For years the country, plagued by authoritarianism and gross human rights abuses, has seen little of the success that has swept across that region. Yet visits in the last two years by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as billions of dollars of investment from the EU and China, indicate that Myanmar may be more significant than it first appears.
In the global-scale game of chess played between China and the United States, Myanmar is, in fact, of great importance.
Under a strict military regime from 1962 until 2011, Myanmar remained largely isolated from the rest of the world. The only interactions the U.S. and others had with the country were to condemn its treatment of its citizens and impose hefty sanctions on the regime.
As with many such countries, wealth from natural resources was funneled into the hands of the powerful instead of being distributed in society and, as surrounding countries experienced rapid economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, Myanmar remained essentially in the dark.
One may ask why the U.S. has chosen now to embark on such a rapid about turn of relations with Myanmar. Certainly, President Obama’s foreign policy agenda to engage rogue and unfriendly nations is partly the cause, and it stands to reason that the U.S. would support any nation seeking democratic reform. Myanmar imposed a new constitution in 2008, and held an election in 2010. However, there is more to the story.
In reality, the U.S. is making a well-timed move to gain political leverage in Southeast Asia at a time when China’s influence increasingly threatens the future global balance of power. Smaller, less powerful countries are being forced into alliances, and the U.S. is taking steps to state its case; hence, its recent move to embrace Myanmar.
Myanmar’s greatest significance is its geographic position. With a growing economy and population, China’s demand for oil and natural gas is rapidly increasing. It relies heavily on imports from the Middle East and Africa for such resources, coming by sea. As China is landlocked to the west and most of its southern border, ships must make the lengthy journey from the Indian Ocean through the narrow Strait of Malacca, at Malaysia’s southern point. From here, the ships travel up through the contentious South China Sea where they arrive at China’s southeastern border.
China’s reliance on this shipping channel is a strategic weakness. A diplomatic shift in countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam or the Philippines could threaten China’s imports and subsequently its entire livelihood. This situation also leaves open the future possibility of a U.S. naval blockade which would have a similar outcome and against which China’s inferior maritime presence would have little defense.
A logical solution to this problem is a 700-mile oil and gas pipeline, currently being built through Myanmar. China has long been a significant investor in the country, yet this move appears to be the most blatant attempt to shore up its own global power position. Imports would now reach China from the Bay of Bengal, a much more efficient and strategically safe channel.
In theory, the project, which is set for completion in May, should be a win-win for both China and Myanmar. China will increase its import capabilities while strengthening its global strategic position. Meanwhile, Myanmar has a close alliance with a strong nation while also receiving millions of dollars in revenues from the pipeline.
However, many locals have objected to the pipeline from the beginning, claiming not only that it will engender severe environmental degradation (a point that China does not dispute), but also that it has caused the widespread displacement of people from their land. Money set aside by China to compensate such people has allegedly been withheld by the Myanmar government, leaving a largely unhappy population.
Furthermore, ongoing ethnic tension in northeastern Myanmar may be further inflamed by the project which could trigger military engagement, and possibly even the involvement of Chinese troops.
It seems then, that this is an opportune moment for President Obama to strengthen ties with Myanmar, seeking to pull it inch by inch away from China. This would perhaps explain why he uses the name Myanmar (the United States has refused to accept the government-imposed name, opting instead for the original name of Burma), showing uncharacteristic support of the current regime. For certain, his newfound favor is not exactly commensurate with the changes shown by the government; the military retains a large portion of power while economic development is yet to benefit most of the people.
However, on a larger scale the U.S. is making an important move in fostering relations with Myanmar. China’s possible overreach in that country, and the impending backlash, will certainly work in favor of the U.S. Meanwhile, a similar reaching out to Myanmar’s neighbors will be a large aspect of American foreign policy in the coming years as the U.S.-China standoff becomes ever more imminent.