In a documentary, “Burma, Buddhism, Neutralism,” which aired in 1957, U Nu, the pre-military Prime Minister of the then Union of Burma, was seen enthusiastically explaining to an American journalist the logic of the country’s decision to thread the middle path in foreign affairs. The Non-Aligned Movement of which Burma was a member along with India, its giant neighbour to the north, was on a quest to stay away from the deepening conflict among China and India. A lot has changed in Burma other than its name off course, including a turbulent economic situation and growing camaraderie with China. In the years since 2012, when Myanmar’s reforms started to take shape, Myanmar seems to be shifting away from its over dependence on China and is moving towards a more familiar foreign policy.
An indication of this trend is the number of states Myanmar is willing to embrace in light of reforms. The United States which was very critical of India’s engagement with the Junta in 2012, started a rapprochement with the country in 2014 with the visit of Barack Obama to Yangon. While the cooperation with the United States has increased substantially the relations with China have soured over a number of issues. Myanmar has also received substantial attention from India and Japan. India has funded a number of projects in Myanmar which are significantly improving the connectivity with the country’s Northeast region and offer an alternate overland route to Southeast Asia which significantly contributes to the new proactively termed ‘Act East Policy.’ Japan had toned down ties with Myanmar, but it had never completely cut off relations with the country. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Myanmar in 2013 led to a flow of investments to develop the Thilawa project close to Yangon along with forgiveness of debt owed to Japan.
The flurry of foreign leaders’ visits to Myanmar along with the hosting of the ASEAN summit in 2014 as the chair of the organisation has lit the path for the emerging country to follow and was further cemented when a worst case scenario, another ‘Phnom Penh’ moment was avoided as Naypyidaw was able to handle the South China Sea issue better than Cambodia. While, it may be becoming clear that Myanmar is keeping its options open over China, it may not be able to move away so soon from the economic hold that Beijing has on the country. The Chinese funded pipelines had a successful test run in January 2015, pumping oil from the Rakhine Coast up to Yunnan. Other projects have faced problems. For instance the Indian funded Kaladan Multimodal project and the India – Myanmar – Thailand Trilateral highway faced numerous delays. The Myanmar government has expressed displeasure over this and the low amount of investments. The United States showed willingness to engage Myanmar and lifted some sanctions ahead of President Obama’s visit in 2012, some sanctions still continue and remain in place and were re-imposed as late as 2014. These actions and delays by other states result in Myanmar’s dependence on China.
As Myanmar heads for crucial elections at the end of the year, a number of factors domestic and foreign have dominated the canvas. The various ethnic communities raise crucial cross border challenges for developmental projects among Myanmar and neighbouring powers. The worsening Rohingya issue may derail the transition scenario. Therefore it is crucial that investments flow from outside of Myanmar so that development which has been crucial to support political changes can provide some predictable stability. As Myanmar chooses to engage multiple players reverting to a traditional foreign policy of keeping countries at an arm’s length, a new type of engagement may very well develop in the future. As for Myanmar an embrace all and court none strategy seems to be a stance that is all too familiar with the character of the country’s foreign policy.