America’s New Myanmar Policy and its Implications for the Region

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Context

President Obama has defined his administration’s foreign policy as one of “engagement” with adversaries and “reengagement” with allies. This is, of course, in marked contrast to the more confrontational approach of his predecessor, which can best be summed up as “Either you are with us or against us.” With the new Democratic administration in place, the emphasis is on the use of economic aid and diplomacy. A new willingness on the part of the US to compromise can be seen in its dealings with Russia regarding the missile defense shield and with Israel regarding settlements. Yet it remains unclear how successful diplomatic overtures, by themselves, will be.

The U.S. is also testing its new modus operandi in Myanmar, in an attempt to counter China and perhaps strengthen India’s position in the Pacific realm and the South and Central Asian Region generally. This analysis explores regional geopolitics in terms of the growing Maoist threat in India, as well as regarding changes in the US-Japan relationship, which has been the mainstay of the balance of power in the Pacific Region since World War II.

Analysis

China benefited from the prevailing ill-will towards the US during the Bush Administration. While much of the world perceived the US as an aggressor, China in contrast was seen as peacefully pursuing its economic interests (in Africa and Latin America, for example), while avoiding military entanglements. As the US imposed sanctions and refrained from trade with countries with poor human rights records, China expanded its influence. Now the United States has come full circle and is attempting a reappraisal of its policies in the region and beyond.

So it should be no surprise that the US has decided to directly engage with Myanmar’s military junta and then gradually ease sanctions if the attempt at a rapprochement works. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s dissident leader, is also supportive of the new plan. The main thrust behind this US policy change can be understood as an attempt to undercut China’s influence in Myanmar and the region.

The US is rolling out its new policy towards Myanmar just as the Maoist insurgency in India is heating up and the country prepares for Operation Green Hunt. Reportedly, the Maoist insurgents have a presence in 20 Indian states. So far the insurgency has claimed the lives of an estimated 950 Indian security officers and India wonders if the Maoists are receiving support from others in the region.

It appears that regional and global tussles are escalating east of India, as they are in the west, and will directly impact Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The Mayday Island, Gwadar and Hambantota sea ports are critical to the hedging strategy China has adopted to preserve an alternative route for access to sea and energy resources, in case the Malacca Strait is blockaded. And no geopolitical analysis of the Pacific realm is complete without attention to the role of Japan. The US-Japanese relationship is being reevaluated by the newly elected Japanese government, led by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). The DPJ appears poised to fulfill its campaign promises of adopting a more independent foreign policy. For the first time since World War II, Japan and Germany are attempting to redefine their international role and military posture, with profound impact on the regional and global political landscape. The purpose of President Obama’s visit to Japan this month is to settle thorny issues regarding the status of US forces and perhaps sooth Japanese concerns regarding US-China relationship.

It should also be noted that the Russia, China and India (RIC) meeting in Bangalore reportedly failed to develop a common agenda on Afghanistan. This means that US reliance on Pakistan will only increase, in an attempt to develop a solution for Afghanistan. Dealing with Pakistan inadvertently will involve China and this makes the Indians, Russians and the Japanese nervous regarding US intentions. Thus the visit to China by President Obama this month has taken on increased emphasis.

The US engagement in Myanmar can be seen as a challenge to China over Myanmar and Pakistan, perhaps to test its reaction. Additionally, it also counters the budding North Korean and Myanmar’s military ties. This is diplomacy at best, by pressuring China in its sphere of influence US hopes to make the country more amenable to US proposals, regarding Afghanistan in particular. The US also appeared to be testing Russia’s mettle when it announced its plan to install the components of its missile defense system in Russia’s sphere of influence, also known as its Near Abroad. The US ultimately backed down when it realized that Russia could injure US interests in other regions: the Middle East (Iran) Latin America (Venezuela and Cuba) and South and Central Asia (Afghanistan).

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