Clinton visit to Myanmar spurs Asian neighbors to act
The historic visit to Myanmar (Burma) by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is having a wider regional effect.
China is concerned about whether the move by Washington will hurt its considerable interests in Myanmar. Japan, meanwhile, is stepping up efforts to strengthen ties with Myanmar to avoid falling behind other nations.
The ties between Myanmar and China have intensified in recent years.
In fiscal 2010, direct foreign investment in Myanmar totaled about $20 billion (about 1.55 trillion yen), more than the cumulative total of about $16 billion over the previous 21 years. Moreover, about 70 percent of the direct investment in 2010 was from China and Hong Kong.
On the outskirts of Mandalay in central Myanmar, work is proceeding to build an approximately 800-kilometer-long pipeline for oil and natural gas that will connect China with the port of Kyaukpyu on Myanmar’s Indian Ocean coast. Plans call for completion in 2013.
Once the pipeline is completed, China will have a means of importing natural gas from Myanmar and petroleum from the Middle East directly from the Indian Ocean without going through the Strait of Malacca.
According to diplomatic sources, Myanmar and China plan to sign a memorandum of agreement this month for construction of a railway line that would link the two nations.
In Mandalay, which would serve as an important connecting point for the pipeline and railway, the Chinese are using the names of area residents with Chinese backgrounds to purchase real estate, leading to local resistance.
Because of those close ties, the international community was taken by surprise when Myanmar President Thein Sein announced in September that a dam construction project for hydropower generation being undertaken in cooperation with China near the northern border would be frozen.
With plans to export 90 percent of the electricity to China, local opposition arose over the project. That, in turn, led to fighting between government troops and armed units of local ethnic groups.
After the project was frozen, the United States made much more aggressive moves to improve relations with Myanmar.
Saw Simon Tha, vice chairman of the opposition Kayin (Karen) People's Party, said: "If China takes our natural gas and minerals, our economy would be swallowed up. We have to maintain a better balance with India and the West."
Meanwhile, Japanese interests also are doing their best to avoid falling behind. Although Myanmar is now the poorest nation in Southeast Asia, it is a potentially huge market with a population of 60 million and it is geographically well-situated between China and India.
Trading company Mitsui & Co. developed the Mingaladon Industrial Park on the outskirts of Yangon, but there were few new occupants after 2003, when the U.S. implemented additional economic sanctions.
However, the park has recently received renewed interest from Asian companies.
According to Shigeo Hana, president of the company that manages the industrial park, 11 companies decided to set up a base in the park over the past year, including eight from Taiwan. Different types of companies have moved in. In the past, clothing manufacturers were the main element, but companies that produce automobile and digital camera parts have also started to rent space at the complex.
Such trends have prompted Japanese companies and local governments to send study groups to Myanmar.
Major industrial organizations have dispatched groups, as well, with Keidanren (Japan Business Federation) sending a mission in September, followed by a November mission from the Japan Association of Corporate Executives and a planned December visit by the Japan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The Yangon office of the Japan External Trade Organization has been busy in recent months, with hundreds of visitors every week looking into business opportunities.
Western nations are also stepping up efforts to improve ties at the governmental level.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd visited Myanmar in June and Andrew Mitchell, Britain's international development minister, visited in November.
From Japan, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba plans to visit this month and Yukio Edano, the economy, trade and industry minister, will visit in January.
"Efforts have to be made to not fall behind when the West pushes the button to lift sanctions," one diplomatic source said.
(This article was written by Yusuke Murayama and Daisuke Furuta.)
Myanmar and America
A new Great Game?
A momentous visit by Hillary Clinton, but will it lead to real change?
Dec 3rd 2011 | NAYPYIDAW AND YANGON | from the print edition
WEARING flip-flops and a longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, on December 1st President Thein Sein welcomed the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to his gaudy golden palace in the new capital of Naypyidaw. Thus began the first visit by a senior American official to Myanmar for 50-odd years. Relations were cordial, with Mr Thein Sein anxious to explain to Mrs Clinton how he is trying to transform the country from an impoverished one-party state into something rather better. A “workmanlike” discussion (according to the Americans) was followed by a light lunch of braised abalone and black pepper mantis prawn. Later the same day Mrs Clinton travelled to Yangon for her first meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and de facto leader of the political opposition. It will be a defining moment for Myanmar, after decades of isolation and Western-imposed sanctions.
The visit is, most importantly, an endorsement of a reform process that started slowly over a year ago, but which has been gathering momentum fast since August, when Ms Suu Kyi herself travelled to Naypyidaw to meet Mr Thein Sein for the first time. As much as the president appears to be sincere about the need to reform Myanmar, it is Ms Suu Kyi’s willingness to take these reforms at face value that has moved the country along so quickly.
Each needs the other. On the one hand, Mr Thein Sein, who took over in March, craves Ms Suu Kyi’s stamp of approval to win over sceptical Western governments and audiences. Only then will Myanmar be able to regain access to the world financial system. In this respect Mrs Clinton was bearing one little gift for Mr Thein Sein—full, broad-based missions by the World Bank and the IMF to assess Myanmar’s many economic needs. It is a first step.
On the other hand, Ms Suu Kyi needs Mr Thein Sein’s reforms to work in order to lead the NLD back into mainstream politics. Having boycotted general elections last year, saying they were rigged, the NLD has just re-registered as a political party and will campaign in forthcoming by-elections. Ms Suu Kyi herself will contest one of the 40 or so seats. If those elections are perceived to be free and fair, that will be another milestone in the reform process. And if the NLD does well in the next general election in 2015, there may even be talk of installing Ms Suu Kyi as president.
That, however, is running ahead of events. What is also being impressed on Mrs Clinton is the fact that the reform process is fragile and could yet be derailed. For a start, just as there are clear reformers in the regime, so there are hardliners too. They will not lightly give up the army’s political and economic hegemony. One of the reform-minded ministers is reported to have put it thus: “There are 60 decision-makers in this country: 20 have seen the light, 20 are asleep, and 20 are waiting to see which way to jump.”
Furthermore, some in the opposition worry that Mrs Clinton’s cosying up to the regime is premature. Myat Thu, for instance, one of the leaders of the student movement crushed by the army in 1988, says that the main concern should be for the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of political prisoners still in jail. He worries that the government has been given so much now that there will be little incentive left for it to release any more prisoners.
In Myanmar itself, these domestic issues are most pressing. But to the Myanmar and American governments, Mrs Clinton’s visit is also framed by a mutual anxiety over the rapid rise of Myanmar’s north-eastern neighbour, China. On this, unlike human rights, the two sides may have more to agree about.
In the absence of any competition from the West, China has cheerfully plundered Myanmar’s bountiful reserves of hard wood, jade, oil, gas and much else, usually with little regard for the environment or the well-being of those Burmese who stood in their way. The result is that the Chinese grip on Myanmar is increasingly resented. Mr Thein Sein is very sensitive to this; he suspended the building of a deeply unpopular Chinese dam project on the Irrawaddy river in September, and is trying to diversify trade and diplomacy away from China. He recently travelled to India, while the head of the army, Min Aung Hlaing, visited Vietnam.
Now the Obama administration has declared that the Asia-Pacific region is America’s new priority, and in the strategic game taking shape in South-East Asia, America is strengthening alliances in the light of China’s rise. If Myanmar could be realigned more towards the West, that would be a great prize.
China, for its part, is looking on warily. State media coverage was restrained in advance of Mrs Clinton’s arrival, with talk of a rivalry over Myanmar played down. The usually nationalistic Global Times cited a scholar’s rejection of the “Western media” narrative that China is in a battle with America over Myanmar. The same newspaper, a day earlier, however, published a more characteristic commentary: “The West has seized the opportunity to pull pro-China Myanmar off the ‘China track’”, it read.
But don’t expect America to have it all its own way. Showing a flair for timing, three days before Mrs Clinton’s visit, Myanmar’s army chief was welcomed in Beijing by vice-president Xi Jinping, China’s likely next president. They spoke of bolstering the two nations’ “comprehensive strategic partnership of co-operation”. Myanmar is hedging its bets on who will come out on top in the new Great Game.