Behind the scenes of this year’s ASEAN and East Asian summits, currently taking place in Bangkok, the region’s key nations – China, India and Japan – are engaged in a quiet tussle for greater influence in Myanmar.
The fact that Myanmar’s State Counselor, Aung San Suu Kyi, is in Bangkok, is an indication of her country’s importance in the region. And in the face of growing Western criticism of Myanmar’s human rights record, Suu Kyi is anxious to secure greater support from her Asian ‘friends’.
Sources close to the “lady”, as she is affectionately known in the country, say she feels bitterly betrayed by Britain and United States. Last year she told a close confident that Myanmar has only two friends it could really trust: China and Japan, and to a lesser degree India.
ASEAN’s support, though less significant than the big three ‘neighbors’, was taken for granted.
Myanmar’s alienation from the West has deepened, though the United Kingdom has softened its criticism at the UN. It is reaching out to Myanmar to explore bilateral trade prospects post-Brexit. However, on its part, Myanmar has sought to strengthen its relations with Asia.
In the past six months, in the face of an increasing international clamor for accountability and sanctions against Myanmar because of the horrendous events in its strife-torn Rakhine region, Myanmar has sought to ensure China’s protection at various international forums, particularly the UN.
In this regard, Russia has also been targeted as it is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with a veto to boot. Myanmar’s army Commander, Gen.Min Aung Hlaing, and senior government officials, have secured Moscow’s support, especially at the UN.
Of course Russia has become a major supplier of weaponry, to some extent surpassing China. There has been a series of high-profile visits by Myanmar’s military personnel to Russia in the past three years.
Since the Generals seized power in 1988 and annulled the result of the previous elections in 1990, China has been Myanmar’s unswerving ally. Many National League for Democracy (NLD) politicians believe that it was China’s staunch support that resulted in the military’s being able to rule for as long as they did in the face of massive international criticism and West-led sanctions.
However, the military is concerned about being over dependent on Beijing, and allowing it to have undue influence over its strategic priorities. This can be seen in its recent purchase of Indian submarines. This is a proclamation of military independence as any future submarine port would not be outfitted by Chinese contractors, nor be compatible with Chinese subs.
This approach is indeed part of Myanmar’s military commanders’ concern to broaden their supply sources. Beijing is not fully trusted. “This is a legacy or a lesson from Senior General Than Shwe’s days,” said a military source who was previously in close contact with him.
“Than Shwe insisted that the Tatmadaw should maintain close ties with Russia, in order to balance the dependence on Beijing,” he said. Than Shwe was at heart an advocate of a non-aligned foreign policy, he added.
This thread runs through the country’s political leadership, from the founder of modern Myanmar, General Aung San. That policy was clearly articulated by U Thant – the famous Myanmar diplomat, who was also served as the UN Secretary General. The current government led by the NLD is attempting to follow the same policy.
“We will adopt a policy of non-alignment when the NLD comes to power,” U Lwin – then the party’s secretary – told me some fifteen years ago. This remains the guiding principle of foreign policy now, but has had to be adapted to the modern world and the current global reality, according to diplomats.
For decades, China has also been suspicious of Aung San Suu Kyi because of the support she got from the West, especially the US, in her earlier avatar as a democracy campaigner. But as relations between China and Myanmar became increasingly fraught under Thein Sein’s government, which preceded the NLD government, Beijing began to reach out to Aung San Suu Kyi, then the opposition leader.
So when she became the country’s civilian leader the Chinese government strenuously wooed her and her government.
However, like most people in Myanmar, Suu Kyi harbors suspicions about Beijing’s long-term strategic ambitions in Myanmar. Like most political activists, she also dislikes China as it had fully backed the previous military regimes.
But she is also pragmatic. “I have to be careful with China,” she told me in an interview in March 2003, shortly before the unfortunate attack on her convoy at Depayin and her return to house arrest. Putting aside her resentment and suspicions she said: “They are a powerful neighbor, and I cannot afford to offend them.”
This attitude seems to have framed her approach since she became State Counselor, and simultaneously Foreign Minister. Of course events in Myanmar, particularly the crisis in Rakhine and the exodus of nearly a million Muslim refugees to Bangladesh to escape a brutal military crackdown, has left Myanmar internationally isolated, and increasingly dependent on China for moral and political support, and more importantly, economic investment and aid.
However this poses a major problem the lady. While being grateful for Beijing’s support, she is concerned that Myanmar is becoming over dependent on China, and this undermines her commitment to a balanced, independent and non-aligned foreign policy.
This was clear at least two years ago, when she told a government insider that while Myanmar’s reliance on China is a fact, at least publicly Myanmar should not appear to be so close to Beijing, for fear that it would limit the country’s international options in the future.
In the past year or so, Myanmar’s leaders have been clearly intent on broadening their strategic umbrella of ‘alliances’. Japan has become increasingly important, both politically and economically. Much of this support is the result of quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes financial support. Of course this could pose dilemmas for Myanmar in the future, particularly as it has not gone unnoticed by Beijing.
Chinese diplomats have complained privately that they do not feel Myanmar has given them sufficient public credit for their contribution – especially in regard to the peace process and the repatriation plans for the Rakhine refugees. They believe Japan gets more credit for a lesser contribution. The State Counselor’s recent trip to Tokyo for the official crowning of the new Emperor is seen as symptomatic of Japan’s superior position: two trips to Japan this year and only one to Beijing.
Although this numerical approach does a disservice to the details and complexities of foreign policy, it has created anxiety in Beijing about public recognition for the government of China’s support for Myanmar, and its current and future importance. Thus, talk of a state visit by China’s leader, President Xi Jingping, to Myanmar seems to be back on the agenda.