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United States and Myanmar: It’s Not All About China

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 1, 2011

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks with Myanmar's President Thein Sein at the President's Office in Naypyitaw on December 1, 2011.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks with Myanmar's President Thein Sein at the President's Office in Naypyitaw on December 1, 2011. (POOL / Courtesy of Reuters)

My colleague Josh Kurlantzick has done a great job tracking and analyzing the ongoing developments in U.S.-Myanmar relations over the past week or so. It is particularly worth checking out his policy innovation memo, which offers some timely advice for U.S. policymakers.

A lot of people are wondering  how China figures into the evolving U.S.-Myanmar relationship, and I was interviewed by The Diplomat on this topic a few days ago. Overall, my take is that China should not be a central consideration. Recent developments in U.S.-Myanmar relations are largely independent of the U.S.-China relationship and reflect instead a desire on the part of Myanmar’s leaders to begin reforming the country’s political and economic system and, within that process, to re-engage with the United States.

While China certainly looms large for Myanmar as a major supplier of arms, imports (over a third of the country’s imports derive from the mainland), and infrastructure investment, it bears remembering that China is not the only game in town. When it comes to Myanmar making money, the country’s best friends (as measured by the size of the export markets in 2010) are by far Thailand (38.3 percent) and India (20.8 percent), with China coming in a distant third (12.9 percent).

China clearly has some mixed feelings about the expanding ties between its neighbor and the United States. (Beijing, for example, undoubtedly wasn’t pleased by Secretary Clinton’s offer to have Myanmar participate as an observer in the Lower Mekong Initiative — a U.S.-initiated regional association that engages Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam on discussions of the development and environment issues related to the Mekong River, the headwaters of which are in China.) However, as I indicate in my interview, it would be a mistake on several levels for Beijing, Washington, Naypyitaw or anyone else to make Myanmar’s choices predominantly about China or U.S.-China relations.

Click here to read the interview.

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  • Posted by Ted Gault

    I am curious about your basis for the statement, “Recent developments in U.S.-Myanmar relations are largely independent of the U.S.-China relationship and reflect instead a desire on the part of Myanmar’s leaders to begin reforming the country’s political and economic system and, within that process, to re-engage with the United States.”

    We do not know much at all about the internal actions and communications of the military, and no one outside of it really knows what recent impetus has brought on these reforms. The current military leaders still seem “old school” in terms of their age and the civil wars and other events that they have lived through, and which have defined their perspectives. I think questions can still be raised about why reforms are happening now after two decades of brutal oppression.

    Perhaps certain high elements of the military were turned off by the murder of monks and other civilians in the last crack-down, but we have no idea what kind of divisions have arisen within the military, if any. We do know that there were, and continue to be, elements who were willing to murder and bloody protestors over any hint of democratic reform. We also know that the military has been content to live apart from the United States and Europe for two decades, so we should be asking why they have suddenly decided to change this policy.

    For my two-cents, I believe that the growth of China has played a role in these recent developments. While xenophobic and nationalistic military leaders have until now been reasonably content with the wealth and comforts that they have funneled to themselves, there is a possibility that they are growing weary of the growing influence of China in the country. The Tatmadaw has always been a majority Burman organization that has fiercely opposed outside intervention in Burma; in fact, that is its 2nd most defining trait after its belief that it is the only thing keeping the country “unified” against various rebel groups and ethnic insurgents. These leaders know that they are isolated from most of the world due to their brutal governance (although they would call it necessary governance), and that this isolation has given China an uncomfortable amount of economic, social, and possibly political clout in their country. By freeing itself from isolation through reforms, Burma will no longer need to rely on China and in this way gain a more balanced, independent and fruitful foreign policy.

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