Myanmar a geopolitical battleground for China and US

Myanmar will continue to be a geopolitical battleground for China and the United States as long as the civil war between its government and ethnic rebels persists, according to a commentary from the Beijing-based Sina Military.

The ongoing strife in Myanmar, which has never really stopped in the last 60 years, is not merely an internal struggle, the commentary said, adding that it has become a behind-the-scenes tussle between China and the US for greater influence in the region.

For China, Myanmar’s geographic location is pivotal. With the two countries sharing a border, Myanmar provides China with a crucial passage to the Andaman Sea and the Indian Ocean. China has also increased its economic cooperation with Myanmar in recent years, including a port deal and oil and gas pipeline projects. Political stability in Myanmar is therefore key to China’s economic interests, which is why Beijing has repeatedly offered to assist in mediating peace talks notwithstanding its official policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries.

The US, on the other hand, is keen to suppress China’s rise and preventing its access to the Indian Ocean. Since President Barack Obama began implementing the “return to Asia” strategy in 2010, Washington has placed a special emphasis on Myanmar, which it had more or less abandoned since the 1960s following a coup that saw the country ruled by a military dictatorship.

Though the dictatorship officially ended in 2011, the power and influence of the Myanmar military remains strong, which is why civil war has continued to rage between the government and ethnic rebels seeking sub-national autonomy. Myanmar now has at least 35 ethnic forces, though the ones engaged in the most intense battles with the government have been linked to the US, in particular the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a political group composed of ethnic Kachins in the north of the country.

America’s strategy, according to the commentary, was to back opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi for the presidency, with the hopes that she will be able to institute major democratic reforms. Obama began calling for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release beginning from 2009, and even personally advocated for her freedom when he met with Myanmar president Thein Sein during the US-ASEAN Summit in November that year.

That followed with a slate of visits by US officials to the country, with former US assistant secretry of state Kurt Campbell making trips in November 2009 and May 2010 to improve relations. The diplomatic activity ramped up following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in November 2010, beginning with US assistant secretry of state Joseph Yun’s visits in December 2010 and May 2011.

In April 2011, Obama appointed Derek Mitchell to be the first US special representative and policy coodinator for Myanmar. Mitchell visited Myanmar in September and October that year, shortly before US secretary of state Hilary Clinton made a historic visit to the country on Nov. 30.

In January 2012, Obama pared back economic sanctions against Myanmar, allowing American companies to invest in the country. In May that year, Obama nominated Mitchell the first US ambassador to Myanmar since 1990, paving the way for his own hustoric visit in November as he became the first American president in office to set foot in the country.

Thein Sein then visited Obama in the US in May 2013, becoming the first Myanmar leader to visit America in 47 years, while Obama subsequently made a second visit to Myanmar in November last year.

To boost Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity, the US has tried to entice the KIA to support the peace-loving leader politically and to provide her with military backing. Apart from Obama’s meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi, the US also invited KIA deputy commander Gun Maw to the US for 11 days last April to meet with key US government officials. A US delegation including several high-ranking members of the US Pacific Command also made a low-key visit to Myanmar last month under the auspices of a human rights inspection, though part of the trip entailed a visit to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin, to get an understanding of the current state of the armed conflict in the region.

The problem for the US, however, is that Aung san Suu Kyi cannot run for Myanmar president under the current Myanmar constitution because she has two children who are British citizens. The US had hoped that closer ties would enable a push for a constitutional amendment, but it became clear that this would not be possible after Aung San Suu Kyi’s announcement of her intention to run for the presidency in 2015 was quickly shot down by the government.

Under these circumstances, the US has turned its attention to the civil war, the commentary said, so that it can disrupt the border stability sought by China to make its “belt and road” strategy a reality. The Silk Road Economic Belt is a land-based belt from China via Central Asia and Russia to Europe, while the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is a maritime route through the Straight of Malacca to India, the Middle East and East Africa. Both are part of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s long-term vision for improved connectivity in the region.

The US knows that, after 60 years of nearly continuous fighting, the civil war will take much more than the involvement of Washington to resolve, the commentary said, adding that America’s ultimate plan may be to use Aung San Suu Kyi to unify the rebel forces in Myanmar’s north to escalate the civil war into a conflict on a much larger scale. As Myanmar’s close neighbor and economic partner, China must oppose further US involvement and put an end to America taking advantage of the conflict for its own interests, the commentary said.

Source: Want China Times

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