PacNet #19 – Myanmar: Words like “genocide” have consequences

On March 21, the US Department of State declared that the actions by the Myanmar government against the Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority in 2017 were genocide. The Myanmar military’s role had been defended in the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2019 by the then-state counsellor and government leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, now jailed after the February 2021 military coup. If, then, it was genocide the whole power structure in Myanmar must bear responsibility, even if the despicable actions were solely committed by the military.

“Genocide” is an exceedingly strong word, and perhaps no other in the modern era has such a negative connotation. It is inaccurately used simply to evoke the mass horrors of intentional death through wars. But it must be used sparingly, or its emotional influence and accuracy will be diminished. Its meaning importantly includes the systemic intent to eliminate or destroy a people based on their culture, religion, ethnicity, or other bond. Many despicable acts of destruction, murder, rape, arson, pillaging, war crimes, or crimes against humanity horrify us, and there is no doubt that these were committed against the defenseless Rohingya inside Myanmar on the border, forcing many to flee to Bangladesh.

But was the intent of the Myanmar military to wipe out the Rohingya? I think not. It was a brutal, unforgivable assault on a people to drive them across the border to Bangladesh, whatever atrocities individual commanders may have ordered. It is not happenstance that the Myanmar authorities refuse to use the term “Rohingya” and declare that they are not citizens, calling them Bengalis and brutally assaulting them to achieve the authorities’ aim of driving them out of the country. This was a horrendous act of ethnic cleansing and completely unjustified. The anti-Rohingya and, more generally, anti-Muslim riots and prejudice have been fanned throughout the Buddhist population by a virulent right-wing branch of the Buddhist clergy.

The Rohingya and the Muslims of Rakhine State (a province in Myanmar) are not newcomers, although the Burmese blame the British for unrestricted immigration into Burma when it was governed as a province of India until 1937. Muslims lived in the region for centuries, and Arakan (renamed Rakhine by the Burmese) was an independent kingdom until conquered by the Burmese in 1785. A separate, current rebellion by Buddhists in the region, the Arakan Army, operates an administration and aims to restore a significant degree of autonomy to the province, or even independence, while promising rights to the Rohingya, who have been denied basic liberties for many decades.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC that the Myanmar government was committing genocide. But the Holocaust was different from the horrors imposed on the Rohingya—not only in the magnitude of the disaster but also when it comes to intent, for the Holocaust expressly sought as state policy to eliminate the Jews, not only to expel them. This is not apparent in the Myanmar case. The US action may appeal to some members of Congress and place the United States in a morally defensible position. But if the desired effect was also to delegitimize the Myanmar military, it does so at the expense of the previous civilian government, for however much they may rightly complain about the military’s domination, dictatorship, and excesses, and however much they now deplore what has happened, they gave their imprimatur to the tragedy through their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Whatever her personal views may have been, this was a dual political ploy—appealing to the mass prejudice of the Buddhist majority in the country against the Rohingya and Muslims in general, and to placate the military and their strong antipathy to her. She specifically said that she was not a democratic icon, as the international media continuously proclaimed, but a Burmese politician. She effectively illustrated her position.

We may modify the use of the term “genocide” when used to describe, not justify, the elimination of a cultural aspect of a society—cultural genocide. So, Uyghur Muslim culture is under attack in Xinjiang province in China, as China wants compliant farm and factory labor, but only under Chinese cultural domination. That is, the elimination of a culture (and the political opposition it implies) but not its people, who could be useful to the state apparatus.

We should not confuse injustice, murder, and crimes against humanity for genocide, for in doing so we degrade the past and make policy formation to counter atrocities all the more difficult. Myanmar authorities must bear responsibility for their atrocious acts in appropriate international fora and law, and internally as well, but not for genocide.

David I. Steinberg (stonemirror280@gmail.com) is Distinguished Professor of Asian Studies Emeritus, Georgetown University.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #24 – Comparative Connections Summary: May 2021

REGIONAL OVERVIEW
CHANGE IN STYLE, CONTINUITY IN ASIA POLICY
BY RALPH COSSA, PACIFIC FORUM & BRAD GLOSSERMAN, TAMA UNIVERSITY CRS/PACIFIC FORUM
Quadrennially, we write to assure readers that there will be more continuity than change as a new foreign policy team takes office. Globally, this would not be the case this year. In its first few months, the Biden administration made 180-degree turns on issues such as climate change, World Health Organization membership, the role of science in the battle against COVID-19, immigration, and the Iran nuclear agreement. In our region, however, there has been more continuity. The Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy focused on the Quad—the informal but increasingly structured grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the US—and the Biden administration has doubled down on this effort, conducting the first (virtual) Quad summit. It has largely continued the “cooperate when we can but confront when we must” approach toward China. And while Trump appeared to have disdain for US alliances, every national security document from his administration underscored the central role US alliances played in its Asia strategy.

US-JAPAN RELATIONS
SUGA AND BIDEN OFF TO A GOOD START
BY SHEILA A. SMITH, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & CHARLES MCCLEAN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
The early months of 2021 offered a full diplomatic agenda for US-Japan relations as a new US administration took office. Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States amid considerable contention. Former President Donald Trump refused to concede defeat, and on Jan. 6, a crowd of his supporters stormed the US Capitol where Congressional representatives were certifying the results of the presidential election. The breach of the US Capitol shocked the nation and the world. Yet after his inauguration on Jan. 20, Biden and his foreign policy team soon got to work on implementing policies that emphasized on US allies and sought to restore US engagement in multilateral coalitions around the globe. The day after the inauguration, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reached out to his counterpart in Japan, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Kitamura Shigeru, to assure him of the importance the new administration placed on its allies. The COVID-19 pandemic continued to focus the attention of leaders in the United States and Japan, however.

US-CHINA RELATIONS 
CONTINUITY PREVAILS IN BIDEN’S FIRST 100 DAYS
BY BONNIE GLASER, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE US & HANNAH PRICE, CSIS
In its final days, the Trump administration took more actions to impose costs on China for its objectionable policies and to tie the hands of the incoming Biden team. The first 100 days of President Biden’s administration revealed substantial continuity in policy toward Beijing, with strategic competition remaining the dominant feature of the US-China relationship. Senior Chinese officials delivered speeches that pinned blame entirely on the US for the deterioration in bilateral ties. A round of combative, yet serious, talks took place between senior US and Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska. The US added new sanctions on Beijing for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. In coordination with its allies, Washington imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals deemed responsible for carrying out genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang. Steps were taken by the US to demonstrate “rock-solid” support for Taiwan in the face of stepped-up Chinese coercion. Cooperation on climate change was launched with John Kerry’s visit to Shanghai to meet with his counterpart Xie Zhenhua, and Xi Jinping’s participation in the US-led Leaders Summit on Climate.

US-KOREA RELATIONS
HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL
BY MASON RICHEY, HANKUK UNIVERSITY & ROB YORK, PACIFIC FORUM
In the first four months of 2021—the first three and a half of a Biden administration focused on domestic progress and COVID-19 vaccinations—US relations with the Korean Peninsula assumed familiar contours after four years of an unorthodox Trump administration. The US and South Korea quickly reached a military burden-sharing agreement and pledged cooperation in a variety of areas, although the regular differences of opinion lurk under the surface regarding how closely Seoul should work with both North Korea and Japan. The US-China rivalry remains a shadow over the Asia-Pacific security and political economy situation, complicating South Korea’s regional hedging strategy. Finally, North Korea’s nuclear program advanced apace, US and South Korean attempts to open dialogue were rebuffed, and the Biden team’s North Korea policy review will not endear it to Pyongyang.

US-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
ASEAN CONFRONTS DUAL CRISES  
BY CATHARIN DALPINO, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY
The Feb. 1 coup in Myanmar dealt a serious blow to the ASEAN diplomatic order and presented the incoming Biden administration with its first major policy challenge in Southeast Asia. More profoundly, the coup set into motion a political and humanitarian crisis that has pushed Myanmar into an economic free fall. The imposition of Western sanctions gave China and Russia an opening to strengthen ties with the Tatmadaw. Myanmar was an extreme example of political turmoil, but the instability surrounding Thailand’s anti-regime and anti-monarchy movement persisted into the new year. In January, Vietnam embarked upon a more orderly political transition through the 13th National Party Congress, resulting in a leadership structure focused on ensuring stability, both external and internal.

CHINA-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
BEIJING’S ADVANCES COMPLICATED BY MYANMAR COUP AND US RESOLVE
BY ROBERT SUTTER, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY & CHIN-HAO HUANG, YALE-NUS COLLEGE
Beijing confidently forecast continued advances in high-priority efforts promoting regional economic integration, ASEAN’s prominence as China’s leading trade partner, as well as strengthening supply chain connections disrupted by the pandemic and US trade and economic restrictions. Ever-closer cooperation to counter COVID-19 saw Chinese pledges add to its leading position providing more than 60% of international vaccines to Southeast Asian countries. Nevertheless, the unexpected coup and protracted crisis in Myanmar headed the list of important complications. The incoming Biden administration showed no letup in US-led military challenges to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, while strong high-level US government support for the Philippines in the face of China’s latest coercive moves supported Manila’s unusually vocal protests against the Chinese actions. Beijing also had difficulty countering Biden’s strong emphasis on close collaboration with allies and partners, seen notably in the first QUAD summit resulting in a major initiative to provide 1 billion doses of COVID vaccines for Southeast Asia and nearby areas. The effectiveness of Chinese vaccines was now questioned by Chinese as well as foreign specialists and Beijing’s domestic demand was growing strongly, slowing donations and sales abroad.

CHINA-TAIWAN RELATIONS
TAIWAN PROSPERS, CHINA RATCHETS UP COERCION, AND US SUPPORT REMAINS “ROCK-SOLID”
BY DAVID KEEGAN, JOHNS HOPKINS SCHOOL OF ADVANCED INTERNATIONAL STUDIES & KYLE CHURCHMAN, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY
For the leadership of Taiwan, the significance for Taiwan’s relationships with the US and China of the end of the Trump administration and the arrival of the Biden administration formed the defining concern as 2021 began. Taiwan welcomed two steps that the Trump administration took in its waning days: announcing a visit to Taiwan by the US ambassador to the UN (even though it was later cancelled) and repudiating the longstanding Taiwan Contact Guidelines, which was widely seen in Taiwan as overly restrictive. Taiwan’s anxieties regarding the Biden administration were quickly allayed, as incoming senior officials repeatedly called US support for Taiwan “rock solid” and issued new far less restrictive Guidelines. Taiwan also benefited from unusually direct expressions of support from Japan and other international partners.

NORTH KOREA-SOUTH KOREA RELATIONS
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND GIVING
BY AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER, LEEDS UNIVERSITY, UK
As in 2019-20, inter-Korean ties remained frozen, other than a rare lawsuit. Revelations that in 2018 Moon Jae-in’s government had pondered building the North a nuclear power plant caused a brief furor. Seoul’s propaganda balloon ban backfired, prompting widespread criticism—but no thanks from Pyongyang, which was also unimpressed by scaled-down US-ROK war games. North Korea tested its first ballistic missile in nearly a year, amid concerns of a new arms race; some analysts deemed the South culpable, too. Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong fired four verbal volleys, mostly insults. Another undetected defector highlighted failings in ROK border security. MOU Lee In-young was ubiquitous and loquacious, but scattergun in the causes he championed. Moon’s government remained reticent, or worse, regarding DPRK human rights abuses. With just a year left in office, and notwithstanding rare criticism of the North by ministers, Moon was expected to double down on engagement despite Pyongyang’s lack of reciprocity.

CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS
CHINA-KOREA RELATIONS POISED FOR RECOVERY DESPITE INTENSIFIED CONFLICT ON SOCIAL MEDIA
SCOTT SNYDER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS & SEE-WON BYUN, SAN FRANCISCO STATE UNIVERSITY
China’s relations with North and South Korea gained momentum in the first four months of 2021. China-North Korea relations were propelled by an exchange of messages between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping around North Korea’s successful convening of the Worker’s Party of Korea’s (WPK) Eighth Party Congress, the appointment of former North Korean Trade Minister Ri Ryong Nam as North Korea’s new ambassador to China, and another round of messages in March that emphasized the importance of close relations. In a Jan. 21 Cabinet meeting, South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged to develop relations with China to new heights, and in a Jan. 26 telephone call with Moon, Xi expressed support for Korean denuclearization and joint development of China-South Korea relations. China and South Korea held consultations on maritime enforcement cooperation, defense lines of communication, health security, and free trade negotiations.

JAPAN-CHINA RELATIONS
THE GLOVES COME OFF
BY JUNE TEUFEL DREYER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI
After several years of seeking to counter each other while insisting that their relations were at a recent best, Tokyo and Beijing became overtly contentious. A major event of the reporting period was China’s passage, and subsequent enforcement, of a law empowering its coast guard to take action, including through the use of force, to defend China’s self-proclaimed sovereignty over the Japanese administered Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Heretofore reluctant to criticize Beijing over its actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu finally did so in April, and pledged to work with the United States to resolve China-Taiwan tensions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a continuation of such moves would cause Chinese-Japanese ties to hit bottom and threatened retaliation for any interference on Taiwan. No more was heard about a long-postponed Xi Jinping visit to Japan.

JAPAN-KOREA RELATIONS
DIFFICULT TO DISENTANGLE: HISTORY AND FOREIGN POLICY
JI-YOUNG LEE, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY
Unsurprisingly, historical issues proved difficult to disentangle from other foreign policy issues in Japan-South Korea relations, which remained at the “worst level since the normalization” in the first four months of 2021. The Seoul Central District Court’s ruling on Jan. 8 that the Japanese government should pay damages to victims of sexual slavery during World War II set the tone for contentious relations at the beginning of the year. While the Moon Jae-in administration made gestures to mend ties, the Suga administration maintained that South Korea should take concrete measures to roll back the 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling on Japanese companies requiring them to compensate wartime forced laborers. Export restrictions levied by Japan against South Korean companies in 2019 remain in place, while the case is with the World Trade Organization after South Korea reopened a complaint in 2020 that was filed and then suspended in 2019.

CHINA-RUSSIA RELATIONS
EMPIRE STRIKES BACK AT MOSCOW AND BEIJING
BY YU BIN, WITTENBERG UNIVERSITY
For Moscow and Beijing, the changing of the guard in the White House in January 2021 meant no reset of ties with Washington. Instead, the newly inaugurated Biden administration turned the screws on both China and Russia by reinvigorating alliances, firming up sanctions, and prioritizing force deployment, particularly to the Indo-Pacific region. In contrast to Biden’s multifaceted diplomatic offensive, China and Russia seemed passive, if not inactive, both in terms of their bilateral ties and their respective relations with the US. Top Russian and Chinese diplomats met in person just once in the first four months of 2021 in the middle of sharply escalated tensions across the Taiwan Strait and in East Ukraine. Meanwhile, Beijing and Moscow waited to see if the transition from Trumpism would lead to a brave new world (“new concert of powers”), a grave new world of Kissingerian “great games” in the era of WMD plus AI, or something in between.

JAPAN-SOUTHEAST ASIA RELATIONS
A DIPLOMATIC “NEW NORMAL” IN THE INDO-PACIFIC REGION?
BY KEI KOGA, NANYANG TECHNOLOGICAL UNIVERSITY
Japan-Southeast Asia relations were relatively stable, despite COVID-19, as summarized by three trends: emphasizing multilateral actors; prioritizing enhancement of bilateral relations with two countries (Indonesia and Vietnam); and the synthesis of Japan’s Free and Open Indo Pacific “vision” (FOIP) and ASEAN’s ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP). Japan and Southeast Asian states managed to achieve tangible cooperation, as illustrated by the establishment of the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases (ACPHEED). Yet, strategic dynamics among Southeast Asia, Japan, and the United States are shifting because of changes in Japanese and US political leadership. Japan, the most reliable partner for Southeast Asia in the Trump era, seemingly faced a relative decline in the importance attached by Southeast Asia because of the United States’ renewed commitment to the region. In the context of this new diplomatic reality, the foremost challenges that Japan and Southeast Asia will likely face in 2021-2022 are Myanmar and ASEAN Centrality in the Indo-Pacific.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #22 – Russia and Myanmar: Moscow’s Expanding Influence?

An earlier version of this article was published at RSIS

In recent years, Russia’s relations with Myanmar have strengthened, particularly in the defense sector. Russia is the second largest source of weapons for Myanmar, slightly behind China, according to a March 18 analysis by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute; between 2000 and 2019, Myanmar purchased $1.7 billion worth of arms from China and $1.44 billion from Russia.

Not surprisingly, links between both countries’ military establishments are openly warm. In November 2020, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held talks via video link with the Myanmar military chief, General Min Aung Hlaing. It was stated that Russia was ready to expand cooperation with Myanmar, including joint work in the framework of the “ADMM-Plus” expert working group on countering terrorism.

Supplying Myanmar with Missiles

Shoigu was quoted as saying that despite the pandemic, “we continue to implement military delegation exchange events, including with your personal participation.” Shoigu also congratulated General Min on being awarded an honorary doctorate from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He was given the title of “Honorary Professor of the Military University” of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation, as well as the medal “for distinction.” In turn, General Min noted that despite the geographical distance, “we keep in touch, and you support us in difficult moments.”

Regular visits by high-level Russian defense officials as well as Myanmar military officers to each other’s countries have unsurprisingly taken place. The Irrawaddy, a Myanmar publication reported on Jan. 25 that Shoigu’s January visit to Myanmar illustrated that both sides planned to expand military cooperation.

Russia agreed to supply Myanmar with Pantsir-S1 surface-to-air missile systems, Orlan-10E surveillance drones, and radar equipment, the publication added. Noteworthy is the publication’s quoting General Min as saying that “just like a loyal friend, Russia has always supported Myanmar in difficult moments, especially in the last four years.”

Mutual Political Support? 

General Min reportedly has visited Russia six times, the last having taken place in May 2020, the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany—a very important and symbolic holiday in Russia.

Myanmar sends its officers to Russian military academies for training, as well as to China, India, Japan, and Israel. Its military also participated in some Russian military exercises.

Political support from Russia has not been found wanting. Russia, with China, ensured that the UN Security Council could not issue a statement condemning the military’s assumption of power in Myanmar in February. However, as the situation deteriorated, both countries supported a UNSC resolution in March which condemned the use of force, inter alia.

Nevertheless, the presence of Russia’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin at the March 27 Army Day in Naypyidaw was a clear signal of Moscow’s determination to pursue its interests there. Fomin was quoted as saying that Russia “adheres to a strategic line to intensify relations between the two countries.”

He added that Myanmar was considered a reliable ally and strategic partner in Southeast Asia and the larger Asia-Pacific region. Fomin received a medal from General Min during his visit which he stressed was to reciprocate the Myanmar general’s visit to Moscow in May 2020. Myanmar also coincidentally approved Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in early February.

Russian Motivations

Russia’s most immediate consideration is obviously commercial. Myanmar is a good and welcome customer of Russian weapons. At this point in time, Russian weapons sales constitute the bulk of its economic interaction with Myanmar.

Second, Russia also seeks to raise its geopolitical profile in the region, and to signal to Myanmar (and its ASEAN neighbors) and the world at large, that Russia would not allow Western pressure on Myanmar to guide, let alone dictate its policy on the country.

In doing so, Russia is fully aware that in the face of Western sanctions and severe criticism of Myanmar’s military leadership, its support for Myanmar could become an additional apple of discord between Russia and the West.

Third, Russia wants to add weight to its long-stated stance that there should be no interference into the internal affairs of a sovereign state and in the process, indirectly cock another snook at the West. Syria was the first case in which Russia challenged Western attempts to change the status quo.

Fourth, its strong support for Myanmar also indirectly complements China’s backing of that country while ensuring that should Chinese influence wane, Russia’s might increase. Having the overall support of at least one of two UN Security Council Permanent Members is important to Myanmar.

Of late, China has become a target of Myanmar’s opposition forces. Some of its businesses were subjected to physical attacks in March. Moreover, Myanmar’s military itself is reportedly ambivalent about China’s growing influence in the country. China is a major investor and trade partner of Myanmar, unlike Russia.

Russia’s Southeast Asia Foothold Through Myanmar?

Russia’s actions have naturally been welcomed by Myanmar. There must be no doubt that it will remain a leading supplier of weapons as well as a reliable political supporter.

Overall, however, having a foothold in Myanmar does not automatically lead to Russia becoming a major player in the region, until and unless its economic interactions with the rest of ASEAN, including Myanmar itself, rises considerably and outside the military/defense sector.

At the same time, Russia must tread carefully in Myanmar, lest China become alarmed at any rapid and considerable increase in its influence, while China’s is lessened, for one reason or another.

Moreover, unlike China, Russia’s relatively exiguous resources are concentrated in its relations with the former Soviet republics and the West.

Ultimately, whether Russia becomes a major player in Myanmar and Southeast Asia is also dependent on whether it has the will and inclination to move away from its current and entrenched China-centric policy (towards the East) and devotes the necessary resources and energy to that end. As of now, that remains much in doubt.

Chris Cheang (iscacheang@ntu.edu.sg) is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #20 – Strengthening Transboundary River Governance is Key to ASEAN Centrality

The following is adapted from a report on the “Indo-Pacific Conference on Strengthening Transboundary River Governance,” a half-day virtual conference organized by the East-West Center and hosted by the US Department of State that convened partners and stakeholders from across the Indo-Pacific region to share best practices and lessons learned related to the cooperative development and management of transboundary rivers.

The “Indo-Pacific Conference on Strengthening Transboundary River Governance” was designed to bring together a range of government and non-government expertise to chart a path forward to strengthen transboundary river governance on the Mekong. To that end, specific policy recommendations were made for key stakeholders that can serve as a roadmap for measurable next steps. The key stakeholders include the Mekong River Commission (MRC); Mekong region national governments; regional organizations such as ASEAN and ACMECS; international stakeholders active in the region; and local and civil society organizations.

The policy recommendations articulated at the conference are also aligned with key objectives of the September 2020 Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) agreed to by the foreign ministers of the Mekong countries and the US secretary of state. Key alignments between the conference recommendations and the official work of the MUSP include the prioritization of the Mekong region as an integral part of ASEAN—whose development is key to ASEAN achieving its vision of community. This should be done by first synergizing and creating complementarities between the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and other sub-regional cooperation frameworks such as ASEAN and ACMECS.

Efforts should be made to strengthen economic connectivity, sustainable water, natural resources, and environmental protection and conservation. Non-traditional security challenges such as health, transnational crime, and illicit trafficking in persons, drugs, and wildlife, as well as expanding human capital development (including women’s empowerment) must be addressed. Transparent and cooperative water data-sharing mechanisms should be created.

Adding to this, creating transparent and cooperative water data sharing mechanisms via tools such as MekongWater.org and the Mekong Water Data Initiative will help to improve coordination and response to natural disasters from floods and drought. Finally, cooperation among Mekong countries, the United States and development partners such as Japan, Australia, and the Republic of Korea, as well as members of the Friends of the Mekong should be enhanced.

The following is a list of specific policy recommendations by conference speakers and participants to ensure that transboundary river governance is conducted in such a way as to 1) maximize outcomes that benefit all stakeholders and 2) align with the objectives of the MUSP.

Mekong River Commission (MRC)

It is recommended that the role and capacity of the MRC be strengthened to promote reasonable and equitable use of the Mekong River’s resources. The promotion of good governance, based on rules and norms, as a principle for effective, efficient, and sustainable development is essential. This can be accomplished by supporting the MRC as both a knowledge hub and transboundary river management mechanism with the capacity to resolve conflicts within and outside the region, rather than simply a repository of data and tools. Additionally, the MRC should be supported as it continues to engage with its dialogue partners China and Myanmar. When conditions are met, Mekong region stakeholders and partners should find avenues for collaboration with China for which the MRC can play a central role in dialogues. Furthermore, Mekong region countries and the MRC could be encouraged to consider adopting the principles of international legal treaties such as the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses or adopting the conceptual frameworks and legal guidance of other transboundary treaties such as the Columbia River Treaty and the Boundary Waters Treaty, particularly with respect to independent dispute settlement capacities.

Finally, the MRC could also reconsider amending the 1995 Mekong Agreement to incorporate legally binding principles and procedures as well as permanent platforms for local stakeholder engagement that include these stakeholders in the decision-making mechanisms. Current Mekong region countries’ systems for local stakeholder engagement have been non-permanent, ad hoc, and lacking in tangible impact on policymaking. Strengthening governance by sharing responsibility, delivery, and power among key non-state actor stakeholders will reduce marginalization of these stakeholders, enhance transparency and perceptions of impartiality, improve water solutions, encourage local ownership, and create opportunities for bottom-up innovative inclusion practices.

Mekong Region Countries

Support should be provided for Mekong region countries’ autonomy by holding international neighbors accountable in respecting international law and international borders. Additional support should be given to local law enforcement capacity to combat criminal activities along the Mekong river. Moreover, providing transparent water data-sharing (e.g., mainstream river and tributaries flow data, dam construction, and operations data) can be initiated as a basic form of transboundary collaboration, and a way to address critical challenges posed by climate change, shifting hydrological conditions, chronic droughts, and natural disasters.

Countries should be held accountable to honor their data-sharing commitments. Failure to share data on upstream conditions limits governments’ ability to prepare for and mitigate damage caused by dam operations, as well as to conduct effective disaster management. At the national and local level, transparency in providing information for public consultation creates an enabling environment for local stakeholder participation. Government stakeholders should also ensure that their departments and ministries are staffed with experts on water, energy, and the expertise necessary to inform negotiations, support policy formation and implementation, and recognize the needs of other stakeholders. Finally, Mekong region countries should also be encouraged to pursue alternative development opportunities less dependent on hydropower and extensive water-use production. New technologies and regional cooperation can deliver energy security at significantly lower social and environmental costs, and be more economically viable than environmentally destabilizing dams combined with more frequent droughts.

Regional Organizations and International Partners

International partners and regional organizations should support ASEAN’s efforts in raising the profile of the Mekong region as a core component of ASEAN centrality, with ASEAN potentially playing a more central role in regional development, facilitating policy coordination, and elevating the water governance and water diplomacy of the Mekong region to Southeast Asia’s regional agenda. Moreover, external partners already engaged in strengthening transboundary governance of the Mekong river should complement existing ASEAN efforts such as ASEAN MPAC 2025 and ASEAN’s Vision on the Indo-Pacific. Support for other multilateral Mekong mechanisms, such as ACMECS and CLMV, can help solidify the political will and capability to promote sustainable use of the Mekong River’s resources alongside international partners.

Lastly, international partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and countries in the European Union should be engaged to support sustainable development and share global best practices related to data sharing, scientific analyses, remote sensing, and integrated water resource management. Lessons learned from international technical collaboration through the International Commission on the Protection of the Danube River contributed to the development of Eastern European countries after World War II. Strengthening programming with international partners in Mekong region cooperation can help narrow the development gap among ASEAN member states.

Local Stakeholders

Local issues such as pollution, inadequate resettlement logistics, and damage to livelihoods have affected water infrastructure development across the world, and the formation of both policy and decision-making must account for this. By expanding the problem space beyond water to include protected areas, forestry, fisheries, etc., water diplomacy can move away from being zero-sum to bringing in new actors and opportunities for mutually beneficial solutions on the basis of transparency, trust, and good will.

The inclusive participation of legitimate stakeholders in pursuing sustainable and collaborative management of transboundary waters must be ensured. Tensions over water resources often arise between affected communities and governments or commercial developers, or between the communities themselves. The exclusion of local and non-state actors risks negatively impacting these stakeholders by neglecting to recognize their legitimate interests, or by alienating them due to their exclusion from decision-making processes.

Encouraging a greater inclusion of non-state actors in consultations and decision-making processes can reduce risks, improve planning processes, help governments and economies more quickly reach development goals, and give a sense of identity and ownership of processes and outcomes that work for all stakeholders. The benefits of public stakeholder engagement impact the economic, health, social, and environmental domains.

NGOs can be supported as they engage various stakeholders through briefings for senior government and party officials, training for multi-agency technical staff, consultations with think tanks and CSO networks, diplomatic engagement, analysis, and media op-eds. Adding to this, opportunities for academic exchanges among universities across the Mekong region and with international academic institutions can be fostered through seminars, workshops, training, and collaborative scientific research.

To encourage greater inclusivity, raise public awareness, and help curb predatory infrastructure development, investment in capacity-building efforts should be made. Programs that engage and educate local communities can include scholarships, vocational education and training, fostering civil society organizations, and raising local environmental concerns. Furthermore, stakeholders should make efforts to enhance the role of women. Including gender specialists when conducting local stakeholder engagement will ensure that women are effectively empowered to participate in the process. Adding to this, the inclusion of indigenous peoples ensures policy decisions respect their rights, values, and water uses. It also contributes traditional knowledge to scientific analyses. Local media can be encouraged and empowered to report on the value of the river and the effects of unsustainable practices. Finally, enhancing opportunities for citizen science provides further accountability, validity to credible transboundary river governance tracking, encourages local ownership of river management, and highlights the priorities of local stakeholders.

Satu Limaye is Vice President of the East-West Center and Director of the East-West Center in Washington. He is also Senior Advisor, China & Indo-Pacific Division at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA Corp) and Senior Fellow on Asia History and Policy at the Foreign Policy Institute at Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies (SAIS).

Ross Tokola is Executive Associate to the Director at the East-West Center in Washington.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #19 – A Moment of Truth (Again) for ASEAN

I understand that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is a consensus-based organization that “moves at a pace comfortable to all,” which means at a pace comfortable to its slowest member. I also understand that ASEAN generally adheres to the principle of “noninterference in the internal affairs of one another.” But when one of its members issues orders to “shoot in the head” unarmed peaceful protesters, this goes against everything that ASEAN is supposed to stand for. Its continued inaction in the face of the ruling junta’s assault against the people of Myanmar (Burma) will again raise the question of ASEAN’s viability and utility. Every ASEAN document proclaims the need for ASEAN to remain “in the driver’s seat” when it comes to dealing with security challenges in the region. The time has come for ASEAN to drive.

ASEAN’s Charter cites “(A)dhering to the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms” as a basic precept in its preamble. Member States are supposed to act in accordance with “respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.” As Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said in a recent tweet, the “principle of noninterference in others’ domestic affairs cannot be used to conceal crimes against humanity; that would be tantamount to ASEAN complicity and consent.” In a separate post, he opined that ASEAN’s noninterference policy “marginalizes ASEAN in the moral esteem of the planet and thereby sidelines it from the centrality it has long sought and attained.”

But what can/should ASEAN do? For starters it can stop issuing anodyne proclamations calling for “all parties to refrain from instigating further violence, and for all sides to exercise utmost restraint as well as flexibility” and instead address the problem head-on, as did the Philippine Foreign Ministry’s Statement “On the Violence on Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day”: “The Philippines is profoundly dismayed at reports of excessive and needless force against unarmed protesters … We reiterate our call for security forces in Myanmar to exercise restraint and desist from resorting to disproportionate force against unarmed citizens. We remain steadfast in supporting Myanmar on its path to a fuller democracy …” Unfortunately, getting a consensus institution like ASEAN to issue such a public statement remains unlikely; it’s not consistent with “the ASEAN way.”

Nonetheless, ASEAN has at least two vehicles for delivering a quieter message to the generals. One is via a visit by the Troika, consisting of the heads of state of the current, immediate past, and next ASEAN Chair. In this case, that would be, respectively, Brunei Darussalam, Vietnam, and Cambodia—not the largest nor most influential messengers in ASEAN—but could easily be supplemented with others for a more impactful effect. However, both ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF, which includes China, India, Japan, and the US among others) have Expert and Eminent Persons Groups (full disclosure: I am a member of the latter) which could offer ASEAN’s “good offices” in seeking a solution. The ARF, in particular, is supposed to evolve from a confidence-building mechanism to undertake a preventive diplomacy mission; clearly the current situation in Myanmar is one that is ripe for outside mediation.

There are a number of senior ASEAN statesmen who could head such a delegation. My personal choice would be former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, who would bring both personal prestige and the clout of ASEAN’s largest and most influential member to the table. Their message should be a simple one: immediately stop the killing of unarmed peaceful protesters or face being expelled from ASEAN. Better yet, ASEAN should inform the junta that it is prepared to recognize the interim unity government being set up by the CRPH—the Committee Representing the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (the national parliament), comprised mostly by members of parliament who were duly elected in last fall’s national elections. This prospective unity government, which involves a number of ethnic parties as well as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, would no doubt welcome ASEAN’s intervention (which renders the non-interference clause moot); most importantly, ASEAN’s recognition would de-legitimize the junta, a threat they would have to take seriously.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has taken a number of unilateral measures to pressure the junta to respect the people of Myanmar’s wishes. It also needs to pressure ASEAN to do more.  One vehicle for doing so would be through the Quad, whose four members—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – makes up half the non-ASEAN membership in ASEAN’s premier multilateral offering, the “leaders-led” East Asia Summit (EAS). Collectively, they, preferably with like-minded members New Zealand and South Korea, should inform ASEAN that they will not participate in future EAS meetings as long as a junta-led Myanmar remains in the group. This will, of course, require India—the world’s largest democracy—to get off the fence and finally speak out in defense of democracy for its neighbor. The final two EAS members, China and Russia, should, but are not likely to join this effort; both actually sent representatives to the junta’s March 27 Armed Forces Day parade in the midst of the civilian carnage. The people of Myanmar will remember this.

ASEAN was already in the midst of an identity crisis prior to the Myanmar coup, prompted by calls by leading intellectuals like Ambassador Bilahari Kausikan to censure two of its members—Cambodia and Lao—for putting the interests of their patron state—China—ahead of the interests of the group. Moving at a speed comfortable to them has prevented ASEAN from speaking out forcefully against Beijing’s excesses in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Here ASEAN needs to follow the example set by its track two neighbor, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), which adopted an 80% consensus rule which prevents one or two members from preventing the rest from moving forward when necessary. In practice, this rule is seldom applied. Knowing that one does not have a veto usually encourages the finding of a compromise solution.

If ASEAN were prepared to “move at a pace comfortable to none,” i.e., to compromise rather than let a single member (or two) hold the group hostage, then perhaps it could finally put some meaning behind the term “ASEAN centrality.” Right now it just means sitting in the middle of the road and going nowhere.

Postscript: If, as sadly anticipated, ASEAN once again fails to act, it may be time for Indonesia to free itself from its ASEAN shackles and take a unilateral leadership role commensurate with its size and international standing; by sending both a mediator and a message to Naypyitaw, Jokowi would also be sending a powerful message to his erstwhile ASEAN colleagues.  It would be interesting to then see how many, if any, of his fellow ASEAN members would step up along with Jakarta.

Ralph Cossa (ralph@pacforum.org) is WSD-Handa Chair in Peace Studies and President Emeritus at the Pacific Forum.
PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #6 – Myanmar’s Military Arrests the Civilian Government—and Democracy

In the early hours of Feb. 1, the day Myanmar’s newly elected parliamentarians were to take their seats, the armed forces arrested senior members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), including State Counselor and NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and Myanmar President Win Myint. The military declared a state of emergency, announcing it will govern the country for one year, after which it promises fresh elections. Understanding this political crisis requires unpacking the role of the military in Myanmar’s beleaguered democratization, the calculus of Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, and a geopolitical context dominated by China.

The military claimed that the Nov. 8, 2020 general election—in which the NLD won 396 of 476 contested seats in the bicameral parliament, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) won only 33 seats—should have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Military leaders alleged massive fraud although international and domestic election observers have thus far found no such evidence. Meetings between the military and the NLD collapsed after Suu Kyi reportedly rejected all of the military’s demands, which included postponing parliament, abolishing the election commission, and recounting the votes from the November election with military supervision. While the military’s actions appear indefensible, it also appears that Suu Kyi overestimated her ability to wield another electoral mandate.

The collapse of the power-sharing arrangement between the armed forces and civilian government fits a troubled historical pattern. Myanmar’s military-authored 2008 constitution enshrined provisions that enabled the armed forces to step back from absolute power in 2011 without fear of reprisal but left Myanmar’s civilian government weak and especially vulnerable to a coup d’état. In 2020, the NLD proposed dozens of constitutional amendments aimed at curtailing the military’s influence by reducing its guaranteed allotment of parliamentary seats to below 25%, lowering the over-75% threshold to pass constitutional amendments (which effectively grants the military a veto),  and transferring control of the armed forces from the top general to the president. The military vetoed all amendments that would have reduced its political power and regarded the NLD’s efforts as a direct threat to its privileged position.

Min Aung Hlaing’s political calculus is also important for understanding the takeover. His second five-year term as commander-in-chief was expected to end upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 in July 2021. Had the USDP and its allies won at least a third of the contested parliamentary seats in the November election, they could have elected him president with the aid of the unelected military parliamentarians. This would have enabled him to designate his successor with the approval of the military-dominated National Defense and Security Council, a function he could not constitutionally perform as commander-in-chief. After the NLD’s landslide victory, claiming electoral fraud and seizing power may be what Min Aung Hlaing regarded as his last opportunity to ensure military guidance of Myanmar’s “disciplined” democratization while protecting the economic gains of his cronies and avoiding prosecution. Given Suu Kyi’s age and lack of a political heir apparent, the military may be looking to hold power until it can shape a more compliant civilian government.

International reaction to the military takeover has ranged from measured calls for dialogue and stability from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to protests and condemnation. On Jan. 29, three days after the armed forces publicly refused to rule out a coup, a group of Myanmar-based diplomatic missions representing Western countries issued a rare joint statement opposing any attempt to alter the electoral outcome. After the takeover, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanded that “[t]he military must reverse these actions immediately.” President Joe Biden threatened new sanctions. The military, not known for its economic competence, must now contend with capital flight from what was Southeast Asia’s fastest growing economy in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this will likely set Myanmar’s economy back years.

The military also faces a domestic population that overwhelmingly supports the NLD and is likely furious that hard-won, albeit partial, democratization has been so abruptly halted. Furthermore, the military’s disrespect for domestic institutions has implications for the tortuous peace process with armed ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands. Groups that negotiated ceasefires with the central government may increasingly doubt Naypyidaw’s intentions for peace and inclusive development, raising the danger of further cycles of violence. With less legitimacy and capacity than when they previously ruled the country, military leaders appear to be acting in self-interest rather than the national interest.

Diplomatically, Myanmar has risked returning to pariahdom because of military atrocities against Rohingya Muslim ethnic minorities in Rakhine State. Since 2017, over 750,000 Rohingya have fled to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi’s outspoken defense of the armed forces despite international condemnation and her refusal to disavow anti-Rohingya hate speech severely tarnished her global reputation as a Nobel-winning champion of democracy and alienated international supporters. Suu Kyi may have calculated that doubling down on nationalism would protect her from being outflanked by the military and Buddhist extremists, allowing her to secure a larger electoral victory and ultimately strengthen civilian rule by amending the constitution. That gamble appears to have failed spectacularly.

Unlike many of Myanmar’s diplomatic partners, China has avoided criticizing its “friendly neighbor.” Beijing provided economic and diplomatic lifelines to the previous military regime in exchange for access to natural resources and extensive political influence, generating concerns in Myanmar that the country was becoming dangerously overdependent on China. Political reforms enabled Naypyidaw to reduce that dependence, but as international opprobrium mounted over the Rakhine crisis, China continued to defend Myanmar against human rights criticisms at the United Nations while pouring investment into the country and supporting the peace process with ethnic armed groups. As Myanmar has moved further into Beijing’s orbit, it is again becoming vulnerable to overreliance on China, and Chinese diplomatic leverage. The return to military rule will accelerate this process at a time of heightened tension in both Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations. Yet, Myanmar’s political volatility also threatens China’s interests in a stable environment for its infrastructure projects and strategy for accessing the Indian Ocean. On Jan. 12—less than three weeks before the military takeover—Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Myanmar to discuss cooperation on a wide range of issues with Suu Kyi, Win Myint, and Min Aung Hlaing. That the takeover happened despite Beijing’s extensive investment suggests that greater stability might have been achieved by collaboratively promoting good governance in Myanmar.

Myanmar has confronted colonialism, intercommunal violence, military dictatorship, and civil war. Securing stability requires tolerance across political fault lines, rule of law, and respect for the expressed will of the people. Myanmar’s military subverting democratic processes bodes ill for human rights and geopolitical stability. The crisis poses an early test of President Biden’s vision for a coalition of democracies, but it also highlights the need for regional powers to rise to the challenge. Both Seoul and Tokyo regard Myanmar and Southeast Asia as important elements of “new southern strategies” to economically diversify away from China. As key US allies and leading Asian democracies, South Korea and Japan should join willing ASEAN partners in issuing a statement demanding the release of civilian leaders, immediate access to Myanmar by international observers, and a commitment from the military to reverse its seizure of power. As China will likely block action by the UN Security Council, coordination among regional stakeholders and global democracies will be critical to an international response that places the people of Myanmar, and their self-determination and prosperity, at its center.

Jonathan Chow (chow_jonathan@wheatoncollege.edu) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Wheaton College, Massachusetts where he teaches international relations and East Asian politics.

Leif-Eric Easley (easley@ewha.ac.kr) is Associate Professor of International Studies at Ewha University in Seoul where he teaches international security and political economics.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #69 – What China’s Involvement in Myanmar says about Asia’s Changing Regional Order

Pacnet image.jpg

This article originally appeared in Australian Outlook and is republished with permission.  

Emerging security policy linkages between Northeast and Southeast Asian countries are reshaping Asia’s regional order. The regional architecture was never as simple as a US-centered “hub-and-spokes” system of alliances and partners. But today questions of order are proliferating with China’s rising assertiveness and uncertainty surrounding the Trump administration. Some states like Japan are defending regional order by cooperating on maritime security with partners like Vietnam and the Philippines. Australia is likewise coordinating policies to defend a rules-based order. Others such as South Korea are extending regional order by multilateralizing capacity-building efforts in new functional areas such as cybersecurity. Most controversially, Beijing may be attempting to recenter the regional order by constructing new institutions and mechanisms with China at the center.

An illustrative case study is China’s peace-building role in Myanmar. China-Myanmar relations are important for Asia’s regional order in demonstrating how an increasingly capable and willing Beijing engages diplomatic and security challenges in its near abroad. China’s leaders prioritize economic development, before human rights or international law. They seek to increase political leverage via trade and investment and by becoming indispensable to multiple domestic stakeholders in a partner country. The geopolitical proximity and urgency of Myanmar’s security situation make it an early test of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a leading indicator of a more assertive Beijing’s interaction with existing norms and institutions in the region.

Diplomatic ties between China and Myanmar extend back nearly seven decades. When Burma recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1950, it was one of the first non-communist entities to do so. Bilateral relations have since been referred to as pauk-phaw, or fraternal ties. After protests in 1988 and then a military coup in Burma, and after the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989, pauk-phaw relations deepened because both countries faced diplomatic isolation, international criticism, and economic sanctions. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, China became an increasingly important investor for Myanmar. In 2011, the two countries issued a joint statement upgrading ties to a “comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership.”

Despite deepening relations, China maintains concerns for border security, owing to violence on the Myanmar side that periodically drives thousands to flee into China. Instability in areas controlled by armed ethnic groups in Myanmar also threaten Chinese economic interests, including investments in mining and major connectivity projects relevant to China’s energy security. As a result, Beijing has become more active in peace-building in Myanmar. China’s involvement in the complicated domestic politics of Myanmar also follows from shared ethnic and historical ties. Some sub-national groups in Myanmar, such as the Kokang, are largely Han Chinese, while others such as the Wa have historical links to communist insurgencies. The so-called “northern faction,” also including the Shan and Kachin groups, garners tacit Chinese support in negotiating with the Myanmar government and likely receives military and financial assistance from Beijing.

China’s peace-building activities include facilitating talks for the Kachin Independence Organization and hosting dialogues in Ruili between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar government. Since 2016, Beijing established closer relations with the opposition-turned-ruling-party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), and increased its peace-building efforts in Myanmar. In May 2017, Beijing assisted in mediating between the Myanmar central authorities and the Northern Alliance at the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference. China has also hosted talks in Kunming, including among Myanmar’s Union Peace Commission and representatives of the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.

Myanmar identifies China as an attractive development partner because Beijing tends to separate economic engagement from human rights considerations, as seen in the extensive activities of Chinese state-owned enterprises and Yunnan-based traders. Western countries call for the United Nations to hold Myanmar’s military accountable for human rights violations. The World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and many international investors condition financial support on human rights improvements and associated political risks. In contrast to the criticisms of leading UN members and agencies about documented human rights violations, especially those against the Rohingya in Rakhine, Beijing has blocked Security Council action. Instead, China proposed a “three-stage plan” for paving the way for a ceasefire in Rakhine, encouraging bilateral exchanges between Myanmar and Bangladesh to deal with the refugee crisis, and increasing investment in the affected regions. This proposal was generally accepted by Myanmar.

Beijing offers an alternative economic development “order” with the BRI and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) where investment is meant to alleviate poverty and conflict in areas with ethnic insurgencies. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) is a major joint effort by the two governments under the BRI. The MOU on the CMEC Cooperation Plan (2019-2030) was signed by the governments at the Second Belt and Road Forum in April 2019 and reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment to alleviating ethnic tensions. China and Myanmar are setting up three core zones along their border to increase trade and logistics cooperation in areas that have experienced instability. The China-backed Muse-Mandalay railway is a bet on connectivity through regions of ongoing ethnic violence, and the Kyaukphyu port is to anchor a new special economic zone in Rakhine State.

China is also demonstrating strategic flexibility in adapting its policies toward Myanmar. After expanded economic relations produced political grievances in the country, including over high-profile projects such as the Shwe Gas pipeline and Myitsone Dam, China invested in more than 120 smaller projects. In addition to playing up the local benefits of such economic activity, China has initiated humanitarian programs such as the China-Myanmar Regional Center for Major Disease Control and Prevention. China’s interests have expanded beyond its borders with trade, investment and people-people ties. Beijing’s willingness to transition from “non-interference” policies to the provision of “international public goods” has followed apace.

China’s peace-building efforts in Myanmar show how a major power can recenter regional order by promoting peace in unstable areas where the United States and United Nations have less of a presence. Although China’s peace-building agenda may not correlate with that of Western or even ASEAN countries, recentering the existing order is different from aggressively challenging or trying to replace it. By engaging in peace-building in Myanmar, Beijing is not necessarily looking to reshape the regional order in its own image or construct a parallel order. Instead, it is largely filling gaps left by other state actors and international organizations by adopting a flexible approach while protecting and promoting Chinese interests. Beijing’s capability and will to shift the center of power and influence in Asia is changing institutional architecture with implications for the processes and products of policymaking in the region.

Leif-Eric Easley (easley@post.harvard.edu) is an associate professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul.

Sea Young Kim (sykim@eai.or.kr) is a research associate at the East Asia Institute in Seoul. Both are alumni of Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.