Burma has in recent years undergone a series of seemingly serious political reforms. While much attention has been overwhelmingly paid to domestic challenges, little has been discussed on how Burma would reposition itself in the changing context of Southeast Asia, particularly as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will establish a community in 2015.
Equally important is the fact that Southeast Asia has increasingly become a “hot spot” where territorial disputes and other security issues have re-emerged as a threat to regional peace. Burma’s responses to new developments in the region are crucial simply because of its intertwining interests and stakes in these security issues.
In retrospect, Burmese-ASEAN relations have not always been rosy. ASEAN was willing to sacrifice its reputation by awarding Burma membership despite worldwide opposition. ASEAN’s main argument in its favour was to pull Burma into the regional orbit and to reduce the Chinese influence on the regime. However, Burma often demonstrated its ability to operate independently from ASEAN and shirk obligations as a group member.
As its reforms are on going, however, Burma has lately shifted its position vis-à-vis ASEAN. Burma has been granted the ASEAN chairmanship for 2014, eight years after it voluntarily gave up its rotational turn. Yet, critics continue to doubt if Burma is a legitimate choice for ASEAN. They wonder how Burma’s chairmanship might help strengthen the ASEAN community building process, or indeed perhaps weaken it.
Still, 2014 will be a critical year for Burma. The general election will be just a year away, in 2015. Serving as ASEAN chair will render much needed political legitimacy to the regime in Naypyidaw. The government will be obliged to organise hundred of meetings as an ASEAN host. This will expose Burma to the regional community and bring in more investments from ASEAN countries and their dialogue partners. It will also allow Burma to exercise its leadership by working with ASEAN members to reaffirm their commitments toward community building. ASEAN chairmanship is indeed a fundamental factor in shaping Burma’s internal politics in favour of the ruling elite.
Securing legitimacy is conditional to the lifting of sanctions. Exploiting the ASEAN platform to recreate its new persona as an emerging democracy, which deserves to be legitimised, represents a tactic and explains why a new ASEAN policy of Burma is imperative. Meanwhile, the position as an ASEAN chair will provide Burma an opportunity to cooperate with non-ASEAN partners, with whom Burma has yearned for rapprochement in exchange for gaining their support and recognition.
But the chairmanship will surely be accompanied by massive responsibilities, particularly in dealing with contentious issues, like the conflict in the South China Sea. Disputes in the South China Sea prove so contentious that an annual ASEAN gathering in July this year, hosted by Cambodia, ended without even a basic diplomatic communiqué, which appeared to have been blocked by China. Burma, a key ally of China, will be put to the test in its diplomatic shrewdness to defend the interests of ASEAN but not to upset the Chinese leadership at the same time.
So far, Burma, like Cambodia, has no clear position regarding the South China Sea conflict. This is understandable since Burma is not a claimant to the disputed islands. Expectedly, the role as the chair of ASEAN will compel the Burmese leadership to take the difficult position of having to defend ASEAN’s solidarity at the expense of the group relations and the country’s ties with China.
In the last decade, Burma has become heavily reliant on its Chinese neighbour in the north, both as a legitimacy provider and as a source of raw materials. China, in return, has embraced Burma for its own strategic reasons, including the need for Burmese natural gas and an access to the Indian Ocean. The mutual reliance has permitted China to maintain an influence on various aspects of Burmese politics. It has recently been reported that, owing to the complications in the Sino-Burmese relations, policymakers in Naypyidaw may grasp this opportunity to distance themselves from Beijing.
But ASEAN and China are not the only challenges facing Burma. In fact, the conflict in the South China Sea and the failure of ASEAN to find a breakthrough has lent a practical lesson to Burma when it comes to its own territorial disputes with immediate neighbours. As evident, Burma has seemed to operate in a self-help mode in its conflict with Bangladesh over their maritime boundary in the Bay of Bengal.
The Bay is an important reservoir of both hydrocarbons and marine life. Bangladesh has been exploring new areas for oil and gas. Its fishing fleets have often crossed over into the areas previously aggressively guarded by Burma. Consequently, Bangladesh has managed to secure five frigates. The Bangladeshi navy is also trying to procure larger ships from Montenegro and China.
This move has prompted Burma, whose naval capacity was regarded as very negligible even five years ago, to quickly develop its sea power. The Burmese government commissioned a frigate in 2008, and another one is due very soon. It is in the process of procuring another six frigates, at least to protect Burmese trawlers as they are fishing in the territory that is under dispute. The increase in Burma’s naval capacity will inevitably set alarms ringing in other countries, particularly Thailand, and will unnecessarily intensify the competition for military build-up in the region.
Whether Burma’s new foreign policy will encourage more cooperation through ASEAN, or, be more security-centric as territorial disputes have come to define states’ relationships in the region, still remains to be seen. But one thing is sure: Burma is no longer a passive player in the game of regional politics.
-Pavin Chachavalpongpun is an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.