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Myanmar: Post-election foreign policy rebalances westward

SAM SPECIAL-28-12-2020

Myanmar's foreign policy is set to undergo a significant shakeup in the coming year as the government readjusts to the changing international environment in a post-election, post-Covid and post-Trump era. In the middle of these evolving dynamics, Myanmar will increasingly become a major focus of attention -- and be a dominant determinant of the balance of power within Asia.

The country will the battleground for competing interests and rivalries, centred on China's position and role in the regional institutional architecture.

After her landslide victory in November's elections, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government are destined to become increasingly part of a regional "tug-of-war" for influence, centred around China's growing sway in the country.

Tokyo is leading the charge to wean Myanmar away from Beijing. But Delhi is also hoping to exert increasing influence in the "great game" centred on Myanmar, especially in the light of the deterioration in Sino-Indian relations over the past year. And with the imminent changing of the guard in Washington -- with a more outward-looking Biden administration taking over -- the United States can also be expected to re-enter the fray.

Fresh from its overwhelming victory in last month's elections, Myanmar's ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), now faces enormous challenges, including rebooting the country's flagging economy -- worsened by the pandemic and the international recession -- and pressing on with its economic reform programme. The NLD must also tackle the country's pressing need for a constitutional reform and regenerating its efforts at finally ending decades of civil war. Many of these goals are dependent on foreign aid and support.

In light of these challenges, Myanmar's foreign policy, especially in relation to its neighbours, is expected to change. Five years on, the regional and international architecture has also changed with the impact of the Covid pandemic likely to have a lasting effect on foreign relations -- especially trade -- in the coming decade. It will necessitate the Myanmar government, re-evaluating its policy priorities and its relationships. But in the meantime, the government has not been short of suitors. The outcome is likely to be a significantly new nuanced approach to its foreign relations.

In the lead-up to Myanmar's elections last month, there was a flurry of diplomatic activity -- largely behind the scenes -- as the region's major powers all sought to curry favour with the country's civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but also the powerful army commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

There was a parade of important visitors through the capital Nay Pyi Taw -- politicians and senior diplomats from the region's key nations, especially China, India and Japan, engaged in a quiet battle for greater influence in Myanmar post-election. Though, other important Asian players -- notably South Korea and Thailand -- launched their own equally significant initiatives.

As the State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi prepares for the next five years in office, her government is preparing its foreign policy priorities around its key concerns: maintaining its neutrality and independent international stance while encouraging support for Myanmar's economic recovery plans, including boosting international trade and foreign investment; diversifying its informal alliances and security arrangements; and ensuring that the country is not overly dependent on any one country for support and protection.

Over the past five years, Suu Kyi has pursued a concerted foreign policy strategy. This was in response, to some degree, to the growing western criticism of the government's handling of the violence in the western province of Rakhine, neighbouring Bangladesh and the mass exodus of nearly one million Muslim refugees -- or Rohingya as they call themselves.

Myanmar was anxious to secure greater support from its Asian "friends", especially at international forulike the United Nations, which effectively meant distancing itself from the West, especially Europe and the US.

This meant the country is increasingly relying on China -- and to a lesser degree the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) -- for support. Deep down, Myanmar's fast-developing dependence on China has irked the country's diplomats -- including its top diplomat, Suu Kyi, who is also the foreign minister. But there is a clear recognition in government circles that Myanmar's relationship with China needs to be significantly calibrated. And Myanmar will use the opportunity of its massive reaffirmed political mandate and the changing post-Covid international environment to do just that.

Sources close to the Lady, as she is affectionately known in the country, said she still feels bitterly betrayed by Britain and the US -- though there are growing signs in Nay Pyi Taw that the Myanmar government is seeking a form of rapprochement with the West, particularly the United Kingdom and the US.

Midway through her first term in power, Suu Kyi told a close confidant that Myanmar only had two friends it could really trust: China and Japan -- and to a lesser degree India, she reportedly added. Asean's support -- though less significant than the big three "neighbours" -- was largely taken for granted, according to diplomatic sources.

Although Asean's primary position in Myanmar's strategic labyrinth of relationships has waned significantly, especially with some of Asean's predominantly Muslim countries, Thailand's importance has grown, with the two neighbours now enjoying an unprecedented era of strong bilateral relations. Predominantly Muslim countries like Malaysia have been increasingly critical of Myanmar's handling of its Rohingya crisis.

Myanmar wants to broaden its network of alliances and strong bilateral relationships, while remaining loyal to the country's traditional ideological principles of foreign policy: non-alignment, neutrality, independence and universal friendship. But the international reality and the legacy of the country's isolation during its period under military rule has meant that China is its key partner -- the ever-present, ever-dependable and uncritical supporter.

Suu Kyi has had to struggle with this conundrum ever since assuming power after the 2015 elections -- and how to relax the dependence on Beijing without offending their giant northern neighbour.

In the past year, it has become clear that Myanmar's leaders have been intent on broadening their strategic umbrella of "alliances". During that time, Japan has become increasingly important, both politically and economically -- though much of this support is the result of quiet diplomacy and behind-the-scenes financial support. Of course, this could pose dilemmas for Myanmar in the future, particularly as it has not gone unnoticed by Beijing.

For a while, Suu Kyi dabbled with the notion of eliciting collaborative support from an "Asian triumvirate" of China, Japan and South Korea, especially in terof investment and trade. But she seemed oblivious to the obstacles that the political realities and rivalries in North Asia posed to this vision.

In the meantime, India has stepped up its courtship of Myanmar in light of Delhi's own deteriorating relations with Beijing over the last six months. And for its part, Myanmar has become much more responsive to Delhi's recent overtures for strengthened ties between the two countries -- though they may be even more enthusiastic about potential Indo-Japanese cooperation in Myanmar.

What is certain is that Myanmar's foreign policy will undergo changes in the coming months, including a distinct tilt westwards, as it broadens its strategic approach and tries to veer away from its reliance on Beijing.

But the main focus of Myanmar's foreign policy will be on strengthening its economic and security ties with regional partners -- especially India, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Singapore -- while continuing to maintain good relations with China.