Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

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

Under Thein Sein, the country is seeking to evolve from its reliance on China.

By Aung Tun for

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.

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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.

Beijing is, however, not naïve. It is quickly taking steps to secure its own interests. Somewhat surprisingly, it has recently initiated what it calls a “people to people” relationship. Beijing has arranged several friendship tours targeting various political parties in Myanmar, including the National League for Democracy (NLD), civil society organizations such as the 88 generation students’ Peace and Open Society, as well as local media groups to China, aiming to build better understanding between the two countries. The Chinese Embassy in Yangon has even opened a public Facebook account, asserting that there is “still friendship with Naypyidaw.” All of these steps are quite unprecedented for Chinese policy towards Myanmar. China is now trying to win hearts in Myanmar. Will the new approach succeed?

That seems unlikely without some substantial changes. China has to overcome deeply rooted anti-Chinese sentiment among the Burmese people. One display of this came when poor villagers in the copper mining areas of Letpadaung in Upper Myanmar protested a Chinese mining project backed by the Burmese military. The project was temporarily suspended until a commission headed by Suu Kyi could investigate and report. Even though the commission approved the resumption of the project last March, many villagers are still protesting.

The fact that the villagers refuse to accept the endorsement of Suu Kyi, the country’s most popular leader, demonstrates just how prevalent anti-Chinese feeling remains in Myanmar. The Chinese way of helping the people – go through the government – is no longer effective in Myanmar. China needs to take concrete steps such as working with non-profit or non-government organizations, just as the West does, to effectively help the poor in specific areas.

Another way for China to gain leverage with Naypyidaw is to use its influence with ethnic groups it is close with, especially the Wa and perhaps Kachin, to resolve ethnic conflicts with the government. Yet there have been reports that the Wa United State Army has received helicopter gunships from China, although the Chinese have denied this. Beijing must be careful how it approaches ethnic conflicts, given that border stability is important for its own economic interests.

For Naypyidaw, the West has so far taken a “wait and see” approach. The West is still uncertain of the military’s specific role in reform. Who guarantees that reforms will be implemented? What constitutional changes are needed to make genuine democratic transition possible? To date, there have been only vague answers to these questions. For instance, during the World Economic Forum on East Asia in Naypyidaw last week, although Aung San Suu Kyi and the Lower House Speaker, Thura Shwe Mann confirmed that they intend to run for president in 2015, neither seriously addressed the above questions.

Myanmar’s politicians need to address these important questions if they are to make the “Look West” policy a reality. Without further efforts to reform, Naypyidaw will potentially lose China as well as the West in terms of economic assistance, investments, military aid, humanitarian aid packages, and other assistance, all of which are urgently needed to accelerate democratic change inside Myanmar. Thein Sein’s administration would suffer a loss of public confidence, as people will not wait for promised changes. If Thein Sein runs for the presidency again in 2015 – as he has signaled – this could be a blow for him.

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Whether Naypyidaw’s “Look West” policy will be successful remains to be seen. However, Thein Sein’s ability to reengage with the West has been a tremendous achievement. When he meets with his Chinese counterpart, he can repeat the words Chairman Mao used when he met with Burmese Prime Minister U Nu in Beijing in 1954 after U Nu expressed concern over Beijing’s support of the Burma Communist Party: “Revolution cannot be exported. However, this does not mean that the revolution of a certain country will not be influenced by foreign countries.”