Asian Editors Circle

Myanmar and major powers: shifts in ties with China, Russia and the US

Kavi Chongkittavorn Regional Affairs Columnist The Nation, Thailand

Myanmar has made substantial shifts in its relations with major powers comprising China, Russia and the United States. They are key regional players in South-east Asia which will impact directly on peace and stability as well as economic development in Myanmar.

In the first half of this year, China has made impressive diplomatic inroads throughout South-east Asia, taking advantage of the lack of policy clarity coming from the new US administration of President Donald Trump.

So far, Washington has flexed its muscle over the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan and displayed a more reconciliatory tone towards Europe. That much was clear. It was only on Thursday that US Vice-President Mike Pence said that Mr Trump would attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Leaders' Meeting in Vietnam, the Asean-US Summit and the East Asia Summit.

Meanwhile, Beijing has been able to sharpen its long-standing policy and make the necessary adjustments to ensure strong friendships and cooperation with countries in the region. Myanmar President Htin Kyaw's recent visit to China demonstrated the new dynamics of their bilateral ties, which have encountered different challenges over the years.

Obviously, China has placed the highest value on U Htin Kyaw's week-long trip, knowing full well that this would be the most pivotal time to further strengthen their 67-year-old bilateral ties amid growing anxieties over the US' policy towards the region.

The joint press communique issued after his visit was extensive and forward-looking, as China recognised the so-called Myanmar way of doing things: "China supported Myanmar in following a development path in line with its own national conditions and steadily promoted democratic transition..."

Therefore, it would commit Beijing to help Naypyitaw in its endeavours to promote both economic and political development at the same time. It must be noted here that for Beijing, such a commitment represents a new model of bilateral relations promoted by the current Chinese leadership.

In addition, China expressed strong support for "Myanmar in realising domestic peace and national reconciliation through political dialogue". In return, Myanmar thanked China for its assistance extending to Naypyitaw's domestic peace and national reconciliation, and welcomed its continued constructive role in this process.

Most importantly as far as China-Myanmar relations are concerned, Myanmar reiterated its firm commitment to the "one China" policy and continued support towards "China's position on the questions of Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang". Akin to Cambodia, Myanmar has became another Asean member to concur with such stringent interpretations of the "one China" policy.

After the fallout over the seizure of Singapore's armoured vehicles in Hong Kong last November, China has attempted to prevent further erosion of the "one China" policy by becoming more forceful in pressing Asean members to adhere to it.

In 2014, Singapore concluded a free trade agreement with Taiwan by using different designations. The Philippines and Indonesia are pursuing a similar arrangement. Beijing is concerned that other Asean members will jump on the bandwagon, further complicating ties with the grouping.

Obviously, Myanmar agreed to such a comprehensive statement as a goodwill gesture following China's support at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in blocking a proposed statement last month on the situation in Rakhine state. Russia, another member of the UNSC, also vetoed the statement. Previously, in January 2007, both countries blocked a UN resolution on the situation in Myanmar.

The cosying of the Myanmar-China friendship has been clearly manifested by the opening of their long-delayed oil pipeline, which will transport oil from the Bay of Bengal to China's Yunnan province, some 800km inland. With both the oil and gas pipelines now in operation, Myanmar has suddenly become a major connectivity route for China's Belt and Road Initiative - a showcase of President Xi Jinping's mega-plan in mainland South-east Asia. China's efforts elsewhere, especially in Laos and Thailand, are still at the early stage.

The quick operation of the oil pipeline also indicates that future Myanmar-China relations will be further strengthened. Both countries are confident that any remaining challenges posed by the controversial Myitsone Dam and the Letpadaung mine in Sagaing region will be resolved.

During U Htin Kyaw's visit, he also received an assurance that China would continue to play a "constructive" role in the peace process. Myanmar's government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), has been pushing for the much-delayed Panglong 2 Conference, which is now scheduled to be held next month.

State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi wants to have all armed ethnic groups sign the nation-wide ceasefire agreement. Those armed groups that were left out included the United Wa State Army, the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta'ang National Army and the Kachin Independent Army.

As the NLD-led government enters its second year, the peace process and border security remain top priorities, but are equally elusive. The link between domestic and external factors was discussed during the summit meeting in Beijing, but whether it would produce positive results on the ground remains to be seen.

To ensure that Myanmar and China are on the same page and follow similar strategic plans, Ms Suu Kyi has already confirmed her participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Summit in Beijing from May 14 to May 15.

Compared with China, Myanmar-Russia ties have been cordial, but they are still very much focused on military-related cooperation. The two countries will celebrate their 70th anniversary of relations next year. In retrospect, Russia has been faithful to Myanmar, treating the strategic South-east Asian country as a gateway to Asean. Better Myanmar-Asean integration would also be beneficial to Russia.

Due to Myanmar's external factors, unique political system and non-aligned diplomacy, its bilateral ties with Russia have special characteristics, focusing heavily on military and security-related matters. The international boycott imposed by the West from the late 1980s has further warmed their relationship.During the 1980s to 1990s, thousands of Myanmar officials and students were dispatched to Russia for training and study.

At this juncture, Russia is diversifying its cooperation with Myanmar to include economic, cultural and scientific fields. Although Russia does not have a big investment in Myanmar, its future interest in oil and gas exploration would increase its investment portfolio. Last year, Russia provided more than 300 scholarships to Myanmar students.

Finally, after years of optimism over the prospects of US-Myanmar relations, the harsh realities have kicked in and seriously damaged the once unshakable bilateral relationship.

Kudos must go to former president Barack Obama, who invested lots of foreign policy efforts into ensuring Myanmar moved towards a new era by working closely with the previous administration under former president Thein Sein. Without him, the current transformation would not have been possible.

Truth be told, the US interest in normalising ties with Myanmar was aimed essentially at distancing the country from North Korea to halt the former's nuclear ambition and desired missile technological development. Washington was extremely concerned that there would be quick knowledge transfer between the two countries. In late May 2011, the US Navy intercepted a North Korean ship carrying missile technology in the Andaman Sea destined for Myanmar, and managed to force the ship to return home.

Fortunately, the Myanmar-North Korea ties were quickly neutralised and their ongoing nuclear cooperation has subsequently been stopped ahead of US-Myanmar normalisation of relations. Given the current focus on the nuclear threats from North Korea dominating global headlines, Myanmar could have been targeted as well without the earlier policy's U-turn.

So far, the Trump administration has not yet made known its policy towards Myanmar, whether it would continue to pursue the same path or adopt a new one. However, judging from the US position and official comments on the Rakhine situation, Washington is pressuring Naypyitaw to do more over the communal conflicts. Ms Suu Kyi has already asked the international community for time and patience as she is dealing with the issue through both domestic and international mechanisms.

Early next month, she is scheduled to visit key members of the European Union following her participation in the 30th Asean Summit in Manila. She plans to update her colleagues on the latest development in Rakhine and remedial measures that have been instituted there since they last met on Dec 19 last year.

It remains to be seen how her reputation and shuttle diplomacy will play out in the coming months as Myanmar intensifies broader engagements with concerned major powers, while at the same time mitigating the adverse effects emanating from the Rakhine situation.

  • The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Thailand. This is a series of columns on global affairs written by top editors and columnists from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers and websites across the region.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2017, with the headline Myanmar and major powers: shifts in ties with China, Russia and the US. Subscribe