An emerging democracy with significant infrastructure gaps and little in the way of technical expertise, Myanmar has extraordinary development needs. Those needs are leading de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi closer to China than many analysts anticipated at the beginning of her elected tenure.
While it once appeared that the United States would offer a diplomatic and economic counterweight to China, analysts say Myanmar’s new leader faces uncertainty about American President Donald Trump’s interest in maintaining the previous Barack Obama administration’s high level of engagement with the country.
While Trump’s wider commitment to Southeast Asia and Obama’s “pivot” policy towards the region is broadly in doubt, the fading support has been particularly noticeable in Myanmar, a country grappling with the transition to democracy after nearly six decades of authoritarian military rule.
Obama invested large amounts of diplomatic capital in a “vision of Myanmar being a strong democratic counter-narrative to China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia and a standard-bearer of American values in Southeast Asia,” said Hunter Marston, an independent Washington-based Asia researcher and analyst.
These priorities were met in kind by previous President Thein Sein’s zeal to reenter the global fold after decades of sanctions-imposed isolation.
The US and European Union gradually lifted punitive sanctions imposed against the military’s abysmal rights record in exchange for demonstrable democratic progress, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners.
“It was more necessary for President Thein Sein to [pursue diplomatic relations with] the West, than Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Soe Myint Aung of Yangon’s Tagaung Institute, a think tank. “Their mandates are different. The previous government’s mandate was dubious – they came out of a military regime.”
Thein Sein’s order to suspend the China-backed US$3.6 billion Myitsone Dam project in 2011, delivered to parliament less than six months after taking office, shocked Beijing and was widely perceived as a diplomatic shift westward, Yun Sun, an analyst at the Stimson Center, a Washington DC based think tank, wrote last year.
“While the [Myitsone] project has never been popular in Myanmar, the Chinese nevertheless saw themselves as the victim of a pseudo-democratic government’s attempt to gain legitimacy, popularity and support by both the Myanmar people and the West,” she said.
A reassessment of strategic priorities under new Myanmar and US administrations should not be wholly unexpected, Marston said. “The China relationship is always going to be important, as a neighbor and the biggest source of investment, but Suu Kyi is recalibrating Myanmar’s relationship; the United States is far away, and China is a geographic reality and diplomatic heavyweight,” he said.
Under Obama, Suu Kyi was twice invited to the White House, most recently in September 2016, when she achieved the lifting of most long-standing economic sanctions. An arms embargo and sanctions related to drug trafficking remain in place.
Previous US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarded her engagement of Myanmar, a long-time adversary once referred to by President George W. Bush as an “outpost of tyranny”, as among her biggest policy successes.
By contrast, the Trump administration’s policy toward Southeast Asia remains largely undefined. Suu Kyi, who concurrently serves as Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, skipped a May 4 summit of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers held in Washington, sending her National Security Advisor U Thaung Tun instead.
Some analysts suggest her absence may have been in response to a perceived snub, though others say she had conflicting commitments. Trump has extended personal invitations to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Thailand’s Prayut Chan-o-cha and Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong to make official visits this year to the White House. No similar invitation has been extended to Myanmar’s de facto or nominal leaders.
However, the invitations should be viewed as a “symbolic recognition of allies first” rather than an endorsement of regional strongmen over emerging democracies like Myanmar, Marston said.
Much of Trump’s early Asia attention has been focused on North Korea. His calls to Duterte, Prayuth and Lee asked primarily for their cooperation in isolating and cutting trade with Pyongyang. A stronger US commitment to Southeast Asia may have to wait until the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) and Asean summits in November, which Trump has pledged to attend, experts say.
China, meanwhile, has cemented strong ties with Myanmar’s new leadership. While Suu Kyi’s first official international visit was to Laos, then serving as Asean’s rotational chair, she visited China with President Htin Kyaw in August 2016. At the Belt and Road Forum this month, she signed five memoranda of understanding with President Xi Jinping, including one for a yet-to-be defined border trading zone.
Within six months of taking office, and on the eve of Suu Kyi’s first China trip, President Htin Kyaw announced a commission to evaluate hydropower development projects, including the Myitsone Dam.
The commission’s November 2016 report, which was not publicly released, is understood to have strongly advised against restarting the stalled US$3.6 billion project. But the deadline for a final report has yet to be announced, and Myanmar officials took a non-committal “wait and see” approach during Htin Kyaw’s April visit to Beijing.
China is making diplomatic investments, as well. Beijing donated US$3 million to Myanmar’s peace process in 2016, though questions have emerged about Beijing’s influence over certain armed groups, namely the United Wa State Army, situated near the China border that remain strongly opposed to the terms of a government national ceasefire agreement.
In Dhaka last month, special Chinese envoy Sun Guoxiang suggested that China could mediate negotiations between Myanmar and Bangladesh, where some 75,000 ethnic Rohingya Muslims have been displaced along their shared border by military “clearance operations” in western Rakhine state that started in October 2016.
“As the neighbor of Myanmar and Bangladesh, as well as a country with greater global influence, China could serve as a mediator to keep the neighboring areas stable,” Institute of Southeast Asian Studies chair Gu Xiaosong told China’s state-owned Global Times last month.
China’s motives are likely more pragmatic than humanitarian, analysts say. “[China] wants a stable investment destination, they want peace for self-interested reasons, on their border,” Marston said. “I think it’s more about the stability of Rakhine state for ease of doing business.”
In that direction, China held its first ever naval drill with Myanmar on May 21 in what analysts saw as a strategically significant visit. The one-day joint drill, where both sides deployed guided missile vessels, covered communications, formation maneuvers and search and rescue missions.
Other analysts suggest that the lack of a clearly defined US policy towards Southeast Asia should not be mistaken for the absence of one.
Indeed, several influential US lawmakers remain strongly committed to cultivating ties to a democratic Myanmar. In his first meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly urged: “Don’t forget about [Myanmar].”
Soe Myint Aung also cautions against overemphasis on “elite-level politics” at the expense of lower-profile avenues of soft power engagement.
“If you look at the number of [US] Fulbright scholars, or the number of fellowship students and the number of exchange programs that are training parliamentarians and journalists, you can see that the people-to-people relations are going on as much as [during] the Obama administration.”