Burma’s President Thein Sein arrived in Hanoi for an official visit on March 20, where he received a warm welcome from Vietnam’s leaders, including President Truong Tan Sang. Thetwo-day visit came at a time when the two countries have increasingly sought to enhance ties.
Links between Naypyidaw and Hanoi have intensified recently, with both countries exchanging high-ranking visits. Last June, Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai made a four-day trip to Burma. In November, Burma’s new commander-in-chief of armed forces Gen. Min Aung Hlaing visited Hanoi. A month later, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung went to Burma to attendthe 4th Summit of the Greater Mekong Subregion,which was held in Naypyidaw.
On March 12, when Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh began his official trip to Naypyidaw, two destroyers of Burma’s navy arrived at Tien Sa Port in Da Nang for a three-day historic visit. A day later, a delegation of Ho Chi Minh City officials and entrepreneurs, led by Le Thanh Hai – secretary of the HCMC party committee and a member of the party’s Politburo – also toured Burma.
This flurry of interaction has come aboutin the context of the growing economic potential of Burma, unlocked by recent political change. In 2011 alone, the country received a record $20 billion in foreign direct investment – compared with just $302 million in 2010 and a total of $16 billion for the previous two decades combined.
While investors clearly believe that there are huge opportunities for business in Burma, it seems that Vietnam has yet to exploit them significantly. Indeed, economic relations between Vietnam and Burma remain very underdeveloped – especially compared totheir respective relations with other ASEAN countries. For instance, in 2010 while 45.2 percent of Burma’s trade and 18.5 percent of Vietnam’s was with other ASEAN members, Vietnam only accounted for 0.9 percent of Burma’s trade and Burma merely 0.1 percent of Vietnam’s.
Thus, not surprisingly, the recent series of visits have strongly focused on fostering economic cooperation between the two countries. The first fruit of this is a pledge to increase the value their two-way trade from $170 million in 2010 to $500 million by 2015.
But economic cooperation isn’t the only factor that has prompted Hanoi and Naypyidaw to boost their bilateral ties. Other important factors – both at national and regional levels – have also played key roles in paving way for them to intensify relations.
For Burma, Thein Sein’s visit to Vietnam, the first leg of his three-country tour that includes Cambodia and Laos, is a result of its recent opening, as well as a key part of its continued efforts to increase its role in regional affairs and forums. Even though it became a member of ASEAN in 1997, Burma has never held the rotating chair of the regional bloc. Furthermore, it was often considered an “outcast” in the international community, and was even seen as a stumbling block in ASEAN’s relations with the European Union and other Western countries.
Yet its recent political reforms will allow it to chair ASEAN for the first time in 2014. As a chair of ASEAN, Burma will hold not only ASEAN’s annual summit, but also other important meetings, such as the ministerial meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum and particularly the East Asia Summit – the two key ASEAN-plus forums, which involve a number of global and regional powers. During his visit, Thein Sein thanked Vietnam for having supported Burma to hold ASEAN’s chair in two years’ time.
Furthermore, given Burma’s overdependence on China at many levels, Burma now needs to diversify its international links in order to limit China’s dominance. In fact, it’s widely believed that one of the key reasons for its current political reform is its desire to balance China’s overwhelmed presence. In this sense, while Vietnam isn’t a major economic partner, Hanoi provides Burma’s leaders some leverage in their relations with Beijing. Like Burma, Vietnam is also concerned about the increasing assertiveness of their giant neighbor.
It seems clear that their respective posture vis-à-vis China and related strategic and security calculations are becoming a significant factor in their developing bilateral relations. Burma’s two recent visits – the trip of Gen. Min Aung Hlaing in November 2011 and the visit of Burma’s navy this month – are arguably the most significant visits to Vietnam.
Aside from his position as Burma’s new army chief, the symbolic importance of Min Aung Hlaing’s visit is due to its timing. It took place in the aftermath of Burma’s unilateral decision to suspend the $3.6 billion Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam project. Furthermore, instead of going to China as his predecessors did, he chose Vietnam for his first official trip.
It’s also worth noting that the first-ever trip of Burma’s two military ships arrived in Vietnam on the same day as Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh held talks with his counterpart Wunna Maung Lwin. During this meeting, “the two sides discussed the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the [South China Sea] with disputes settled in peaceful ways in accordance with international laws.” The same message was also stressed during Thein Sein’s meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart.
Such a discussion and message is unlikely to please China because Beijing has maintained that third-party nations shouldn’t get involved in the dispute. In this context, the support of Burma – a country that doesn’t have any disputing claims in the South China Sea – for Hanoi’s approach of solving disputes peacefully and complying with international law is symbolically important. This is particularly the case given that Burma was formerly a strong ally of China. Thus, increasingly close Burma-Vietnamese relations, combined with Burma’s position as chair of ASEAN in 2014, could significantly enhance Vietnam’s position within ASEAN in its dealing with China.
Xuan Loc Doan is a research associate at the Global Policy Institute.