Guest Column

As the US and China Spar, Myanmar Walks a Tightrope

By Joe Kumbun 21 July 2020

The Myanmar embassies of two great powers—the US and China—have been sparring on social media recently. On Saturday, The Irrawaddy published an article by George N. Sibley, chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Myanmar, headlined “How the Erosion of Sovereignty Elsewhere Impacts Myanmar at Home”, which was also posted on the embassy’s website. In the article, Sibley claimed that China continues to disrespect the sovereignty of ASEAN countries in the South China Sea, and goes on to say that Myanmar has not been spared this treatment, having been subject to intimidation, threats and an undermining of its sovereignty. He concluded his op-ed by stating “… just as for more than 70 years the United States has stood as a friend and partner to the people of Myanmar.”

Immediately, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Myanmar rejected Sibley’s argument, stating, “He tried his best to draw forced analogies, speak on hearsay evidence, confuse right with wrong, to attack and smear China, deliberately driving a wedge between China-Myanmar cooperation and bilateral relations.” The spokesperson defended China’s “Pauk-Phaw”, or “brotherly”, relations with Myanmar, by rattling off a list of examples of China’s support for Myanmar ranging from its support for the country on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to COVID-19 assistance.

The “war of words” between these two high officials of the US and Chinese embassies in Yangon is a sign of the more general great power competition in the region, and demonstrates that Myanmar is at a critical juncture; it must reassess its foreign policy and choose its genuine partner amid the competition.

Responding to a question at a press conference on Sunday, Dr. Zaw Myint Maung, chief minister of Mandalay Region, said Myanmar would stick with its neutral policy and favor neither China nor the US.

Indeed, Myanmar’s policy toward China appears to have been constructed on the basis of this “Pauk-Phaw” logic, some elements of which—for example, the two countries’ geographical connection, their economic ties and China’s protection of Myanmar in the international arena—are deeply entrenched.

Myanmar’s approximately 2,170-kilometer border with China creates a geographical connection that greatly influences its domestic politics. China has involved itself in Myanmar’s armed conflict and peace process through ethnic armed groups based near the border. Likewise, China is Myanmar’s most important economic partner, serving as the biggest investor in the country until 2018 (it was surpassed by Singapore in 2019) and also as Myanmar’s main creditor.

More significantly, as the Chinese spokesperson also asserted, Beijing has shielded Myanmar from international pressure. On March 17, 2017, for instance, China blocked a short UNSC statement expressing concern about the human rights situation in Myanmar, after the 15-member body met to discuss the situation in Rakhine State. China also vetoed a UN draft resolution on Myanmar in January 2007.

On the other hand, Myanmar’s foreign policy toward the US seems designed to counterbalance China, embracing the dream of economic prosperity and flourishing democracy. These policies toward the US became visible after Myanmar started its political transition from the military regime to so-called democracy after the 2010 general election. Myanmar’s then President Thein Sein invited and welcomed then US President Barack Obama in November 2012. Similarly, he paid a visit to the US in 2013. The visits strengthened the relationship between the two countries and lessened Myanmar’s dependency on China.

The US went on to lift economic sanctions that had been imposed on Myanmar for decades. Myanmar gained massive support from the West, the US in particular, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi was swept to power in the 2015 general election.

However, due to the exodus of the Rohingya minority and Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence over human rights violations committed by armed actors in Rakhine State, the US imposed new targeted sanctions against Myanmar, and ties deteriorated.

China, on the other hand, has departed from its traditional non-interference policy in foreign relations and started to get involved in Myanmar’s political affairs. For instance, it played a mediating role in the Rohingya repatriation process between Bangladesh and Myanmar. Similarly, China is also closely involved in the peace process, mediating between the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). On top of that, China continues to shield Myanmar from international scrutiny and punishment, at the UNSC in particular.

For this reason, the Myanmar government and particularly the armed forces (or Tatmadaw) have recently come to view China as a savior in a tumultuous period. Thus, rather than pursuing a real balancing act, it is increasingly throwing in its lot with China. It appears that due to the rise of China in the economic and military spheres—which many in the region view as a threat—Myanmar has shown a tendency to lean toward China.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Myanmar in January, relations between Myanmar and China seem to have strengthened. For example, Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing even praised China as a “trusted friend forever” and reiterated that the Tatmadaw would continue to guarantee the implementation of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the country.

China may be on the rise in terms of military and economic power and can challenge any rival in Asia and beyond, but Myanmar should remember that Beijing is surrounded by rivalries, ranging from Japan in the east to India in the west, and from the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Indonesia in the South to the US in the far west.

The US is zeroing in on the Indo-Pacific region, formulating its Indo-Pacific strategy. In June 2019, the US Defense Department released its Indo-Pacific strategy report, in which “Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region” form the core elements. Through “preparedness”, the US aims to maintain its military’s capability to win any conflict.  Through “partnerships”, it strives to strengthen its unique network of alliances; and “promotion of a networked region” refers to the strengthening and evolution of US alliances and partnerships into a networked security architecture to uphold the international rules-based order. Thus, the US keeps strengthening its partnerships by signing arms deals in the region. For instance, the US and India signed off on a US$3.5-billion (4.8-trillion-kyat) arms deal when US President Donald Trump visited India in February 2020.

Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing surely understands how important the Indo-Pacific region is for military cooperation, stability and sovereignty, as he took part in a discussion on “Indo-Pacific region military cooperation and prospects for regional security” at the 8th Moscow Conference on International Security in April 2019.

Thus, if the two great powers, the US and China, engage in a military confrontation over the South China Sea or for any other reason, more regional countries will surely cooperate with the US.

In a nutshell, while China’s influence poses an unprecedented and inevitable challenge for Myanmar and other ASEAN members, which face both economic inducements to comply with China’s agenda, and penalties if they do not, building a robust partnership with the US is of unprecedented importance for Myanmar if it is to maintain national sovereignty.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of an analyst based in Kachin State.

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