Myanmar’s leaders target ASEAN ties with first foreign trip

VIENTIANE — Myanmar President Htin Kyaw and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s choice of Laos for their first trip abroad reaffirms the new administration’s focus on building ties with the rest of Southeast Asia.

Suu Kyi, acting as state counselor and foreign minister, accompanied Htin Kyaw in talks with his Laotian counterpart, Bounnhang Vorachith, and other officials Friday. Laos is a good neighbor to Myanmar, and was selected as the site of the president’s first state visit to beef up ties with fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, she told The Nikkei after meeting with the heads of state. Laos chairs ASEAN in 2016.

The bloc at the end of 2015 launched the ASEAN Economic Community, or AEC, aimed at promoting regional economic integration. Plans are in motion for a number of large-scale infrastructure projects such as cross-border highways and rail lines in the Mekong River region, which includes Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia along with Myanmar and Laos.

Htin Kyaw and Bounnhang agreed at their meeting to pursue deeper economic integration and stronger multilateral ties through the AEC. A resumption of direct flights between their two countries and other cooperative measures in the fields of trade, investment and tourism were settled on as well.

The promise of lower tariffs and financial-sector liberalization under the AEC, along with robust infrastructure development, has made ASEAN a promising investment target for Japan and other nations. According to some projections, the bloc will become the world’s fourth-largest economy by 2030, behind China, India and Europe. Suu Kyi looks to exploit regional economic integration to fuel Myanmar’s domestic growth.

Economic sanctions from the U.S. and European nations on Myanmar during its long period of military rule led the country to cultivate strong investment, trade and other economic ties with China. Former President Thein Sein, who took power in 2011 as part of the country’s return to civilian rule, quickly reversed course, emphasizing ties with the West. Suu Kyi looks to continue the previous administration’s efforts to become less dependent on Beijing.

China, the U.S. and European nations have all sent their chief diplomats to cultivate ties with Myanmar’s new leadership. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida made his visit on Monday and Tuesday, inviting Suu Kyi to visit his country in turn

Source: Nikkei Asian Review

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