As Trump turns away, China gains in Myanmar
US leader has left predecessor Obama's engagement policy to wilt on the vine, giving Beijing an opening to renew its trade and security agendas
Does US President Donald Trump have a distinct policy towards Myanmar, and if so how does it differ from the engagement gambit championed by his predecessor Barack Obama?
Trump has paid little to no attention to Myanmar while pursuing ties with other Southeast Asian states, raising questions about his government’s stance towards the country. It’s still unclear if that’s because of Myanmar’s lingering strategic ties to North Korea or Trump’s political instincts to undo Obama’s legacy in the region.
One of Trump’s few statements on Myanmar was made during his trip to the region last November, in which he pledged US support for an end to the violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and the safe return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have fled military violence into neighboring Bangladesh.
Trump’s statement was followed by a letter to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed in May, in which he assured her that the US would support her country manage the refugee crisis. However, those statements hardly amount to a policy and the US has done very little to actually follow up on Trump’s rhetorical promises.
America’s UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, has criticized Myanmar at the global body while indirectly swiping at China for shielding it from punitive Security Council measures. On May 15, she lashed out against “some members of the council” who for “cynical and self-interested reasons” had “prevented [the UN] from taking action” against Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya.
US policy towards Myanmar has never been only about promoting human rights and democracy. Even Obama’s engagement policy was meant to wean Myanmar away from China’s embrace. Those geopolitical concerns became even more urgent when it was discovered in November 2008 that Myanmar had signed a secret military agreement with North Korea.
Trump, on the other hand, appears to have deliberately disengaged with Myanmar. His inert diplomacy has reopened Myanmar to Chinese penetration after a brief dalliance with Western engagement. The so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor” is a vital part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which aims to better connect China with the wider region through massive infrastructure building.
As part of that broad scheme, China aims to finance a US$7.5 billion upgrade of Myanmar’s deep-water port at Kyaukphyu. The strategic port would give China access to the Indian Ocean and provide an alternative route for its fuel imports from the Middle East which now pass through the strategically vulnerable Malacca Strait.
China has already invested US$2.45 billion in oil and gas pipelines that reach from Myanmar’s western coast to China’s landlocked southwestern province of Yunnan. While Western nations have largely shunned Myanmar over the Rohingya crisis, China has remained a key investor and cultivated robust ties with State Counselor and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In contrast, Trump has not invited Suu Kyi to officially visit his White House.
It marks a sharp turn. Obama announced during his term a US “pivot” to Asia, a gambit largely designed to counter China’s rising influence in the region. In November 2012, Obama made history by becoming the first ever sitting US president to visit Myanmar.
Two years later, he arrived back in Myanmar for an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meeting in the capital Naypyitaw. Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton devoted an entire chapter to Myanmar in her book Hard Choices, in which she characterized normalizing relations with Myanmar as one of her top foreign policy accomplishments.
She said in a statement after the November 2015 election which led to the formation of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy-led government in a transition from direct military rule as “affirmation of the indispensable role the United States can and should play in the world as a champion of peace and progress.”
But Obama’s Asian “pivot” was quickly buried when Trump took over the presidency on an “America First” ticket in January 2017. Later in the year, Myanmar’s military sparked the Rohingya refugee crisis through brutal “clearance operations” the United Nations has likened to “ethnic cleansing”, quickly turning Myanmar from darling to pariah in the West.
Suu Kyi and military Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing quickly turned to China for diplomatic support, similar to previous Myanmar military regimes when they came under fire for rights abuses.
China has so far protected Myanmar from possible UN sanctions for rights abuses against the Rohingya, while stepping up its drive to strengthen bilateral relations through trade and investment. The Trump administration has arguably done nothing to counterbalance China’s new growing influence over Myanmar, despite the US Pentagon’s desire to reengage its military to lessen its dependence on Beijing.
There have always been ups and downs in America’s relations with Myanmar. Washington established diplomatic relations with the country on the eve of its independence in 1948 and US aid programs began soon thereafter in 1950.
But relations quickly soured when it was discovered that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was providing clandestine support for nationalist Chinese Kuomintang troops, which had retreated across the border into Myanmar’s Shan state after the communists’ victory in China’s civil war in 1949.
In response, the Myanmar government terminated all American aid programs in 1953. Aid and other support was resumed in 1956 and came to a halt again after the 1962 military takeover and the introduction of the “Burmese Way to Socialism” under General Ne Win. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Myanmar had joined the anti-US socialist bloc in the region.
In September 1966, Ne Win paid a state visit to the US and met with then president Lyndon Johnson, the last such high-ranking visit before President Thein Sein was received by Obama at the White House in May 2013.
In fact, the US saw Ne Win’s regime as a bulwark against communist expansion in Asia. This became especially clear after the Chinese-supported Communist Party of Burma’s thrust into northeastern Myanmar in 1968.
But the CIA had actually commenced a relationship with Myanmar’s military intelligence as early as 1957. At least two Myanmar intelligence officers were sent to the US-held island of Saipan for training. One of them, Tin Oo, or “Spectacles Tin Oo”, as he was known at home, became de facto chief of Ne Win’s intelligence apparatus until he was ousted, charged with corruption and jailed in 1983.
The other Saipan-trained officer, Lay Maung, rose to become Myanmar’s foreign minister in the early 1980s. Many Myanmar army officers also attended training courses offered by the US-funded International Military and Education Training (IMET) program. Among them was former navy chief Nyan Tun, who served as vice president from 2012-2016.
All such cooperation — except when it came to counter-narcotics — were halted after the military’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988. Punitive sanctions and boycotts imposed by the West, including the US, pushed Myanmar closer to China.
Rising dependence on Beijing was arguably the main reason why Myanmar’s isolated military regime opted to open up and introduce limited political reforms beginning in 2010-2011 and culminating in the 2015 elections that ushered Suu Kyi’s rise.
Western powers including the US responded favorably to the tentative transition because they felt that China had benefited from their previous sanctions policies. For China, Myanmar has always been its bridgehead to Southeast Asia and beyond, during the orthodox communist days as a conduit for world revolution and now for trade, commerce and strategic purposes vis-à-vis the West.
It is only the US that has never had a comprehensive and coherent Myanmar policy. Now with Trump in the White House, Myanmar is apparently not even on America’s radar.