategic thinking. Suu Kyi, both as the state councillor and foreign minister, has applied her strategic views of balancing major powers and securing better relations with immediate border countries, especially along the eastern flank. 

The western flank is equally important - dealing with India and Bangladesh - but is more sensitive due to the Muslim community in Rakhine State and the insurgency issues she would engage on later. Relations with India are easier to manage due to the existing goodwill both at the state and personal levels.

During its three-years (2012-15) serving as the coordinator of US-Asean relations, Myanmar has learned how to keep both national and regional interests intact when engaging the major powers - in particular the world's most powerful dialogue partner - especially during the transitional period. Now, Suu Kyi has the liberty to shape the scope and future of US-Myanmar ties, but she prefers to forge closer ties with China as her top priority.

At the moment, US-Myanmar ties would continue without much disruption or progress. Despite the human rights condemnation of her handling of the Muslim community, Suu Kyi's democratic aura continues to shine among US lawmakers—a luxury for a developing country.

Finally, stable Thai-Myanmar relations would increase their overall strategic value for China, both within the shifting geopolitics of Southeast Asia as well as in the Asean context. 

Tension in the South China Sea will continue but without the outrageous claims as before among the conflicting parties.

For the past six years, the maritime dispute has been internationalised.

With new attitudes prevailing between contesting countries, overall maritime tensions have subsided somewhat. 

The nascent Philippine-China dialogue will continue to build much-needed confidence in the region. As such, mainland Southeast Asia will regain its political prominence once again.

With numerous connectivity projects linking China's underdeveloped and land-locked Western region to open seas in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Thailand for human, goods and energy transportation, China would prefer to build on current prevailing conditions to deepen its ties with the two largest Buddhist nations.

The key to the success of the "One Belt, One Road" mission lies in future cooperation on connectivity and the new initiative of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework, which will also boost the role of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In more ways than one, China's position in Asean among the mainland nations would also be further bolstered if ties with the two key Asean members were strengthened. Previously, they were at loggerheads on different wavelengths.

This triangular nexus is still a work in progress. The leaders of these three countries understand their combined strategic potential and values.

The first indicator will be the behaviour of China's expansive role in the peace process. It will not be long before we find out.