Myanmar, ASEAN, and the China Challenge

As Myanmar gears up to host this weekend’s ASEAN Regional Forum, it may find that its role is both a blessing and a curse. While Myanmar welcomes its chance in the spotlight as ASEAN Chair, that role is increasingly difficult to play. Maritime disputes in the South China Sea threaten to turn each ASEAN meeting into a tug of war between anti- and pro-China forces.

When it was announced in 2011 that Myanmar would serve as ASEAN Chair in 2014, it was seen as a major step forward for the country. Being chair means that Myanmar would preside over and host the major ASEAN meetings, from the ASEAN leader’s summit (held in May 2014) to this weekend’s ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which will include ASEAN members as well as other regional actors such as Australia, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. The position of ASEAN Chair (and host of the major ASEAN meetings) rotates each year among the ASEAN member states, but Myanmar had previously been excluded from taking its turn due to its strained ties with its neighbors.

In 2011, however, Myanmar was in the midst of democratic reforms that completely changed the foreign policy landscape for the previously-isolated nation. Giving Myanmar’s the 2014 chairmanship was clearly intended as both a reward for its progress and an impetus for continued reforms. When the announcement was made, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters that Myanmar’s reforms “have made it more conducive” for the country to assume the role of chair. He added, “We are trying to ensure that the process of change continues, the momentum is maintained.” ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh took a similar tone, saying that “Myanmar’s chairmanship comes amidst the country’s on-going democratization and reform process which has been enjoying strong support from ASEAN Member States and the international community at large.”

While many have questioned the substance of Myanmar’s democratic reforms, there’s no denying the impact it has had on foreign policy. Myanmar’s role as ASEAN Chair is one byproduct of its new image in the international community. As another sign of Myanmar’s new respectability, relations with the United States have thawed remarkably in the past three years. In November 2011, Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in over 50 years. A year later, President Barack Obama himself visited Myanmar, making him the first sitting U.S. president to ever do so. Around the same time, the U.S. appointed its first ambassador to Myanmar in over 20 years. Perhaps more importantly from Myanmar’s perspective, the increased political attention from the West came with an easing of economic sanctions.

Myanmar’s new popularity among Western nations was concerning to China, which had long enjoyed unchallenged influence in the isolated state. Indeed, the promise of democratic reforms may have been motivated by a desire among the country’s leaders to reduce Myanmar’s dependence on China. Thus outreach to the West was accompanied by signs that Myanmar was pushing back against China, including the cancellation of a dam project in northern Myanmar. In addition, China is increasingly unpopular among average citizens in Myanmar, particularly in the border region, and popular opinion will grow increasingly important should democratization continue. China responded to these developments not by stepping up its engagement with Myanmar but by cutting it back. China slashed its direct investments in Myanmar by 90 percent from 2011 to 2012. Beijing also scaled down the number of high-level visits, even as other countries were expanding bilateral talks.

Given this backdrop, Myanmar’s role as ASEAN Chair is a huge diplomatic headache. The ASEAN Chair wields enormous influence over ASEAN meetings, and there’s a lot of pressure for the host nation to fall in line with either the anti-China or pro-China camps. In 2010, for example, Vietnam made the South China Sea disputes a major issue in regional summits (much to China’s dismay). By contrast, in 2012, Cambodia scuttled talks rather than allow the maritime disputes to dominate the agenda. This pressure is multiplied for Myanmar. On the one hand, the country is making concerted efforts to improve its relations with other ASEAN members, and with the West, which adds pressure not to sideline the South China Sea disputes. On the other hand, China remains incredibly important to Myanmar, especially economically—China remains Myanmar’s largest trading partner and largest source of foreign direct investment. An anti-China ASEAN summit could have huge economic and political ramifications for Myanmar.

Myanmar managed to walk the diplomatic tightrope during the May 2014 ASEAN Summit, an incredibly difficult task given that the China-Vietnam crisis was in full swing. Now, with the South China Sea looming over this weekend’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Myanmar’s foreign policy loyalties will once again be put to the test.


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