Charting Myanmar’s Course Through US-China Tensions

By The Irrawaddy 1 August 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss Myanmar’s foreign policy amid tensions between China and the US. Former Information Minister [in the U Thein Sein government] U Ye Htut has joined me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

As everyone knows, there was a war of words on social media between the US and Chinese embassies recently. US embassies in six Southeast Asian countries attacked China, accusing China of undermining the sovereignty of its neighbors, citing China’s activities in the South China Sea. The tensions have grown to an extent that the US sent two aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. This is one of the developments from Trump’s trade war with China and analysts suggest the US and China are engaged in a cold war. What is your assessment of the situation?

Ye Htut: The US started to exercise an Indo-Pacific strategy under Trump’s leadership. If I remember correctly, Trump proposed an Indo-Pacific strategy during the APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation] meeting in 2017. In 2019, the US Department of Defense issued an Indo-Pacific Strategy. Before that, it issued its National Security Strategy. This reflects how the US views the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean together as one large security region. But the idea was first presented by Japanese Prime Minister Abe in 2007, who was in his first premiership at the time. He suggested that four democracies—the US, Japan, India and Australia—should take the lead on containing the rise of China in the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. Trump put that idea into practice.

The Indo-Pacific Strategy issued in 2019 says that a free and open Indo-Pacific region includes 1) respect for sovereignty and independence of all nations; 2) peaceful resolution of disputes; 3) free, fair and reciprocal trade based on open investment, transparent agreements and connectivity; and 4) adherence to international law. It appears that the US is trying make accusations against China on three of those four points—on [lack of] respect for sovereignty, peaceful resolution of disputes and adherence to international law.

The op-ed published by the US Embassy in Myanmar accused China of violating those three points, citing [unregulated] banana plantations [in Kachin State] and debt traps—issues that have increased anti-Chinese sentiments among Myanmar people. In the past, the US viewed ASEAN as a bloc in its approach toward the relationship between China and ASEAN. Now, the US is focusing not only on the relationship between China and ASEAN, and but also trying to create discord between China and individual ASEAN countries.

But this will not evolve into a cold war like there was between the US and the Soviet Union. At the time, besides the political rivalry, there were wars and invasions through proxies. The current situation will not turn out like that. The rivalry may intensify on the geopolitical and economic fronts, as far as I am concerned.

YN: Taking a look at foreign policy, Myanmar had to depend heavily on China in the past. The US imposed sanctions against Myanmar and bilateral relations only improved after reforms were introduced under the U Thein Sein administration. Everyone was taken aback by then-President U Thein Sein’s decision to suspend [plans for] the Myitsone Dam. It was viewed as a challenge to China. Would you explain the Myanmar government’s foreign policy on the US back then?

YH: Despite different political systems, from 1948 to 1988, Myanmar attached great importance—both under the AFPFL [Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League] government led by U Nu and under U Ne Win’s government—to China as a neighbor and a strategic country. At the same time, the country maintained friendly ties with all Western countries, including the US.

But building ties with the US was not intended as a threat to China. At the same time, it was not the case that we allowed China to undermine the sovereignty of our country, just that we maintained good ties with them. We fought the CPB [Communist Party of Burma], which was backed by China, and we strongly opposed [ethnically Chinese students] when they, under the influence of China’s Cultural Revolution, defied the government’s order not to wear Mao Zedong badges or carry copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” to schools and universities.

What happened then, between 1988 and 2011, was that we did not abandon the US, but they shut the door on us, pushing us toward China. We had no option but to engage with China. So we had to rely on them more than ever. However, we did not let this affect the territory or sovereignty of the country. China-Myanmar relations had become a strategic partnership under the U Thein Sein administration. But our relationship with Western countries, including the US, was not good.

What U Thein Sein thought was that Myanmar had to rejoin the international community if it wanted to see full development—either of its economy or of anything else. To do so, it had to improve ties with Western countries, including the US. For that to happen, reforms had to be carried out inside the country, so the U Thein Sein government took steps to reconcile with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ‘88-generation activists. We approached the US not because we wanted to break off ties with China. We just wanted to restore ties with the US as before. This was the reality.

But when the US and some analysts described it as anti-Chinese move, some ministers in the U Thein Sein government took up that view—for example in connection with the Myitsone Dam. I have written about it my book. U Thein Sein’s decision to suspend the Myitsone Dam was not intended to insult China. It also was not a signal that Myanmar wants to break off its ties with China in favor of the West. As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi [then the opposition leader] had expressed opposition against the Myitsone Dam, U Thein Sein was concerned that it could lead to an uprising and his government was not able to start reforms. So he made the decision himself to suspend the dam project.

Frankly speaking, I would say he made a hasty decision. Of course Western countries liked it very much. By suspending the dam project, we did not intend to break off ties with China, but we never denied the allegations that we were seeking to break off our ties with China. The consequence was that China felt like it was the only loser in Myanmar’s democratic reforms—though it may not oppose reforms in Myanmar—and that Western countries were winning applause while it attracted only negative views among Myanmar people.

After all this happened—perhaps it is coincidental or intentional—fresh clashes erupted in northern Myanmar. New groups like the AA [Arakan Army] grew, acquired weapons, infiltrated into Rakhine State and started military operations. Though all the ethnic armed organizations [EAOs] in northern Myanmar had previously signed ceasefire agreements, all of them refused to sign ceasefire agreements with the U Thein Sein administration.

YN: Myanmar had to fight back against the CPB and also resist the influence of China’s Cultural Revolution. Among the EAOs based on the China-Myanmar border are the United Wa State Army, which is believed to be the most powerful EAO in Myanmar, the Kachin Independence Army, which possesses relatively strong forces, and the AA, which is engaged in active fighting with the government. Because of its geopolitical position, Myanmar inevitably has to engage with China. While China has control over EAOs in Myanmar, it is also offering to make infrastructural investment in Myanmar through the One Belt One Road [OBOR] Initiative [also known as the Belt and Road Initiative]. How much do you think we can trust in China?

YH: Whether we can trust in China will depend on its strategic interests. We can trust China if it believes we will not harm its strategic interests. If we are deemed harmful to its strategic interests, China will do what it must—though they say our two countries have ‘Pauk-Phaw’ [sibling] relations.

To compare the situation now to back then, we were able to engage with them as equals from 1948 to 1988, based on five principles of peaceful coexistence. Once, we spoke up for China at the UN when China was not yet a UN member. But when sanctions were imposed against us after 1988, we had to rely heavily on China, particularly on the economic front and the international diplomatic front at the UN, throughout the U Than Shwe administration. When sanctions decreased after the U Thein Sein government restored ties with Western countries, Myanmar’s economic reliance on China fell to a certain extent. As relations with Western countries improved, Myanmar needed less help from China on the diplomatic front.

Then, renewed clashes erupted and the peace process with EAOs in northern Myanmar stalled. So what happened was that we had to rely on China regarding ethnic affairs and the peace process under the U Thein Sein government. Previously, we said we needed no outsiders in peace talks, but then we had to allow China to participate in peace talks as observers or in a mediator role. Then, the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi government came to power. I thought her government would be able reduce Myanmar’s reliance on China. But, the Rakhine issue broke out, and investments from Western countries declined due to various reasons. As pressures resurfaced on the UN front, the National League for Democracy government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has had to rely on China diplomatically. On the economic front, Myanmar even has to sign separate agreements with China as part of the OBOR initiative. Regarding the peace process, Myanmar has to continue relying on China. So, China is holding all three cards—the economic, the diplomatic and the peace process—for Myanmar. This is the reality.

To address this, Myanmar needs to understand the strategic interests of China and seeks to cooperate with it based on those strategic interests, without conceding sovereignty and economic freedom. It is wrong to think that we will be able to grab back all three cards by taking sides with the US. This is the reality.

YN: Thank you for your contributions!

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