Myanmar’s “Look West” Policy: Is China Being Sidelined?

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When the quasi-civilian government led by Thein Sein came to power in Naypyidaw in early 2011, many Myanmar observers drily remarked, “old wine in new bottles”.

It’s become the most popular phrase for describing the reformed Myanmar. And it may still hold true given that the majority of communities have yet to experience any tangible benefits from the reforms. For instance, under the previous military governments, much land was illegally seized from poor farmers by the military and its business cronies. The land has yet to be returned. Even though the reform government has been in power in Naypyidaw for almost three years, most ordinary people are still where they were before: below the poverty line.

This lack of change prompted pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to claim recently that there have been “no tangible changes” in the lives of ordinary Burmese. This is especially true of rural people. However, it is clear that this expression – old wine in new bottles – no longer holds true of Myanmar’s relationship with China, because a marked shift has been taking place since the new government was installed in Naypyidaw.

Thein Sein often mentions that the aim of Myanmar’s foreign policy is to live peacefully with the rest of the world. Who would disagree with this vague formulation? But in more specific terms, Myanmar’s current foreign policy can be best termed “Look West”—similar to India’s “Look East” and the American “Pivot toward Asia.”

“Look West” is designed not only to substantially rebuild a sound relationship with the West and at the same time to balance China’s excessive influence in Myanmar; it also seeks to develop and maintain better ties with other Asian countries, especially ASEAN members, who already have strong ties with the West. It is reflected in Thein Sein’s plans to make his second European tour within five months, including former colonial powers France and the U.K. in mid-July. This is Naypyidaw’s foreign policy and it will probably remain unchanged until Thein Sein finishes his tenure in 2015.

However, critical questions remain. Has Naypyidaw’s foreign policy been successful so far? What needs to be done to ensure it succeeds? Most importantly, who will benefit from its success?

Many Myanmar watchers believe that Myanmar has long been one of “China’s few loyal friends.” That is no longer true. First, just a couple of months after Thein Sein took power, Naypyidaw successfully challenged its long-term friend by suspending construction of the Myitsone dam, a deal worth more $3.6 billion that had been struck with the previous military government. It was reported that Thein Sein did not even speak about the controversial dam during his three-day visit to China in early April, three weeks before heading to the White House. Beijing may well have felt put out by his silence on the topic of compensation or the resumption of the Myitsone, but Thein Sein remains adamant.

Second, Thein Sein seeks to build trust with America and its closest ally in Asia, Japan. He hopes to bring those countries, Beijing’s two most bitter economic rivals, into Myanmar to counterbalance more than two decades of dominant Chinese economic influence. This will hurt Beijing not only economically but also militarily, since the U.S. is now speaking of opening military ties with Naypyidaw.

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