October 27, 2016 7:00 am JST
Brahma Chellaney

Aung San Suu Kyi's diplomatic balancing act

In keeping with the untrammeled power she enjoys in her ruling National League for Democracy party, Myanmar's de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is rapidly putting her imprint on her country's international relations. She has shaken up Myanmar's diffident foreign policy establishment by proactively seeking to build partnerships with multiple powers. But rather than pronouncing a "Suu Kyi doctrine" in foreign policy, she is allowing her actions to define her approach.

Suu Kyi's approach is unmistakable -- a nondoctrinaire vision with pragmatism as the hallmark, that aims to build equilibrium in relations with major powers and underscore Myanmar's potential role as a bridge between different regions, cultures and powers. Myanmar's geographic and geostrategic position makes it the natural bridge between South and Southeast Asia and between the demographic titans, China and India.

Myanmar is as large as Britain and France combined. Yet by coming under severe U.S.-led sanctions, Myanmar was strikingly left out of Asia's economic boom of the past generation. Since 2011, its democratic transition -- cemented by NLD's landslide election victory nearly a year ago -- has reversed its fortunes, with a number of countries jockeying to exploit the economic opportunities it offers.

Suu Kyi seems to believe that, through a dynamic foreign policy, she not only can advance Myanmar's economic and security interests but also play the role of a facilitator between rival powers, including between China and Japan. Myanmar's economic and political vulnerability, however, crimps Suu Kyi's 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 U.S.-led sanctions for nearly a quarter century, Suu Kyi committed, soon after coming to power, 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.

The plain fact is that 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% of its trade, with new multibillion-dollar oil and gas pipelines leading from Myanmar's western coast to southern China.

Pecking order

Four weeks after her China trip, Suu Kyi visited the U.S., leading her country's delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and then meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. The White House meeting led to Obama's Oct. 7 executive order lifting U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar.

Now, after a recent tour of the world's largest democracy -- next-door India -- Suu Kyi is set to visit Asia's oldest, and richest, democracy, Japan, from Nov. 1. That Suu Kyi prioritized 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 interests than China and the U.S.

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. Myanmar indeed was a province of India until 1937 in the British Indian empire before it become a separate colony, only to be occupied during 1941-45 by Japan, which established the country's first postcolonial state and army. After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in early 1948, Japan played a major role in Myanmar's economic development by allocating war reparations and official development assistance.

Suu Kyi's Oct. 16-19 India tour was part of New Delhi's invitation to member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation for a joint summit in the beach resort of Goa with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, collectively known as BRICS. The Bay of Bengal Initiative, which brings together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, is seen as a better alternative than the China-proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor because it is more inclusive and seeks to reintegrate the region along its historical axis.

Even before her party formed a new government on Mar. 31, Suu Kyi appealed for more aid from Japan, which, since the start of Myanmar's democratic transition, has dramatically increased its official development assistance, besides forgiving large amounts of debt and investing in ambitious projects. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government responded to Suu Kyi's appeal through additional loans and grant assistance.

A huge debt write-off by Japan, totaling $9 billion, has helped Myanmar to clear its arrears to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, opening the path for aid donors to support the country's reform process. By setting up the giant Thilawa special economic zone, southeast of Yangon, the largest city, Japan has made major investments to establish Myanmar as a regional manufacturing hub. It has also invested in infrastructure and urban-development projects, including in Yangon's water, sewage and electricity facilities.

However, the sluggish pace of reforms in Myanmar, including liberalizing land rights, tightening fiscal management and opening the financial sector, has impeded the Abe government's larger strategy to reduce the Mekong region's dependence on China by strengthening intraregional trade links. Suu Kyi's five-day Japan visit offers her an opportunity to allay Japanese concerns over Myanmar's reform process and her own "neutral" foreign policy.

China, however, represents the biggest test of Suu Kyi's diplomacy. How long will she be able to walk the tightrope on 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 Kyaukp hyu, Beijing is seeking to open a shorter, cheaper trade route to Europe via Myanmar's River Irrawaddy, which flows south from near the Chinese border to the Andaman Sea.

China holds the keys to ending decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar, including by cutting off the flow of arms to guerrilla groups and exercising its clout over several key insurgent leaders. 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.

Meanwhile, to deflect Chinese pressure to resume the Beijing-sponsored Myitsone Dam project, Suu Kyi has appointed a 20-member commission to review the previous government's decision to suspend it. The $3.6 billion project was designed to generate electricity largely for export to China while saddling Myanmar with human and environmental costs. But its 2011 suspension carried major strategic ramifications: While representing a slap in the face to China, it became a watershed moment for Myanmar, accelerating its democratic transition and ending the country's international isolation.

Suu Kyi can politically ill-afford to revive a dam project that she slammed as the opposition leader. The project indeed is despised in Myanmar as an epitome of China's neocolonial policies toward smaller countries. Through the commission, Suu Kyi can help China save face, if Myanmar agrees to pay compensation. Beijing could plow that compensation into new deals for smaller, environmentally friendly hydropower plants.

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. Building such multidirectional collaboration can definitely help Myanmar to advance its development and security.

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.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

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