Global media outlets may have a feel-good story in Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent by-election win, but an over-emphasis on the domestic is missing the geopolitical forest for the trees.
The National League of Democracy’s (NLD) recent strong showing in Burmese by-elections is a positive sign that democracy may be in the cards for Burma’s future. However, it should be noted that there’s a long way to go yet. The country’s parliament is still dominated by army representatives (25% in accordance to Burma’s constitution) as well as the pro-army Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Barring a political crisis, this is the situation that will remain until elections are held in 2015. Moreover, the process of reform is a delicate one that can be halted or reversed at any time. Despite the elections, the prisoner amnesties, and the general atmosphere of reconciliation prevailing in Burma, there is an unambiguous truth that cannot be avoided: the army is still in complete control.
Thus, perhaps more interesting than the changes themselves are the geopolitical motivations behind them. These reforms aren’t only meant to change how Burma sees itself, but also reverse its foreign policy fortunes as well.
Without a doubt, China has the most to lose from Burmese domestic reform. During the long years of Western sanctions and international isolation, Burma could always turn to Beijing for moral and material support. This was a particularly beneficial relationship as far as Beijing was concerned. It allowed for an authoritarian, anti-Western bulwark on China’s border and also provided access to the Adaman Sea; a critical valve for easing reliance on energy imports through the Straits of Malacca.
But some Burmese officials have viewed this Chinese lifeline as a Trojan Horse that not only risks inflaming historical animosities, but also brazenly plunders Burma’s considerable natural resource wealth as well.
Burma is moving forward on efforts to diversify its portfolio of international suitors, and Chinese interests are already feeling the pinch. Back in 2011, the Burmese government cancelled the $3.6 bn China-funded Myitsone hydroelectric dam project. This was a particularly unpopular venture in Burma, say nothing of the fact that most of the dam’s energy would likely have ended up in the Chinese market.
Recent steps towards political liberalization have also cemented Burma’s ascendance to the ASEAN chair in 2014. This is another potential blow to Beijing, as it’s increasingly likely that ASEAN will play a critical role in resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea. In losing its stranglehold on its once-isolated ally, Beijing has potentially lost an important voice within the ASEAN decision-making process.
As is so often the case in the intertwined web of interests between the two BRIC countries- China’s loss is India’s gain. New Delhi would like nothing more than to minimize China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and it can do so by keeping Chinese influence in Burma to a bare minimum. And while India has long since ended its principled opposition to the authoritarianism displayed by the Burmese regime, further liberalization will no doubt serve to increase the pace of Indian engagement in Burma.
But the real winner is Burma itself. This country is rich in energy and other natural resources, and it is situated in a critical geopolitical position between two rising powers. There will be no shortage of Western governments tripping over each other to stake a claim on this new strategic frontier; that is, as long as the Burmese government maintains a tangible, if not leisurely, pace of political reform.
Canada will be one such government. Last month, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird visited the regime in Rangoon, pledging deepened interactions between the two countries. This was the first time that a Canadian foreign affairs minister had ever visited Burma. It should come as no surprise to anyone if the Canadian government soon opts to remove some of the more heavy-handed sanctions that it imposed in the wake of the abortive uprisings of 2007. Ottawa will however keep most sanctions in place until it is sufficiently convinced that political reform will not be rolled back.