Look East Policy Is Fine, but a Balancing Act Is Needed

By Aung Zaw 27 November 2018

China’s influence over Myanmar is rising as the West continues to condemn the government over the Rohingya issue.

Beijing’s consistent and assertive engagement with government leaders in Naypyitaw—intended to counter the Western influence that began to flourish under the previous government led by then-President U Thein Sein—is paying off. Myanmar is seen as moving closer to China.

Even before her government came to power, Beijing expressed concern to then-opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi about the rise of Western influence in Myanmar and made known its willingness to assist in the peace process and economic development. She was invited to Beijing to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping even before her party won the 2015 election in a landslide.

The West’s condemnation and renewed sanctions on the government over the Rohingya issue now appear to have been counterproductive, alienating both Myanmar’s elite and the grassroots population. That doesn’t mean the population as a whole has become pro-China, but Myanmar people want to see the country’s foreign relations strike a balance between regional superpowers China, Japan and India, as well as the West.

In regards to China, Myanmar should adopt a cautious and deliberate approach that always serves the national interest and heeds the public’s concerns about Beijing’s clout over Myanmar.

Since last year, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been widely discussed in Myanmar thanks to steady media coverage and the holding of a number of forums. The initiative faced steady opposition from some quarters in Myanmar, and a cautious welcome from others. There has been pushback.

Beijing needs to keep in mind how far it can push, and when it needs to ease off, while respecting the nature and sovereignty of Myanmar and its citizens’ concerns.

It is time for Myanmar’s leaders—if they possess sufficient vision—to assert themselves and strike a balance. The plain fact is that Myanmar is not a puppet of any country, and like any other country in the world it must put its national interest first.

In years past, through many ups and downs in bilateral relations, Beijing was able to maintain special, privileged access to Myanmar’s leaders, including former military chiefs General Ne Win and Senior-General Than Shwe. So it is not surprising to see Beijing forge closer relations with the current government led by de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. It is to Myanmar’s benefit to be on good terms with China and all its neighbors, as it adopts a “Look East” policy.

Myanmar President U Win Myint has appointed national security adviser U Thaung Tun to head a new ministry tasked with boosting local and international investment. One of its duties will be to ensure that all foreign investment is socially and environmentally responsible. The appointment indicates that the government is making a priority of improving the economy by luring more investment from overseas.

Song Tao, the head of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, recently visited Myanmar and met with a wide range of high-ranking officials including State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and military commander-in-chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing dressed in civilian clothes as he received Song Tao. He told the visiting Chinese official that he hoped Beijing would further promote its stand on political reforms in Myanmar and foster good relations between political forces, the public and ethnic groups in the country.

Song Tao pledged China’s continued support for the peace process. Many ethnic insurgent groups, particularly along the northern border with China, are now under Beijing’s influence.

Last month, Naypyitaw agreed to conduct a feasibility study on a high-speed railway project that would link Muse, in northern Shan State, to Mandalay as part of Beijing’s grand infrastructure plan for the region. The project is part of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor or CMEC, which is itself a component of the BRI.  Muse sits across Myanmar’s border from Yunnan province in southwestern China. What would have happened if this project were conducted under the previous government? Most likely it would have provoked public discontent. This time, however, the Myanmar public hasn’t made a fuss about it.

After many rounds of negotiation, China has deepened its relationship with the Myanmar government, which inked a framework agreement with a Chinese company on the development of a special economic zone (SEZ) in Rakhine State. The project will offer China access to the Bay of Bengal while enhancing regional connectivity as part of the BRI. Before the deal was signed there was a healthy discussion in the Myanmar media over the potential dangers of falling into a debt trap with China, as well as China’s strategic interest in Rakhine State. The Irrawaddy published a series of articles, interviews and analyses on this particular project in both Burmese and English.

The Kyaukphyu SEZ is uniquely positioned to serve as a trade corridor connecting the three economies of China, India and Asean.

The point is that Myanmar is not throwing its lot entirely in with China—and nor should it.

In October, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went to Japan to attend the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit and hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. She met several dozen Japanese businessmen and invited them to invest in Myanmar. As of 2017, Japan was the fourth-biggest foreign investor in Myanmar.

In an interview with The Irrawaddy, Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Maruyama told The Irrawaddy that Japan opposed Western countries’ proposed trade sanctions over the Rohingya issue. He stressed that while a majority of Myanmar people wanted democracy—a desire he said echoes the international community’s aspirations—on the Rakhine issue the two are on opposite sides. He said this state of affairs demonstrated the complexity of the situation in Rakhine State.

But there is one more actor in the Look East policy: India.

Unlike the West, New Delhi understands Myanmar’s history and complexity and is keen to maintain its relations with Naypyitaw. Still, India lags behind China as a trading partner. Trade between China and Myanmar is expected to surpass US$7 billion this year.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who has renamed India’s own “Look East” policy as “Act East”—visited Myanmar in September 2017, just weeks after terrorists attacked Myanmar forces in northern Rakhine State. As a result of the clashes, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled across the Bangladesh border. Myanmar quickly found itself on the receiving end of an international outcry, but Modi’s pragmatic engagement was appreciated here.

Since a new border crossing opened between Tamu in Sagaing Region and Moreh in the Indian state of Manipur, tourists have started flowing into the area. As infrastructure improves, trade between the two countries will thrive.

New Delhi is concerned with Chinese influence in Myanmar and its support of rebel groups based near Myanmar’s northern border and its border with India, including the Arakan Army, which now operates near the boundary between Chin and Rakhine states. To counter China’s influence in Myanmar, more engagement from India is required.

Myanmar will need to engage in sophisticated diplomacy to counter China’s rise, as the region is also in the U.S.’s strategic interest.

The growing rivalry and tensions between the U.S. and China in the Asia region will force Myanmar to think carefully about its foreign policy, in particular the Look East strategy.

At the recent Asean Summit in Singapore, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told the gathering of leaders, “We all agree that empire and aggression have no place in the Indo-Pacific.”

“Let me be clear, though: Our vision for the Indo-Pacific excludes no nation. It only requires that nations treat their neighbors with respect, and respect the sovereignty of our nations and international rules and order,” he said, in a warning clearly aimed at China.

While in Singapore, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi met with Pence. The vice president voiced concern over the Myanmar Army’s treatment of Rohingya Muslims. “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse,” he said. The two engaged in a very “candid exchange”, as a White House official put it.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told Pence, “Of course people have different points of view, but the point is that you should exchange these views and try to understand each other better.”

“In a way we can say that we understand our country better than any other country does and I’m sure you will say the same of yours, that you understand your country better than anybody else,” she added.

This conversation is far from over.

But at the Singapore summit, Washington’s main target was China. In another blunt warning to Beijing, Pence said, “The United States’ commitment to the Indo-Pacific is steadfast and enduring,” adding that Asean was central to the U.S.’s view of the region as an “indispensable and irreplaceable strategic partner”.

“In all that we do, the United States seeks collaboration, not control,” he said. “Like you, we seek an Indo-Pacific in which all nations, large and small, can prosper and thrive, securing sovereignty, confident in our values, and growing stronger together.”

Amid the rising tension between China and the U.S., Myanmar’s leaders will need foresight and a clear vision to chart a course that avoids getting caught up in the rivalry.

During World War II, Myanmar was a battlefield fought over by British, U.S. and Japanese forces, all of which had their own strategic priorities in the region. Myanmar was just a pawn in the game.

This time Myanmar can’t afford to be caught between the China-U.S. rivalry.

Pragmatism and policies that serve stability and the national interest must be fundamental to the shaping of Myanmar’s continued engagement with China, India, Japan and rest of Asia. At the same time, Myanmar can’t afford to entirely estrange itself from the West, including the U.S.

Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.