Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Zakaria: Myanmar's geopolitical games

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

One of the world's poorest countries has done something few rich nations would dare to do these days: It said "no" to China. I'm talking about Myanmar, an impoverished country that was, until this year, the world's longest-serving military dictatorship.

Myanmar shocked Beijing recently by pulling the plug on a dam that was meant to supply millions of Chinese with electricity.

Beijing may have been upset, but it nonetheless invited Myanmar's top general to the capital last week, and he was greeted by none other than the man who is expected to become China's President next year, Xi Jinpeng.

What in the world is going on?

To understand the situation, let's look at another top-level meeting: Hillary Clinton was in Myanmar last week to meet its President. It was the first visit by a U.S. Secretary of State in 56 years.

Myanmar is opening up, which is turning this country into a cockpit of international currents, rivalries and diplomacy.

For decades, the country's military junta has cracked down on any form of dissent.

The 2007 Saffron Revolution was brutally suppressed; even the monks who were seen as sacred were mercilessly beaten up when they took to the streets.

But in a time of global anger against repression, there are signs Myanmar's government feels the need to change its ways. Its new President, a former military general, has released some 200 of an estimated 2,000 political prisoners. His government has lifted restrictions on the media and called on armed ethnic groups to hold peace talks.

He's also reached out to his opponents. The most famous of them, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has finally been released from house arrest. In a move seen as hugely encouraging in the West, she agreed last month to rejoin politics.

President Obama calls these moves "flickers of progress." The President strikes a cautious tone because we've seen these flickers before: Myanmar makes minor concessions hoping the West will drop its sanctions, and then it regresses once again.

What's different this time is the regional context of these changes. People think of Myanmar as tiny but look at the map in the video above. Myanmar is Southeast Asia's second largest country. It's larger than France. And it borders two rising powers - China and India.

Despite international sanctions, China has become the biggest foreign spender in Myanmar, with more than $5 billion dollars in annual trade. India is right on its heels, with $4 billion dollars in trade. Neither country has attached any moral conditions to doing business with Myanmar, the way the United States perhaps would.

So the fact that Myanmar is now making overtures towards Washington, suggests a few things: It is seeking a hedge against China's influence in the region; it wants the West to drop sanctions; and it wants to re-engage with the world.

For Washington, these are all positive signs. President Obama spoke of a policy "pivot" towards Asia in his tour there last month. He also struck an agreement with Australia to keep 2,500 troops in that country. Myanmar's progress opens a window for the U.S. to strengthen its footprint in Asia and maintain a balance of power on that continent.

The Chinese will still have deep ties in Myanmar but increasingly, so will India. Myanmar clearly wants to play all three powers against each other. But in doing so - and to really get America interested - it realizes that it will have to open up its economy and its political system.

The good news is that the winners of this great power game may turn out to be the long-suffering people of Myanmar.
Post a Comment