Myanmar’s de factor leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is seeking to carefully balance relations with major powers as part of her commitment to revive the country’s tradition of employing a neutral foreign policy. Suu Kyi’s India visit this week follows trips to Beijing and Washington.
Myanmar’s geographic, cultural and geostrategic positioning between India and China makes it critical to the long-term interests of both these powers.
Crippling U.S.-led sanctions since the late 1980s pushed resource-rich Myanmar into China’s strategic lap. Sanctions without engagement have never worked. During his 2010 Indian tour, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized India’s policy of constructive engagement with Myanmar, only to return home and pursue, within months, a virtually similar policy. The shift in U.S. policy helped to spur Myanmar’s reform process, thereby ending half a century of military-dominated rule.
Yet today the Obama White House is ignoring that lesson by pursuing a sanctions-only approach toward North Korea, which recently carried out its fifth and most-powerful nuclear test and then conducted a failed missile test launch last weekend.
On her first visit to a major capital since her National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power almost seven months ago, Suu Kyi in August visited Beijing, not New Delhi where she was educated. Her aim was to smooth over the frayed relationship with China. Ties with China have been roiled by Myanmar’s 2011 suspension of the $3.6 billion, Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam project. The suspension on the eve of China’s national day constituted a slap in the face to Beijing — a loss of face made worse by the fact that the action became a turning point for Myanmar’s democratization and reintegration with the outside world.
The bold move, by demonstrating to Washington that Myanmar was no client state of China and by helping to both change U.S. policy and accelerate the country’s own transition to democracy, set in motion an easing of Western sanctions and ending Myanmar’s international isolation — best symbolized by Obama’s 2012 visit.
After work on the Myitsone Dam was halted midway, China’s relations with Myanmar perceptibly cooled, with several energy and other dam projects also put on hold. Beijing, however, managed to complete multibillion-dollar oil and gas pipelines from Myanmar’s western coast to southern China.
With the rise of a democratically governed Myanmar that is being wooed by all powers and by international investors, China can no longer push its strategic and resource interests by brushing aside questions about the environmental and human costs of its mining and other projects there.
But with China still wielding more leverage over Myanmar than any other power, President Xi Jinping is pushing for the Myitsone project’s revival — or the undoing of the 2011 humiliation. To deflect Chinese pressure, Suu Kyi, before visiting Beijing, appointed a 20-member commission to review Myitsone and other dam projects on the River Irrawaddy, the country’s lifeline.
After her China trip, Suu Kyi, as part of her balancing act, visited Washington, where she was warmly received Sept. 14 at the White House. But it was only on Oct. 7 — about 11 months after the NLD won a landslide election victory — that Obama lifted U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar through an executive order terminating an emergency directive that deemed the policies of its former military government a threat to U.S. national security. Military-related sanctions, however, have been retained.
Suu Kyi, accompanied by key ministers, traveled to India to attend a weekend multinational summit in Goa and then hold bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top officials in New Delhi.
Her visit was part of India’s invitation to member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) for a joint summit with the five-nation BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Goa. Suu Kyi thus met with a host of world leaders in Goa, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi.
Bringing together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, BIMSTEC holds more promise than the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is likely to remain a stunted organization, largely because of regional concerns over terrorism emanating from one of its members, Pakistan. A SAARC summit scheduled for next month in Islamabad collapsed after India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of orchestrating recent terrorist attacks within their borders.
Myanmar is India’s gateway to the east. It was at the India-ASEAN summit in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw in late 2014 that Modi launched India’s U.S.-backed “Act East” policy.
When Suu Kyi was in the opposition, India supported Suu Kyi’s democracy movement and sheltered many Myanmar refugees and dissidents, despite engaging with Myanmar’s military government in a carefully calibrated manner to promote political reconciliation and to stem China’s growing clout there.
Today, a key challenge for both Myanmar and India is to manage a difficult and complex relationship with China. Just as India’s northern neighbor historically was Tibet, not China, Myanmar’s neighbor for much of its early history was the independent kingdom of Yunnan, with Tibet also sharing a border with Myanmar until 1950.
Myanmar, like India, has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to local guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them in its north as levers against it. Still, recognizing that Beijing holds the keys to ending decades of armed conflict in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has given China an important role in her new initiative to promote ethnic reconciliation. Yet, despite China playing mediator, a Suu Kyi-sponsored peacemaking gathering attended by ethnic warlords in Naypyitaw ended in early September without any headway.
China values Myanmar as a strategic asset, viewing its long shoreline as a gateway to the Indian Ocean, where it is seeking to chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage. Having established a foothold in Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu, from where new energy pipelines lead to southern China, Beijing is now seeking to open a shorter, cheaper trade route to Europe via Myanmar’s River Irrawaddy, which flows in a southerly direction from near the Chinese border to the Andaman Sea.
Against this backdrop, India can ill afford to neglect Myanmar or persist with its sluggish implementation of projects there. It must actively involve itself in Myanmar, including by collaborating with Japan, with which it enjoys fast-growing strategic cooperation. The giant Thilawa industrial zone southeast of Yangon symbolizes Japan’s investment campaign in Myanmar to gain access to a new market and counterbalance China.
Greater Indian investment in and counterinsurgency cooperation with Myanmar, coupled with an India-Japan partnership on major projects in that country, can help reduce the salience of Chinese influence there and further Suu Kyi’s agenda for a balanced, neutral and pragmatic foreign policy.
Brahma Chellaney is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin and a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.