Dealing with US, China or Japan: Aung Suu Kyi is following Modi

Brahma Chellaney
Brahma ChellaneyNov 04, 2016 | 09:28

Dealing with US, China or Japan: Aung Suu Kyi is following Modi

Like India, Myanmar is a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which was established in Belgrade in 1961, six years after the historic Bandung Asian-African Conference.

And like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is seeking to take her country from its long-held path of non-alignment to multi-alignment, a contemporary, globalised practicality that values a proactive approach in international relations.


In fact, Suu Kyi's foreign policy approach appears to mirror Modi's line - a non-doctrinaire vision, with pragmatism as the hallmark that aims to build equilibrium in relations with major powers.

Both Modi and Suu Kyi have shaken up their respective country's diffident foreign-policy establishment with a readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths.

It has taken Suu Kyi just a few months, like Modi, to put her stamp on her country's international relations.


Myanmar is no small state: It is as large as Britain and France combined.

Yet, by coming under severe US-led sanctions for over a quarter century, Myanmar was left out of Asia's economic boom.

Since 2011, its democratic transition - cemented by the landslide election victory of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party a year ago - has helped reverse its fortunes.

To be sure, both Suu Kyi and Modi face major regional challenges. With revanchist or scofflaw states to its west and north, India faces difficult choices.

Aung San Suu Kyi with US President Barack Obama. (Photo credit: Reuters)

Myanmar's economic and political vulnerability, however, is acute. Suu Kyi confronts a bigger challenge on the foreign policy front than Modi. This crimps her ambitious diplomacy, forcing her to perform a delicate balancing act between major powers vying for influence.


Take China, with which Myanmar shares a 2,129km border. As if to signal that her country's pro-China tilt and dependence on Beijing was an aberration fostered by crippling US-led sanctions, Suu Kyi, soon after coming to power, committed to revive the country's tradition of pursuing a neutral foreign policy.

Yet, her first visit to a major capital was to Beijing in August. Even though China impeded the Suu Kyi-led democracy movement by siding with Myanmar's military rulers, its aggressive pursuit of strategic and resource interests has left it with considerable clout in the country.

It accounts for about half of Myanmar's foreign investment and 40 per cent of its trade, with new multibillion dollar oil and gas pipelines. Four weeks after her China trip, Suu Kyi visited the US.

Her White House meeting led to President Barack Obama's October 7 executive order lifting US economic sanctions on Myanmar.


Then, after a tour of India, Suu Kyi visited Asia's oldest (and richest) democracy, Japan, from November 1.

That Suu Kyi prioritised visits to Beijing and Washington over trips to New Delhi, where she was educated, and Tokyo, Myanmar's largest provider of debt relief, showed that she regards India and Japan as of lesser importance to her country's interest than China and the US.


Yet the fact is that Japan and India, with traditionally close ties to Myanmar, have played key roles in helping to end the country's pariah status and reintegrating it regionally.

China, by contrast, represents the biggest test of Suu Kyi's diplomacy. How long will she be able to walk the tightrope with a country that poses the most complex challenge for Myanmar?

China, by strategically penetrating Myanmar, has not only armed itself with formidable leverage but also sought to turn the country into its corridor to the Indian Ocean.

Having established a firm foothold in Myanmar's Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu, Beijing is seeking to open a shorter, cheaper trade route to Europe via Myanmar's Irrawaddy river, which flows into the Andaman Sea.


Like India, Myanmar has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to guerrilla groups.

Indeed, China holds the keys to ending decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar.

But it is unclear whether Beijing, despite being invited by Suu Kyi to play mediator, will genuinely aid her effort to build ethnic peace or use its role as a broker between the government and guerrilla groups to merely underpin its own leverage.

A crucial peace conference hosted by Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyitaw ended in early September without any tangible progress.

In concept, Suu Kyi's "neutrality" in foreign policy seems attractive, potentially allowing her to carefully balance cooperation with all the major players in a way that advances Myanmar's interest, without the country being forced to choose one power over another.

In reality, though, it might be difficult for an aid-dependent, internally torn Myanmar to sustain a neutral foreign policy.

Despite her diplomatic balancing act, Suu Kyi's approach faces major challenges, including an arc of insurgencies in Myanmar and the attempt by various powers to treat the country as a chessboard of geopolitics.

(Courtesy of Mail Today.)

Last updated: November 04, 2016 | 17:07
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